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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