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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder