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.

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.