Why the New College isn't a new Oxbridge

It's a private university, for the products of private schools.

An Oxbridge education has a lot of advantages. You are taught by some of the top people in your chosen field. You get to live in one of the most beautiful cities in England. And for three glorious years, you can live in the happy delusion that one day you'll grow up to become Stephen Fry.

Now a group of academics is planning to open their own elite college. And at least one Oxford product is, rather prematurely, hailing it as a third Oxbridge.

The New College of the Humanities will be a private, for-profit sort of a place, teaching University of London degrees from a site in Bloomsbury. It will admit only the brightest kids (if you ain't got three As at A-level, you ain't coming in). But those who are lucky enough to make it through the door will be taught science by Richard Dawkins; history by Niall Ferguson; philosophy by the college's new master, A. C. Grayling.

This, thinks Boris Johnson, is all rather marvelous. In his Telegraph column yesterday, he described the venture as "such unambiguously good news that I scarcely know where to begin".

How easy it is to recreate Oxbridge anew, though, remains to be seen. Leave aside the hundreds of years of history, the ancient architecture, the artistic traditions, or one of a hundred other things that make up Oxbridge education. Consider the most important point: the cost.

New College, you see, will charge fees of £18,000 a year. That's twice the maximum to be charged by any public university, and gives a humanities degree a price tag of £54,000 plus living costs. Paying that, considering the oft-derided earning power of an arts graduate, would be a pretty brave thing to do.

What's more, New College's students, unlike those at most university, won't have the government on hand to help them. The state, once the fee reforms have gone through, will loan you up to £9,000 a year to take a university degree; but it'll offer only £6,000 to those taking private college courses. New College says that it hopes to fund scholarships for up to a third of its students, which is all very admirable, but nonetheless means that two-thirds of them will be those whose family can happily give them £12,000 a year.

This, despite the clichés, is not what Oxbridge is like. The qualifications you need to get in are academic, not financial. And while the ancient universities are not short of rich kids, plenty of their students are nonetheless from the sort of household which doesn't have £12,000 just lying about.

Nor, come to that, is this what the likes of Harvard are like, either. The Ivy League may charge fees of $33,000 (£20,000) or more. But they also pride themselves on being needs-blind - that is, having enough bursaries that no one is turned away simply because they can't afford the fees.

If the New College plan resembles any educational institution, in fact, it's not a university at all: it's a public school. The likes of Eton College employ great teachers. Their students are, for the most part, very bright, and I'm sure they get a fantastic education. But the fact remains that, with a few lucky exceptions, those who benefit from that education are overwhelmingly those from the richest slice of society.

The New College for the Humanities may, over time, open its doors a bit wider. Perhaps it'll build an endowment large enough to fund needs blind admission. Perhaps the government will offer larger up-front loans. I'm sure, for those who can afford it, it'll provide a quite excellent education.

But Johnson's suggestion that it offers "an Oxbridge for those who can't get into Oxbridge" is quite demonstrably wrong. New College isn't a new Oxbridge at all. It's a private university, for the products of private schools. It'll be elitist, alright - but in exactly the wrong way.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of EducationInvestor.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Why Labour's rise could threaten Nicola Sturgeon's independence dream

As the First Minister shelves plans for a second vote, does she join the list of politicians who bet on an anti-Brexit dividend that failed to materialise?

The nights are getting longer, and so are generations. The independence referendum sequel will happen after, not before the Brexit process is complete, Nicola Sturgeon announced yesterday.

It means that Scottish Remainers will not have the opportunity to seamlessly move from being part of a United Kingdom in the European Union to an independent Scotland in the European Union. Because of the ongoing drama surrounding Theresa May, we've lost sight of what a bad night the SNP had on 8 June. Not just because they lost 21 of the 56 seats they were defending, including that of their leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, and their former leader, Alex Salmond. They also have no truly safe seats left – having gone from the average SNP MP sitting on a majority of more than 10,000 to an average of just 2,521.

As Sturgeon conceded in her statement, there is an element of referendum fatigue in Scotland, which contributed to the loss. Does she now join the list of politicians – Tim Farron being one, and Owen Smith the other – who bet on an anti-Brexit dividend that failed to materialise?

I'm not so sure. Of all the shocks on election night, what happened to the SNP was in many ways the least surprising and most long-advertised. We knew from the 2016 Holyrood elections – before the SNP had committed to a referendum by March 2019 – that No voters were getting better at voting tactically to defeat the SNP, which was helping all the Unionist parties outperform their vote share. We saw that in the local elections earlier this year, too. We knew, too, that the biggest beneficiaries of that shift were the Scottish Conservatives.

So in many ways, what happened at the election was part of a bigger trend that Sturgeon was betting on a wave of anger at the Brexit vote. If we get a bad Brexit deal, or worse, no deal at all, then it may turn out that Sturgeon's problem was simply that this election came a little too early.

The bigger problem for the Yes side isn't what happened to the SNP's MPs – they can undo that with a strong showing at the Holyrood elections in 2021 or at Westminster in 2022. The big problem is what happened to the Labour Party across the United Kingdom.

One of Better Together's big advantages in 2014 is that, regardless of whether you voted for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party, if you believed the polls, you had a pretty reasonable expectation that your type of politics would be represented in the government of Britain sometime soon.

For the last two years, the polls, local elections and by-elections have all suggested that the only people in Scotland who could have that expectation were Conservatives. Bluntly: the day after the local elections, Labour and the Liberal Democrats looked to be decades from power, and the best way to get a centre-left government looked to be a Yes vote. The day after the general election, both parties could hope to be in government within six months.

As Tommy Sheppard, the SNP MP for Edinburgh East, observed in a smart column for the Herald after the election, one of the reasons why the SNP lost votes was that Corbyn's manifesto took some of the optimistic vote that they gobbled up in 2014 and 2015.

And while Brexit may yet sour enough to make Nicola Sturgeon's second referendum more appealing on that ground, the transformation in Labour's position over the course of the election campaign is a much bigger problem for the SNP.

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

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