The press coverage of the launch of the New College of the Humanities is symptomatic of the decline of our civilisation that its founders are seeking to exploit. The college was repeatedly described as a “university”, though it will not have the power to confer degrees. It has been said that the line-up of star professors will teach, when in fact they will collectively give 110 lectures a year, which makes for about seven or eight hours of teaching each, since there is no suggestion that they will mark essays, examinations or deal directly with students.
Indeed, it seems that they will play no role in the design of the curriculum either, since that has by all accounts largely been lifted from that of the University of London. Furthermore, many of those now cashing in by teaching at New College will only be able to do so because the tax-payer funded their education and research in our universities. Some of the novel intellectual content is risible in its superficiality. Scientific literacy is to be taught at degree level without mathematical content. That is what is usually known as popular science and is readily available from all good bookshops or via the television screen.
In the looking-glass world of the media, fame and talent are perfectly correlated. Yet, eminent though the professoriate associated with the college assurededly are, their combined intellectual power and credentials are easily outmatched many times over by most of our research intensive universities. Brian Cox is surely an excellent particle physicist but his fame outside his field is out of all proportion to his academic status. The same goes for some of the figures associated with the New College, who seem to have been assembled to provide brand recognition, kudos and for the marketing power of their names, rather than being recruited to be part of a coherent intellectual community.
It is unfortunate that it has been implied that the New College will offer a standard of undergraduate education in the humanities that is not available in our universities or at least not outside of Oxbridge. A C Grayling is quoted as saying that the college is the only way to provide a high-quality humanities education. This is to cross the line between legitimately promoting his venture and denigrating the rest of the sector which continues to provide a very high-quality education in the humanities, and which will continue to do so despite the introduction of fees.
At my own institution, for example, students certainly get one-one tutorials and while complaints about contact hours are sometimes heard, students are frequently observed to be too busy to attend all their lectures and seminars, let alone the optional lectures that we offer to supplement their education. Students who wish to can attend lectures for courses for which they are not officially registered, and so can in principle attend a vast range of lecture courses, as well as a lot of research seminars and public engagement events (including one recently with A C Grayling himself). I am sure that the teaching staff at the New College will be excellent; indeed one of my former colleagues will be one of them, but this very expensive fare will be no different from what is available elsewhere much more cheaply, though with a bit less pampering no doubt.
There is a conception of the university that is sadly in decline, according to which it is an institution in which all the staff and students are engaged in essentially the same activity. Sadly the New College promotes a model according to which students sit at the feet of superstar lecturers, albeit briefly, and then are taught fairly intensively by teaching staff.
There is to be no research culture at New College, no intermixing of the sciences, the arts and the humanities, no postgraduates, and no lofty ideals of the university. Instead, it will offer rebranded University of London courses, a few extra lectures by famous names, and extra teaching for students unprepared and/or unable to do the kind of independent learning that a proper university education demands.
When I wrote my first philosophy essay as a mathematics undergraduate taking an elective in the subject, I had enjoyed no personal tuition and only a few lectures. I, like all my colleagues, went to the library with a reading list and a list of essay titles and set about trying to work out what the hell was going on. Feedback on work and tutorial support plays an essential role in a university education, but it is most effective when it is used to support the student’s own investigations not to replace them. The capacity for research and the development of intellectual autonomy and initiative are among the most important benefits of a university education. That students and their parents are demanding more for their fees is not evidence that what has hithero been offered is inadequate, it is rather symptomatic of the educational culture in schools where students’ hands are held while they complete continuous assessments that can often be resubmitted if higher marks are required.
Some will doubtless denounce me for defending vested interests, but whatever their imperfections our universities are among the few world-class assets we have and they have served us extraordinarily well, for example, being instrumental to the fastest-growing cultural economy in the world. It is a great tragedy that the already comparatively small proportion of our GDP that we invest in higher education is to be cut further, and lamentably the setting up of the New College gives the government an opportunity to claim that its policies are successful bringing exciting new “providers” to the sector, and to distract us from the damage that is being done to our national interests by the lack of investment in our universities.
New College is a business designed to profit from the insecurities of the public about the consequences of Government policies for the higher education in the humanities. It will also profit from the need for rich people whose children don’t get into Oxbridge to have somewhere of apparently high status to send their offspring. The celebrity academics are important for marketing purposes only. The true nature of the college is as an undistinguished element of the University of London at which paying through the nose buys more time and indulgence for students, and a brand that will impress those whose knowledge is sufficiently superficial. It is in the end, sadly, a cynical initiative indicative of the dark times in which we live.
As Seneca taught, riches often bring misery as much as joy, and those who have associated themselves with this venture will suffer a good deal of opprobrium from their peers in conjunction with whatever material rewards they reap. A C Grayling frequently pontificates on how much we can learn from the Greeks. He might do well to reflect on how the mighty are brought low by hubris.
James Ladyman is professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol