Time for a re-distribution of academic wealth

If distinguished academics were “incentivised” to move between universities - similar to a Teach First scheme - other places could be new Oxbridge's.

Kings College Cambridge

By James Easy

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for my university newspaper which decried the further marketisation of higher education. It was in response to the opening of a new legal institution called “Kaplan”, which was another in the morass of “specialist” legal schools charging the earth.

There has been much consternation about the exorbitant pricing of legal professional education, especially since the majority of people who pay for it will never become lawyers, and of those lucky few that do, even fewer of them will become high-earning ones.

At the time, one wondered when this sort of thing would filter through to undergraduate education, whilst simultaneously hoping it wouldn’t.

Alas, this was wishful thinking, in the past day or so we’ve seen the proposal of the New College of the Humanities, a high fee-paying, for-profit, private, elite college based in London, headed by 14 eminent professors including Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson (both of whom, incidentally, are products of the famous fee-paying public school to Oxbridge production line).

Fees at this new college will be around £18,000 per year, and it aims to train its students to become a ‘new British elite’ with science, literacy, critical thinking, ethics and professional skills on top of degree subjects taught in one-to-one tutorials.

It is easy to understand the motivation behind the creation of the New College. With present fears abound that “there are too many universities” and “too many people are going to university”, it’s little surprise that a group of extremely able and conservative minded Professors would want to create their own little army of philosopher kings to ensure that the great British tradition of academic brilliance continues, even if it does serve to widen the already gaping educational chasm between the rich and the poor.

The primary reason Oxbridge maintains its, arguably overrated, prestige in the UK is because it has the money to attract the best academics. The reception to the New College from the likes of Boris Johnson, who calls it “a new Oxbridge for those who can’t get into Oxbridge”, is evidence of this. Indeed, if the hype is to be believed it may as well already be ranked as the number three university in the country.

If enough of our distinguished academics were “incentivised” to move between our universities, those places would too, in time, become as highly respected as Oxbridge. It could be similar to a higher education version of the exceptional Teach First scheme, which is gradually changing our primary and secondary education for the better.

Former Regius professor Quentin Skinner’s 2008 move from Cambridge to the much less respected Queen Mary, University of London, immediately made that place a far more attractive proposition to people who wanted to study history.

If this practice became more widespread and our best academics did indeed join and help to build the reputations of lesser respected universities up and down the country, then I have no doubt that over time, our best young talent wouldn’t feel the need to be so Oxbridge/London-centric and perhaps start more readily spreading their wings to the forgotten parts of our country (like the North) without feeling as though they were abject failures because they didn’t impress two Oxbridge dons in a 15 minute interview.

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13 Responses to “Time for a re-distribution of academic wealth”

  1. James Easy

    Time for a re-distribution of academic wealth: http://bit.ly/kdo2cJ writes @jameseasylol

  2. Hitchin England

    RT @leftfootfwd: Time for a re-distribution of academic wealth: http://bit.ly/kdo2cJ writes @jameseasylol #NewsClub

  3. Steven Fielding

    Time for a re-distribution of academic wealth: http://bit.ly/kdo2cJ writes @jameseasylol

  4. Carrie Schneider

    Time for a re-distribution of academic wealth | Left Foot Forward: It could be similar to a higher education ver… http://bit.ly/lUhJSa

  5. Oxbridge Education

    Oxbridge News: Time for a re-distribution of academic wealth: The primary reason Oxbridge maintains its, arguabl… http://bit.ly/j2bbNE

  6. Dave Citizen

    I think it is an over simplification to suggest that the universities with the best reputations have the best academics working at them. Institutional reputations are built on a lot more than the academic talent of current staff members – let’s face it, when half the cabinet went to Oxbridge it’s got to open up some reputation enhancing doors hasn’t it!

    Unfortunately, Britain’s best academic institutions are clearly failing us – their existence is ensured on the grounds that they are supposed to play an important role in improving society. Funny how those reputations just keep on growing!

  7. mr. Sensible

    What’s happened here is another indictment of the government’s record on higher education.

