The Tory Dream Future for UK Higher Education Begins. Or, Inequality Commodified

David Cameron, Gideon “Call me George” Osborne, and David “No Two Brains” Willets must be wetting themselves with excitment. Their plans to open up third level education to private providers (including from the US) have received a major boost with news that a new private university has been founded in London with the aim of soon ranking alongside Oxford and Cambridge. Fees will be £18,000 per annum. The new university is called New College of the Humanities. Its website boasts that

New College of the Humanities is a new concept in university education. It offers education in excellence and an outstanding academic environment in the heart of London. The College was founded by 14 of the world’s top academics

Who are these 14 academics? It is a list drawn from people who currently work (and from the looks of things will continue to work) at some of the world’s best-known universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, and University College London. It is filled with well-known (and some might say annoying) names including AC Grayling, Niall Ferguson, Ronald Dworkin, Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins. All these people will teach, and if you are one of the lucky few who can afford it accepted, you will soon be on first name terms with all your fellow students and the staff. I’m sure that those who turn up expecting weekly one-to-one tutorials with the likes of Richard Dawkins will in no way be disappointed. Actually

New College has a world-class team of Professors with a stellar reputation for academic excellence, supported by a young, talented team of tutors and other teaching staff. All of them are committed to teaching and research.

Our Professors and tutors are international experts in their chosen fields. You will meet and hear these world-leading academics. You can attend Professorial lectures even if they are not in your own subjects.


All this for £18,000? A bargain you might think, especially if you are lucky enough to get one of the full scholarships, or to have your fees reduced by two-thirds. No numbers for these are available on the college’s website at this time, but they say more than a fifth of students will have scholarships or exhibitions, meaning no fees or reduced fees. The scholarships are means tested: the exhibitions are by competition. In other words, the richest person in the world can get one, and feel that they earned it, without having to trouble themselves about how inequality may have contributed to such a situation in the first place (to pick up a theme from Walter Benn Michael). I may have missed it, but I didn’t notice any reference to the scholarship including living expenses.

And just look at the Advisory Board.

Members are drawn from public and academy schools as well as from the private sector, and are chosen for their expertise in relevant areas.

Filled then with the heads of several of the most elite schools in England, and some random people from business, publishing and media. No need, obviously, to explain what relevant expertise to a university education they are bringing. I am sure the head of a secondary school or a publisher knows loads about running a university or teaching in one. It certainly couldn’t be that they expect the atmosphere at this new institution to be like a cross between public school and Oxbridge, and are therefore getting on board people who understand how to pander to the needs of their target audience.

Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems have also been firmly pushing this idea of opening up higher education to alternative providers. Clegg has also attached the use of old boy networks and unpaid internships. I wonder what he thinks about this reason for choosing the new institution. From the message of AC Grayling, the Master of this new institution.

Professional Skills will give you the tools to write well, present your ideas, lead and work in teams, read a balance sheet, and understand the worlds of finance, business and employment. You will be ready to make an immediate contribution in business, government, media or the arts following graduation. You will have a dedicated member of College staff who will arrange vacation internships for work experience. They will help you with CV preparation and securing interviews with leading firms as graduation approaches.

I guess you get what you pay for. But what is it, exactly, that you get? The answer is that the new institution will not, in fact, be awarding degrees of its own. It will be awarding Diplomas. The degrees will come from the University of London, and students will have access to University of London facilities.

So what we have is a private institution that will not in fact award degrees of its own, but award you the same degree that you can get from several other institutions across London, and where there seems to be as good a chance of ending up being taught for a substantial period by a world-class scholar. Maybe the Tories and their yellow LibDem allies shouldn’t be getting over-excited after all.


3 Responses to “The Tory Dream Future for UK Higher Education Begins. Or, Inequality Commodified”

  1. LeftAtTheCross Says:

    There was another good article around this subject recently in the London Review of Books, which tore apart the stats upon which the promotional spin around third-level sector privatisation is based.

  2. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks for that LATC. Good article. The real danger is the whole thing represents an insight into the future.

  3. Paul Keenan Says:

    This is a depressing move, certainly, and one that got me very worked up, so I was pleased to see your post on it. it’s also good to see the LRB really tackle the invidious stats. The practicalities of this scheme don’t make a lot of sense either. The UoL is in the process of fragmenting and relying on their facilities seems like a gamble at this stage. For example, Senate House Library, the main library for UoL, has been in serious financial difficulties in recent years. Issuing their degrees in its name is a throwback at a time when the larger former constituent parts (UCL, KCL, LSE, etc) have moved to issue in their own names. The costs look impractical as well. This College will have to rent premises at Bloomsbury prices as well as paying top money for these scholars and presumably not on more than a rolling contract basis (i.e. freeing them up to do other work and research). At most, I strongly suspect that these “world-class scholars” will offer lecture courses and no real class teaching, with the “young tutors” doing the rest. They will be on fixed-term contracts and will therefore be expendable if necessary (a depressing trend in HE at the moment anyway). If you were amongst the group that are presumably being targeted by this move (i.e. wealthy prospective humanities students), would you really pay £18,000pa (plus living expenses in London) for the chance to be (potentially) lectured by some very distinguished names, rather than paying around £9000pa for a degree from an established institution with scholars of a similar standing, who might tutor you (in the case of Oxbridge) or teach you (elsewhere)? I don’t agree with the fees increase, or with fees overall particularly, but the numbers don’t appear to work for this new venture, unless there is some other factor involved that I haven’t considered.

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