The New College of the Humanities: Would you pay double university fees for a better education?

Tabatha Leggett visits A C Grayling's elite start-up, where the first intake of students are getting to grips with life at a private university.

With most of the country still complaining about university fees being raised to £9,000 a year, it’s easy to forget that a small group of teenagers chose to pay double that by enrolling at A C Grayling’s elite start up, the New College of the Humanities (NCH), last October.

Launched as a protest against government cuts to humanities funding, NCH is the UK’s second private university, after the University of Buckingham. In attempting to combine the best aspects of the American liberal arts model with an Oxbridge-style education, NCH offers degrees in English, History, Philosophy, Politics, International Relations, Economics and Law. On top of that, students are required to "minor" in another subject, study modules in ethics, critical thinking and logic and enroll in a professional skills course.

As I arrived at 19 Bedford Square, the Georgian townhouse in which the NCH is based, I was struck by how tiny it is. With fewer than 60 students currently enrolled, and only 100 expected to arrive next year, the NCH is smaller than most sixth forms. This is its main draw, since it is able to offer the same contact hours as Oxbridge. Every week, students sit through 10 hours of lecturers, four hours of small group discussions and an hour’s one-on-one supervision, for which they must write a 2,000 word essay – which is significantly more than most universities offer.

Bedford Square in London, where the NCH is based.
Photograph: Tabatha Leggett

The argument against NCH is simple: if the education it offers is not at least twice as good what other UK universities offer, it’s a blatant con. And if it is, then it allows wealth to dictate the quality of higher education you’re entitled to.

“There’s an awful lot of slack in the university system,” says Jane Phelps, who is in charge of NCH’s admissions system. “I met a boy studying Economics at Cardiff last week. He has 400 people in his lecturers and his smallest supervision is shared with 40. There’s no way that’s a worthwhile experience.” It’s this, Jane claims, which has caused students to leave LSE, Bristol, York, Exeter, Sussex and Trinity College Dublin and enroll at NCH, which had no dropouts in its first year. Still, attempting to resolve the failings of UK universities via a privatised system is more contentious than Jane will admit.

The NCH’s application process is modeled on Oxbridge, but students don’t need three As. “They need the potential to achieve three As,” Jane tells me. “The exam system is a bit variable and sometimes examiners don’t understand answers because the kids are more clever than them.” To me, that sounds like an excuse for offering places to students who miss their predicted grades. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I wish Jane would acknowledge it.

Students at the NCH.
Photograph: Tabatha Leggett

Jane explains that 16 NCH students receive full scholarships, and they’re hoping to increase this proportion. Jamie, a Philosophy student from Bristol, is one of the lucky few. Jamie receives a full, means-tested scholarship, which means his education and living expenses are paid for by the College. Francesca, a Politics student from Chiswick, receives an exhibition on academic merit, which means she only pays £7,200. “No one is here because they have lots of money,” says Francesca. “They’re here because they’re investing in an education.”

But is it a worthwhile investment? I can’t help but think that although these students’ future employers will respect the workload they’ve had, they won’t look favourably upon a bunch of teenagers who have invested in an education without any proof that it’ll get them anywhere. NCH is, after all, a start up. It has no alumni, which means there’s no way of knowing whether they’re likely to get jobs at the end of it. And £54,000 is a lot of money to spend on a gamble.

The New College of the Humanities has a "Thinkery" room.
Photograph: Tabatha Leggett

The best counter argument Jane offers is that NCH’s Personal Development Counsellor establishes a personal relationship with each student and uses her own contacts to help them to secure internships and jobs. Granted, that sounds better than most universities, but a good careers service hardly makes up for the extra curricular activities on offer at established universities. Because the NCH has such a small student body, it doesn’t have big enough sports teams, drama societies or student newspapers. Jane insists that students can just join local clubs, but I can’t help but think she’s missing the point. I’m pretty sure playing university sport is totally different to playing for a local club, and I certainly learnt more writing for my student rag than I ever did attending lectures.

It’s obvious that the UK’s university system is flawed, but setting up a for-profit, private institution at the very time the public voice is finally clamouring for education reform and wider access doesn’t seem like the right answer. Until the NCH’s class of 2015 graduates, though, we’ll have to sit tight and hope that most universities won’t follow suit. If they do, humanities subjects are going to suffer a major blow. After all, I don’t know many people who would pay £54,000 for a degree in thinking.

The New College of the Humanities launched in October 2012. Photograph: Tabatha Leggett

Tabatha Leggett is a freelance journalist who has been published in GQ and VICE and on the London Review of Books blog and Buzzfeed.com.

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com