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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot