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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The University of Chums on Seats

It can't be called an auspicious start.  Amid much media flurry, the New College of the Humanities (hereafter NCHums) was launched this week by A.C. (Anthony) Grayling, the airport bookshops' analytic philosopher of choice, with a star-studded line-up of fellow media-dons. It's what might in other circles be called a 'super-group': A.C. 'D.C.' Grayling fronting the outfit on Philosophy; Steven Pinker on Philosophy; Niall Ferguson on lead modern history; David 'Sir David Cannadine' Cannadine on rhythm modern history; Linda Colley (Mrs Cannadine, for those not in the know) on backing modern history; Richard Dawkins on atheism or something, probably; Ronald Dworkin QC on the law(1); and Steve Jones (not that Steve Jones, by the way) on genetics. Only one woman, as more than one person has noted, but even that's more than many a supergroup.  N-Dubz (not a 'supergroup', I admit, but popular, I understand, with the young people, and similarly artificially manufactured) only has one third female membership. Let us call our lot N-Chumz.(2)

The general reaction was hardly positive.  Trawling the web for news on this development, which could let's face it represent a turning point in the history of UK higher education (or admittedly it could be a foolish damp squib but, right now, who knows?), produced one negative after another.  UCU weighed in against, for what it's worth; so did the NUS; Terry Eagleton fulminated; Boris Johnson positively exploded with enthusiasm for the project (that's a negative in my book); the economic model for the project was queried.  Even a rather silly blogger with the characteristic name of India Lenon (currently Classics - sorry - 'Greats' at Oxford and Torygraph blog, but you'd guessed) launched an attack on the idea, although simultaneously condemning herself to being put up against a wall and shot (sentence to be commuted to a good slap), after I take power, with this unutterably stupid line:
We have all seen what a burden an Eton education can be on someone trying to make a career for themselves
And there was plenty more criticism out there on the inter-web.

Then it got worse. 

It turned out that NCHums might not be able to use the title University College after all; that it wasn't offering London University degrees but international programmes of the University of London, which the university denied it had even agreed that NCHums could award or teach towards; that Birkbeck, University of London, (Grayling's erstwhile employers) at least weren't in any sort of partnership with NCHums; it emerged that N-Chumz had actually copied their syllabuses from elsewhere.  Moreover, apart from Grayling himself, none of the rest of N-Chumz had actually quit their day-job, leading to the supposition that this star-teaching might not be what it seemed. 

Oh dear, oh dear.  Poor old A.C.  Indeed he allegedly feels 'persecuted' and that criticism of his venture has turned his life's work 'on its head'

Let us think on.  In the current situation of relentless attack by the government (started under New Labour - let's not forget that - even if things have become much worse under the Coalition) it has already been noted that post-'92 institutions (Middlesex University to name one) have slashed back humanities courses, leading to comment that the implication is that the constituency of such establishments either has no interest in, or no use for, a humanities education - in itself making humanities education an affair for the elite.  Charging £18,000 per an (and remember that government loans for private degrees will only cover £6k, so you really are looking at £12k per an up front) is hardly going to redress that social inequality in access to the humanities.

Ah, but the argument goes that this will free up places at top universities for such folk.  To which my gut instinct response is 'yeah, right'.  Is it likely that the Old Etonians, etc. will forgo their place at Oxbridge for NCHums?  NCHums is, selon Boris Johnson, "such unambiguously good news that I scarcely know where to begin" because it will provide a place for the 12 good people turned away from Oxbridge for every place offered by the likes of Grayling (on his own admission) when he was an admissions tutor (I wonder when, exactly, that was, given that he and I were working in the same institution in the early 1990s).  Again.  Yeah, right.  Johnson envisages NCHums providing a place for people with impeccable records who haven't been able to get into Oxbridge.  And yet, what does this impeccable record amount to, as he sees it?  I quote:
His A-level scorecard was perfect; he held colours for rugby; he had been captain of the school debating team, keeper of the philately club, editor of the magazine
Such is Johnson's removal (rather like dear old India's) from anything remotely resembling reality that (leaving aside the fact that he sees any of these things as a qualification for university admission in the first place) he is oblivious to the point that not a single one of these activities is even open to people outside the social elite, people who, for example, have to spend their time working to earn some cash, or caring for relatives, etc.  Which is why - even with a playing field as manifestly uneven as the British education system - academic achievement is the only appropriate criterion for university entry.  In other words only the perfect A-level scorecard is relevant and the poor alleged victim of "some kind of secret Pol Pot-style persecution of the children of the bourgeoisie" probably just ran up against people who, academically, were actually better than he was. Tant pis.  These poor deprived types are those that will be benefiting from NCHums.  The better academic types (hardly from a representative cross-section of society, as we have seen before) who get the Oxbridge places will still take them up.  These will, as now, include some state school pupils but the number is hardly likely to rise as a result of 'Grayling's Folly'.  Now it might be that some of these Oxbridge rejects will choose NCHums over, say, Poppleton University (already called Rejects' College Oxbridge by some) or Durham or Bristol or Warwick or other top-ten-but-not-Oxbridge institutions, freeing up places in the humanities for students from the 'widening participation' target areas.  Is this likely?