  8. Oxbridge Education

    Oxbridge News: Time for a re-distribution of academic wealth | Left Foot Forward: The primary reason Oxbridge ma… http://bit.ly/kYnLTx

  9. The Cappa Don

    Absurd idea which will do little or nothing to add to the ‘quality’ end of HE in England and is irrelevant to the rest of the sector. The fact that the celebrity academics involved won’t actually be teaching on these degree programmes any more regularly than they do at their current institutions means that students will feel (and be) shortchanged. If you could get into Oxbridge or one of the Russell Group would you really pass that up for this vanity project, for an institution that might not last the course and will have zero credibility? Quality at the elite end of the HE market translates as prestige and you can’t invent that overnight, it is built on the future career impact of your graduates not the transitory nature of celebrity TV fame. If I had Niall Ferguson teaching me economic history I would be falling about laughing if his insights from the recent TV series are anything to go by. Neo-con rubbish wrapped up in plumb-voiced arrogance!

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  11. Jason

    “If enough of our distinguished academics were “incentivised” to move between our universities, those places would too, in time, become as highly respected as Oxbridge.”

    – That is contestable. It is a lot easier to destroy reputations than to build them. A possible consequence of such re-distribution exercise is that Oxbridge becamse as respected as London Met.

  12. David Moss

    Hi James, found the blog.

    My concerns from before stand:
    Star academics are at the best universities because they’re the top universities. It’s much less the case that the best universities are the best universities because certain star academics are there. The presence of star academics makes little or no difference to the education that undergraduates receive. Certainly a good university needs to have well-ranked academics, but these are rarely the big names, but people you’ve never heard of. Having good researchers means little or nothing in terms of teaching, indeed, it can count against it- but that’s ok because quality of teaching isn’t what makes elite institutions attractive either.
    Relatedly, it would be difficult to ‘redistribute’ academics by reapportioning money. It is certainly not the case that Oxbridge has all the best academics because it has the money to pay them higher wages. I tdon’t know what the wage differentials are like between different universities are like, but I have never heard an academic mention this as a consideration and believe me, given how competitive the academic jobs market is atm, there is a lot of discussion of other considerations. The only context where I’ve heard salaries mentioned is “if you care at all about salaries, don’t become an academic!” It is telling (against your general thesis that good academics = unfair advantage in need of redistribution) that the main perk of being a top academic is not having to teach any undergrads!The reason why the star academics go to the best institutions (where they do) is the prestige and presumably the research community. I would posit that the research specialism is one of the main motivators of academics. (And fwiw, Skinner moving from Cambs to London is not a big upset. For one thing Uni of London is still elite, secondly he was there before he was at Cambridge and thirdly his wife is an academic there.

    In any case, the main reason for the prestige of Oxbridge and the reason why people want to go there is not the quality of the teaching. Maybe some applicants do think along these lines but if they do they’re clearly mistaken. Indeed, the only reason why most students would think that Oxbridge = best teachers is because Oxbridge has the highest reputation. Very few applicants know enough about their prospective faculty to have any basis to know where the best academics are on their merits.
    The reasons why Oxbridge is prestigious is definitely not because it’s used its money to buy the most attractive academics, rather it has higher prestige because it’s recognised as intensely competitive and for academic and social elites and most importantly it’s recognised as being recognised as such. When I spoke to (non-academic) employers after graduating from Cambridge I knew they weren’t going to say “Wow, you were in the same department as Simon Blackburn!”- rather they’re impressed by Cambridge because they know that only the best students get in and so (ex hypothesi) the best graduates come out. If you moved the big name academics around, employers would not conclude that every university was equal and nor would students. Hence the most prestigious institutions would remain as competitive and prestigious as before. This you ought to recognise, since you hold that there’s not much objective difference between universities.

  13. Dawkins’ divine intervention challenges faith in his atheist integrity | Left Foot Forward

    […] creation of the New College of the Humanities (NCoH) – a new private university in London staffed by some of the world’s leading academics and charging fees […]

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