New College of the Humanities – destroying higher education?

This week saw the announcement, by AC Grayling et al, of a new institution called the New College of the Humanities.  Grayling, along with noted academics such as Richard Dawkins, geneticist Steve Jones and that well known advocate of the Humanities, Jeremy Gibbs (a very rich man who seems to have made lots of money from private education and venture capitalism).  The idea, in its simplest form, is this: in this current dog-eat-dog climate in which students have to think very carefully about which university courses to select to ensure that they are able to survive in recession-beaten Britain, the Humanities are being neglected as choices for further study because they don’t provide ‘safe’ job opportunities.  Enter Grayling and his boys with a great idea.  Let’s set up a private institution for the study of the Humanities and even though people are complaining that £9000 fees are ridiculously high for all the other universities, let’s charge double that – yes £18000 – for our courses.  Obviously, this will have the desired effect.  The Humanities will be saved and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Mr Grayling, I know that you haven’t had quite the reaction you expected to this brilliant new venture.  Heckling, extensive negative news coverage, leading figures in politics and education pointing out what you should have known all along – that this creates a two-tier university system, privatising something that should be accessible to all and ensuring that centuries old elitism in access to universities is alive and well in the 21st century.  For someone as smart as you, with your qualifications and elevated social standing, you might have anticipated the reaction.  I mean, it’s not like students have been protesting against fees for the past twelve years. 

My cohort of students starting university was the first to have to pay fees for university education.  I recieved my bill for approximately £3000, had to fill in lots of forms to state that neither I, nor my parents, could afford a figure that high, and was finally informed that I would pay a reduced fee.  People I came to know at university, with circumstances not so different from mine, didn’t necessarily get that reprieve – they had to pay the full whack.  Cue large overdrafts and bank loans.  The people I went to university with were clever and industrious.  They were, and still are, the most intelligent people I had ever met.  I can’t think of a single one who could have paid £18000 for their university education.  The truth is, some of those people, who contribute to our society in all sorts of wonderful ways now, may not have chosen to go to university. 

My Grayling and pals have also missed a fundamental point about students and their choice of university courses.  Working in inner city London schools has taught me that it is ten times harder to convince a student who comes from a poor background that taking up a course in the Humanities at degree level is worthwhile.  Students who have been told by their parents that they must go into a lucrative career to ensure that they don’t go through the hardships their parents suffered, don’t tend to study Ancient History, or see the need for Applied Ethics.  So we come to something of a problem: these benevolent souls, in their quest to rescue the Humanities, have only managed to create yet another barrier to its study.  The cycle of inaccesibility has been strengthened, rather than broken.  Whether it is intentional or not, the good professors and their business sector supporters have reinforced a problem that has existed in the Higher Education sector for quite a long time.  Poor students don’t study the Humanities, so it doesn’t matter whether we charge £18000 or not. 

Providing bursaries or scholarships is lovely, but a little naive.  Talk to my students, folks!  As soon as the £9000 figure was touted as a possibility, they started saying they weren’t going to university.  This wasn’t because they had added up the figures, made some astute calculations and put together a projection of their costs; it was because they and their parents were afraid.  Afraid of worsening an already tight financial situation, afraid of failing – not because they weren’t smart enough – but because they wouldn’t able to afford the course, accommodation and subsistence.  A very real fear if your life so far has been a symphony of anxiety related to money.  These students wouldn’t even think of applying for a scholarship, because they would have already decided that this life, an expensive one, dedicated to the study of philosophy and dead languages, was not for them.  One way to guillotine the Humanities.

My frustration comes from the belief that everyone benefits from the study of the Arts and Humanities.  They are the subjects that make us more human.  At time when humanity is struggling to find empathy, to find reason and to find the kind of enlightenment that leads to success and happiness, how can we think that privatising the Humanities in Higher Education is the way forward?  It’s not just about creating a two-tier system, it is about saying to whole sections of society that this is not for youYou don’t need to know this.

Charles Watson, Chairman of PR Firm, Financial Dynamics, is quoted in the Guardian as saying: “Higher education in the UK must evolve if it is to offer the best quality experience for students and safeguard our future economic and intellectual wealth.”  I absolutely agree, but not like this.  The education sector in the UK, as a whole, must find education models that allow success for all students and models that are easily replicable across the sector.   It’s a very cosy thing, this New College of the Humanities, more a vanity project than a real attempt to fix a real problem. 

I’m surprised at AC Grayling.  He knows his History pretty well, I imagine.  Perhaps take another look at historical examples of societies in which the gap between rich and poor is substantial and increasing. 

Off with their heads?

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