The New College is a business designed to profit from fear

People are worried about the future of universities. An elite college stuffed with celebrities is no

The press coverage of the launch of the New College of the Humanities is symptomatic of the decline of our civilisation that its founders are seeking to exploit. The college was repeatedly described as a "university", though it will not have the power to confer degrees. It has been said that the line-up of star professors will teach, when in fact they will collectively give 110 lectures a year, which makes for about seven or eight hours of teaching each, since there is no suggestion that they will mark essays, examinations or deal directly with students.

Indeed, it seems that they will play no role in the design of the curriculum either, since that has by all accounts largely been lifted from that of the University of London. Furthermore, many of those now cashing in by teaching at New College will only be able to do so because the tax-payer funded their education and research in our universities. Some of the novel intellectual content is risible in its superficiality. Scientific literacy is to be taught at degree level without mathematical content. That is what is usually known as popular science and is readily available from all good bookshops or via the television screen.

In the looking-glass world of the media, fame and talent are perfectly correlated. Yet, eminent though the professoriate associated with the college assurededly are, their combined intellectual power and credentials are easily outmatched many times over by most of our research intensive universities. Brian Cox is surely an excellent particle physicist but his fame outside his field is out of all proportion to his academic status. The same goes for some of the figures associated with the New College, who seem to have been assembled to provide brand recognition, kudos and for the marketing power of their names, rather than being recruited to be part of a coherent intellectual community.

It is unfortunate that it has been implied that the New College will offer a standard of undergraduate education in the humanities that is not available in our universities or at least not outside of Oxbridge. A C Grayling is quoted as saying that the college is the only way to provide a high-quality humanities education. This is to cross the line between legitimately promoting his venture and denigrating the rest of the sector which continues to provide a very high-quality education in the humanities, and which will continue to do so despite the introduction of fees.

At my own institution, for example, students certainly get one-one tutorials and while complaints about contact hours are sometimes heard, students are frequently observed to be too busy to attend all their lectures and seminars, let alone the optional lectures that we offer to supplement their education. Students who wish to can attend lectures for courses for which they are not officially registered, and so can in principle attend a vast range of lecture courses, as well as a lot of research seminars and public engagement events (including one recently with A C Grayling himself). I am sure that the teaching staff at the New College will be excellent; indeed one of my former colleagues will be one of them, but this very expensive fare will be no different from what is available elsewhere much more cheaply, though with a bit less pampering no doubt.

There is a conception of the university that is sadly in decline, according to which it is an institution in which all the staff and students are engaged in essentially the same activity. Sadly the New College promotes a model according to which students sit at the feet of superstar lecturers, albeit briefly, and then are taught fairly intensively by teaching staff.

There is to be no research culture at New College, no intermixing of the sciences, the arts and the humanities, no postgraduates, and no lofty ideals of the university. Instead, it will offer rebranded University of London courses, a few extra lectures by famous names, and extra teaching for students unprepared and/or unable to do the kind of independent learning that a proper university education demands.

When I wrote my first philosophy essay as a mathematics undergraduate taking an elective in the subject, I had enjoyed no personal tuition and only a few lectures. I, like all my colleagues, went to the library with a reading list and a list of essay titles and set about trying to work out what the hell was going on. Feedback on work and tutorial support plays an essential role in a university education, but it is most effective when it is used to support the student's own investigations not to replace them. The capacity for research and the development of intellectual autonomy and initiative are among the most important benefits of a university education. That students and their parents are demanding more for their fees is not evidence that what has hithero been offered is inadequate, it is rather symptomatic of the educational culture in schools where students' hands are held while they complete continuous assessments that can often be resubmitted if higher marks are required.

Some will doubtless denounce me for defending vested interests, but whatever their imperfections our universities are among the few world-class assets we have and they have served us extraordinarily well, for example, being instrumental to the fastest-growing cultural economy in the world. It is a great tragedy that the already comparatively small proportion of our GDP that we invest in higher education is to be cut further, and lamentably the setting up of the New College gives the government an opportunity to claim that its policies are successful bringing exciting new "providers" to the sector, and to distract us from the damage that is being done to our national interests by the lack of investment in our universities.

New College is a business designed to profit from the insecurities of the public about the consequences of Government policies for the higher education in the humanities. It will also profit from the need for rich people whose children don't get into Oxbridge to have somewhere of apparently high status to send their offspring. The celebrity academics are important for marketing purposes only. The true nature of the college is as an undistinguished element of the University of London at which paying through the nose buys more time and indulgence for students, and a brand that will impress those whose knowledge is sufficiently superficial. It is in the end, sadly, a cynical initiative indicative of the dark times in which we live.

As Seneca taught, riches often bring misery as much as joy, and those who have associated themselves with this venture will suffer a good deal of opprobrium from their peers in conjunction with whatever material rewards they reap. A C Grayling frequently pontificates on how much we can learn from the Greeks. He might do well to reflect on how the mighty are brought low by hubris.

James Ladyman is professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol

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Zac Goldsmith has bitten off more than he can chew

In standing as an independent, Goldsmith may face the worst of both worlds. 

After just 48 years, we can announce the very late arrival of the third runway at Heathrow. Assuming, that is, that it makes its way past the legal challenge from five local councils and Greenpeace, the consultation with local residents, and the financial worries of the big airlines. And that's not counting the political struggles...

While the Times leads with the logistical headaches - "Heathrow runway may be built over motorway" is their splash, the political hurdles dominate most of this morning’s papers

"Tory rebels let fly on Heathrow" says the i's frontpage, while the FT goes for "Prominent Tories lead challenge to May on Heathrow expansion". Although Justine Greening, a May loyalist to her fingertips, has limited herself to a critical blogpost, Boris Johnson has said the project is "undeliverable" and will lead to London becoming "a city of planes". 

But May’s real headache is Zac Goldsmith, who has quit, triggering a by-election in his seat of Richmond Park, in which he will stand as an anti-Heathrow candidate.  "Heathrow forces May into Brexit by-election" is the Telegraph's splash. 

CCHQ has decided to duck out of the contest entirely, leaving Goldsmith running as the Conservative candidate in all but name, against the Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney. 

What are Goldsmith's chances? To win the seat, the Liberal Democrats would need a 19.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives - and in Witney, they got exactly that.

They will also find it easier to squeeze the third-placed Labour vote than they did in Witney, where they started the race in fourth place. They will find that task all the easier if the calls for Labour to stand aside are heeded by the party leadership. In any case, that Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds have all declared that they should will be a boost for Olney even if she does face a Labour candidate.  

The Liberal Democrats are fond of leaflets warning that their rivals “cannot win here” and thanks to Witney they have one ready made.  

Goldsmith risks having the worst of all worlds. I'm waiting to hear whether or not the Conservatives will make their resources freely available to Goldsmith, but it is hard to see how, without taking an axe to data protection laws, he can make use of Conservative VoterID or information gathered in his doomed mayoral campaign. 

But in any case, the Liberal Democrats will still be able to paint him as the Brexit candidate and the preferred choice of the pro-Heathrow Prime Minister, as he is. I think Goldsmith will find he has bitten more than he can chew this time.

This article originally appeared in today's Morning Call, your essential email covering everything you need to know about British politics and today's news. You can subscribe for free here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.