Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries

Excellence for all students is what our higher education system should be about; not just for the scions of millionaires, oligarchs and aristocrats.

Higher Education

Academic household names are few and far between, but professors Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson and Steve Jones are as close as we come to university superstars.

Now, like a 1970s super-group, they intend to come together to launch the New College of the Humanities – a private university college teaching degrees in English, philosophy, history, economics and law.

The renowned philosopher, AC Grayling, who is leading the initiative, promises an enviable line-up of intellectual talent, which also includes international luminaries such as cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and experimental psychologist Steven Pinker.

In return for this gilt-edged education the college will charge £18,000 a year in fees – double the permitted £9,000 maximum that will be levied by universities within the state sector from 2012.

Arguing that swingeing government cuts to humanities funding has driven the move, Grayling argues that the creation of the college is merely an expression of “economic reality”:

“The £9,000 cap is completely unsustainable. The true cost [of a degree] is way more and that ceiling is going to have to be burst. Other universities might also think ‘either we sink or go independent’.”

He is right to condemn the government’s disastrous cuts to humanities funding, but his cure is as wretched as the ailment. The college is an “odious” idea, according to the critic and academic Terry Eagleton.

This move should be critiqued as a bad deal for the taxpayer and a backward step for social mobility – albeit a nice little money-spinner for those involved – as the concept of ‘private wealth and public squalor’ is imported into our university sector. All this for the sake of creating little more than a salon and intellectual finishing school for the super-rich.

As Sally Hunt, general secretary of the lecturers’ association, the University and Colleges Union put it:

“At £18,000 a go, it seems it won’t be the very brightest but those with the deepest pockets who are afforded the chance.”

When universities minister David Willets floated the idea last month that rich students might be able to buy a place at elite universities by paying increased tuition fees, he was forced to beat a hasty retreat.

Rightly so. Recent research shows that a majority of current final year students would have been deterred from applying for a university course if they had to pay the £9,000 ‘state university’ limit that will apply from 2012 – let alone the £18,000 a year Grayling’s college proposes. Moreover, the fees disproportionally deter women, students from comprehensive schools and those living in the north of England.

Grayling’s college also sets a worrying precedent. What is to stop academics in other niche fields from breaking away from the state sector if they can find a market of super-rich undergraduates to educate?

It would also represent a lousy deal for the taxpayer if academics who have accrued their skills and experience from working in publicly-owned universities then leave to ply their trade to the highest bidder like intellectual mercenaries.

News of the Grayling’s college drew this equivocal response from Labour’s higher education spokesman, Gareth Thomas:

“It is a sad reflection of the scale of government cuts in higher education that it is taking a private initiative to drive new investment in arts, humanities and social sciences courses.”

Of course this “new investment” comes courtesy of a doubling of tuition fees. Existing universities could no doubt provide “new investment” too if the fees ceiling was removed; but this would lead to an arms race between universities that would price many students out of higher education altogether.

Meanwhile this “private initiative” will see the 13 founding superstar academics own a third of the college, alongside a range of wealthy business backers from the City.

Despite their academic pedigree, Messrs Grayling, Dawkins and Ferguson will ultimately have to turn a profit for their financial backers. Their lofty arguments about providing academic excellence will be sullied by base commercial considerations. Perhaps their lectures will be on a pay-per-view basis?

Excellence for all students is what our higher education system should be about; not just for the scions of millionaires, oligarchs and aristocrats.

21 Responses to “Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries”

  1. Alan Gurbutt

    Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries: //bit.ly/maDeh0 writes Kevin Meagher

  2. Powerbase

    Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries | Left Foot Forward //ow.ly/5bVqI

  3. Spinwatch

    Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries | Left Foot Forward //ow.ly/5bVrA

  4. lsephdcareers

    RT @leftfootfwd: Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries //t.co/VW534iZ

  5. DrKMJ

    RT @leftfootfwd: Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries: //bit.ly/maDeh0 writes Kevin Meagher #NewsClub

  6. Guido Fawkes

    Why? What is wrong with excellence and profit? Ideological ranting without any good reasons to oppose the college.

  7. Matthew Goodwin

    I know a few academics who wouldn't mind becoming intellectual mercenaries —> //t.co/0l0lsv5

  8. Dan Rouncivell

    Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries | Left Foot Forward //ow.ly/5bVrA

  9. 13eastie

    It sounds like these people have finally found a way to generate wealth from social science and humanities degrees! Surely they should be congratulated?

    Every pound parents are willing to waste on Henry and Olivia’s BA’s in philosophy will open up more capacity for Wayne and Chantelle to get on with the engineering and science our economy needs. What’s the problem with that?

  10. Primateus

    Yeah, I agree with Guido, I don’t think these are good enough reasons, unless you have some kind of marxist ideological axe to grind and are saturated with an inflated sense of entitlement. “Base” considerations should read economic realities. The New University will provide scholarships, based on excellence

  11. Ed's Talking Balls

    Providing an excellent service is in no way incompatible with turning a profit. Any successful business or client thereof would tell you that.

    Having said, if someone wants to spend £18k to have Dawkins lecture them on a humanities subject that would probably indicate that they weren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer in the first place!

  12. Selohesra

    Next we will be charged £30K for a Geography degree – although presumably they would through in a new set of colouring crayons as part of the deal.

  13. Selohesra

    Sorry throw – I only went to a comprehensive

  14. JamesM

    “Despite their academic pedigree, Messrs Grayling, Dawkins and Ferguson will ultimately have to turn a profit for their financial backers.”

    Erm, they just teach students who have already paid, they are not out there trying to recruit students… I don’t think you know quite how this works.

  15. Kevin

    Gents – nowt wrong with excellence and profit – if you’re flogging an Aston Martin, or a Pret BLT.

    Excellence and access are what our universities should be about.

    But where does this end? Should a group of nuclear physicists club together to open a college too? Bet there would be no shortage of eager North Koreans who would sign up.

    And money doesn’t buy brains. Eton didn’t teach poor old Dave when the Yanks joined the Second World War did it?

    Anyway, 18k an year on just 200 student intake, with no economies of scale to fall back on? The £3.6 million isn’t going to go very far. Tenner says this college never sees the light of day. Either that, or it will cost a lot more than 18k a year…

  16. mr. Sensible

    Guido it really isn’t good if the only access people have to humanities and social science is if they are wealthy enough.

    I read in the Guardian this morning that several academics have suggested that they have effectively coppied a University of London Sylabus.
    //www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jun/06/ac-grayling-private-university-syllabus

    This is another result of the government’s shambles on higher education.

  17. Puido

    Guido et al troll en masse! How independent minded! This venture is neither excellent or profitable! Ideological critique without substance to support the college.

  18. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – Why not just refuse to go there?

    I don’t like Marmite so I don’t eat it. I don’t like the Guardian Newspaper running a huge tax avoidance scam on the British people so I don’t read it.

    It’s a free country you know…

  19. For-proft universities have failed in the US, so why import them here? | Left Foot Forward

    […] Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries – Kevin Meagher, June 7th […]

  20. Five reasons Clegg can't stand on his social mobility record | Left Foot Forward

    […] we wrote at the launch: This move should be critiqued as a bad deal for the taxpayer and a backward step for […]

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