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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.