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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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war