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June 27, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing: Brendan Simms explains why A C Grayling's venture will not even be an Oxbridge rejects college and argues that what is needed is a privately-funded Free College of London

Posted by Brendan Simms

A. C. Grayling's New College of the Humanities will amount to very little other than a finishing school for rich Russians and Arabs - or so argues Brendan Simms, Professor in the History of International Relations, University of Cambridge. Prof. Simms offers an alternative vision for a new free, privately-funded liberal arts college, the Free College of London.

Academics, like the Irish, are a fair race; they never speak well of one another. It is therefore not surprising to find that philosopher A. C. Grayling's proposal for an 18,000 a year Oxbridge-style "New College of the Humanities" in London has provoked a storm of indignation. It promises to provide individual tuition in what The Times has described as a Hogwarts-like academy, with partial-cost bursaries to less well-off students. One common room wag suggested that it was named after New College Oxford, because it would have a special link with Winchester (and other public schools). Common rooms have lapped up stories about how academics at University College London - which will be awarding degrees, and making available library facilities - went to check out the courses on offer and found that they were their own, lent to the new institution without their knowledge.

It has also been gleefully pointed out that far from being taught individually by the gallery of star-professors, students will only be hearing some of them in annual plenary lectures. The rest of the teaching will be done by hired staff, presumably many of them folk who have been unable to land permanent academic posts, some of them no doubt very good. Dons have scoffed at the unmistakable cult of celebrity in the publicity, because while the students of the New College of the Humanities are unlikely to see much of the luminaries advertised on the website except in a crowded lecture hall, undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge do actually have a good chance of being taught individually by real stars in their field, such as the Classicist Mary Beard, the Goethe expert Nicholas Boyle, and the historian Richard Evans, to name but a few.

Finally, the New College of the Humanities will perforce not provide the collegiate experience of Oxbridge, and indeed of traditional universities such as Edinburgh, Durham and elsewhere, who all offer very good degrees. It is for this reason, in fact, that many doubt that Oxbridge rejects from the British independent sector will apply to the London venture; if it survives it will depend on the kind of Arab and Russian students already ubiquitous on the fringes of existing educational establishments.

I was taken aback, however, by the scale of the controversy. After all, the New College will do some people a lot of good: the undergraduates themselves, the unemployed academics who will be teaching them, the putative holders of the promised bursaries. Moreover, by demonstrating the real cost of a high quality Arts degree at about twice the maximum of what the government is allowing Universities to charge, the New School has done everyone a great service. And even if the enterprise were doing nobody any good, it is hard to see how it is doing any harm. On this basis, one should wish the venture well.

Rather than complaining about the elitism of the New College, we should be thinking about ways of providing a similar privately-funded independent college for the disadvantaged. What we need is a Free College of London. This would provide - in the first instance - an education in key Arts and Humanities subjects like History, English, Classics and Modern languages based on lectures and individual tutorials - or supervisions as we call them in Cambridge. Most of these would be given by Oxbridge academics on a pro-bono basis, probably many of them by the Professoriate, because they have the time, and by academics without major family commitments, in the first instance. The standard would be the same as at Oxford or Cambridge. There would be no direct application process. Candidates from state schools in deprived areas to be determined by postcode or some other system - would have to apply to Oxford or Cambridge first. The best among those rejected the selection being made by Oxbridge admissions tutors would then be offered places at the Free University. Depending on numbers, the scheme could be expanded to include certain Russell Group Universities.

In this manner, the number of applications to Oxford and Cambridge would presumably increase, while admissions tutors might be more inclined to admit them. We would have the first coherent "control group", to test how candidates might have fared academically had they been admitted. In some cases, of course, academics would turn down applicants whom they would then teach in the Free School, but this already happens in Oxford and Cambridge, where candidates rejected by one college are often taken by another college in the "pool", and are then sometimes taught by their original interviewers.

There would be no graduate tax as such. The presumption behind the scheme is that graduates would spend a year after graduation serving the community in an approved manner: in a hospital, the armed forces, charity work, overseas aid, or the Teach First programme. The degree would not be granted until the work has been carried out; ceremonies would thus take place a year after sitting the final examinations. One would hope that graduates of the school would be generous benefactors in the long run.

It is also to be assumed that whatever state fee bursaries and maintenance grants that will be provided for the disadvantaged would also be available to all students of the Free College. If in due course, the government reverted to paying for higher education - which benefits society as a whole - in the only rational way possible, namely through general taxation, then so much the better.

Of course, like the New College, the Free College would lack the collegiate and social dimension which the established universities provide. There is also the minor matter of libraries, pastoral care, and curricula. Just teaching Arts subjects would make for a rather one-sided community. The whole venture only makes sense if Science courses and languages were added in due course, making up a whole Free University of London, eventually.

This scheme would be relatively cheap to run, at least initially. Most Oxbridge colleges, which spend a vast amount of time and money on access schemes, could probably be relied upon to "release" their staff, and perhaps even subsidise their travel to London. Many academics feel passionately about access, and would probably be willing to give up their time; they are not in it for the money anyway. It would still require considerable investment, however. A donor would have to provide buildings, seed capital, and to fund a core administrative staff. But it is worth a try. I am prepared to donate ten free hours a year to such an endeavour and I am sure that many of my colleagues would be also. Any takers?

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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The real defect is that it will be a gravy train for celebrated leftists posing as scholars but who have not done any new thinking in decades. No contrary views will be permitted.

Posted by: Christie Davies at July 28, 2011 11:27 PM
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