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7 June 2011

Why the New College isn’t a new Oxbridge

It's a private university, for the products of private schools.

By Jonn Elledge

An Oxbridge education has a lot of advantages. You are taught by some of the top people in your chosen field. You get to live in one of the most beautiful cities in England. And for three glorious years, you can live in the happy delusion that one day you’ll grow up to become Stephen Fry.

Now a group of academics is planning to open their own elite college. And at least one Oxford product is, rather prematurely, hailing it as a third Oxbridge.

The New College of the Humanities will be a private, for-profit sort of a place, teaching University of London degrees from a site in Bloomsbury. It will admit only the brightest kids (if you ain’t got three As at A-level, you ain’t coming in). But those who are lucky enough to make it through the door will be taught science by Richard Dawkins; history by Niall Ferguson; philosophy by the college’s new master, A. C. Grayling.

This, thinks Boris Johnson, is all rather marvelous. In his Telegraph column yesterday, he described the venture as “such unambiguously good news that I scarcely know where to begin”.

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How easy it is to recreate Oxbridge anew, though, remains to be seen. Leave aside the hundreds of years of history, the ancient architecture, the artistic traditions, or one of a hundred other things that make up Oxbridge education. Consider the most important point: the cost.

New College, you see, will charge fees of £18,000 a year. That’s twice the maximum to be charged by any public university, and gives a humanities degree a price tag of £54,000 plus living costs. Paying that, considering the oft-derided earning power of an arts graduate, would be a pretty brave thing to do.

What’s more, New College’s students, unlike those at most university, won’t have the government on hand to help them. The state, once the fee reforms have gone through, will loan you up to £9,000 a year to take a university degree; but it’ll offer only £6,000 to those taking private college courses. New College says that it hopes to fund scholarships for up to a third of its students, which is all very admirable, but nonetheless means that two-thirds of them will be those whose family can happily give them £12,000 a year.

This, despite the clichés, is not what Oxbridge is like. The qualifications you need to get in are academic, not financial. And while the ancient universities are not short of rich kids, plenty of their students are nonetheless from the sort of household which doesn’t have £12,000 just lying about.

Nor, come to that, is this what the likes of Harvard are like, either. The Ivy League may charge fees of $33,000 (£20,000) or more. But they also pride themselves on being needs-blind – that is, having enough bursaries that no one is turned away simply because they can’t afford the fees.

If the New College plan resembles any educational institution, in fact, it’s not a university at all: it’s a public school. The likes of Eton College employ great teachers. Their students are, for the most part, very bright, and I’m sure they get a fantastic education. But the fact remains that, with a few lucky exceptions, those who benefit from that education are overwhelmingly those from the richest slice of society.

The New College for the Humanities may, over time, open its doors a bit wider. Perhaps it’ll build an endowment large enough to fund needs blind admission. Perhaps the government will offer larger up-front loans. I’m sure, for those who can afford it, it’ll provide a quite excellent education.

But Johnson’s suggestion that it offers “an Oxbridge for those who can’t get into Oxbridge” is quite demonstrably wrong. New College isn’t a new Oxbridge at all. It’s a private university, for the products of private schools. It’ll be elitist, alright – but in exactly the wrong way.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of EducationInvestor.