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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.