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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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times