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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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.