I don't think so.  First of all, we can leave well-established places like Durham out of the equation.  It'll take a long time before NCHums or any putative private university colleges can match their prestige.  But even the new 1960s universities (Warwick etc) of the Russell Group are now a known quantity, and their degrees a  recognised 'quality product' (if we must use such awful phraseology).  NCHums will not be for a long time, and it may well be that it just gets tagged as 'Posh College London' (plc, sorry PCL), a place for over-privileged Tim Nice-But-Dim.  That might score you a job in the City, of a certain sort, but one wonders what sort of breadth of careers it would open, rather than close, if that sort of tag did get applied.

And then there's your £18 grand (12 grand per an up-front, remember).  Is it really buying you a better education?  It is characteristic of N-Chumz and their staggering arrogance that they think that no one already teaches critical thinking etc. as part of their degrees, outside the golden Loxbridge triangle.  It is also fairly typical that (like, sadly, loads of people) they subscribe to the misguided idea that small group teaching, and especially the Oxbridge-style one on one tutorial, ipso facto and always equals better tuition.  Plenty of studies have questioned this.  For myself, anecdotally, looking around at some of its 'golden boys' (and they are almost always boys) in my part of the the discipline of history the Oxbridge tutorial seems to promote the glib, superficial, 'flashy' (= bull-shitty) argument and actively to deter deep, reflective thought.  As my comment in parenthesis also suggests, it promotes (as studies have also shown) a very male, macho way of arguing and thinking.  I have friends in Oxbridge who say it doesn't benefit about 90% of the students they see.  But enough of that.  Given mine is a minority view, such things might encourage people to part with their cash in the 'HE market', provided they don't think too hard.  In short, provided they aren't the sorts of critical thinkers that NCHums says it wants to produce...

So what of its 'stellar' teaching line-up?  Well, let me say this.  Would you pay £18k a year for a lecture (as advertised) on "The birth of western Christendom AD 300-1215" given by 'Sir' David Cannadine or Linda Colley (I haven't seen any medievalists mentioned)?  If so you can gladly pay 18 grand to have me teach your spawn about WWII or modern China while you're at it.  As most of N-Chumz have stayed where they are and that even the claim made that they all have a stake in the enterprise is apparently not true,(3) then one imagines most teaching will be bought in at piece-rate from people willing to do so, possibly much further down the food-chain.  Not that I regard those of N-Chumz whose work I'm familiar with as at the top of the intellectual food-chain. People with a high media presence to be sure, people with a high count of column-inches in the TLS or the London Review of Books, people who show up a lot on Radio 4 or Channel 4, but not the best in their fields by a long chalk.  I suggest that in selecting their line-up, N-Chumz have mistaken media success for intellectual quality.  Indeed, I'd say that forking out £18,000 a year to be taught by N-Chumz would be a bit like paying £18k a year to be taught music theory by Westlife.

I've read some of Grayling's books; they're OK and, certainly, if I had to chose between him and the other purveyor of paperback philosophy, John Gray, I'd pick Grayling every time, but they aren't much to write home about.  What is Good?, for instance, is a wholly over-simplified 'whig history' of religion vs. progress with holes in the argument so wide that even someone (like me) broadly sympathetic to his line could drive a coach and horses through them.  Certainly this and establishing his credentials as 'identikit Islington man' (T. Eagleton) are hardly enough to outweigh his involvement in this insidious project, no matter how he bleats about it.  He has argued that universities will not be able to hold the line at £9k and that higher fees will come.  He has not realised (unlike Howard Hotson) that raising fees is exactly the logic of the neo-liberal ideology of HE, not a critique of, or solution to, it.  'Sir' David's involvement presumably stems from his love of the US system, made clear in his inaugural lecture at London.  He has clearly forgotten about the massive difference in funding and endowments between the Ivy League and even the wealthiest Cambridge college, to which he drew attention in that lecture, and has failed to note the comparative weakness of the NCHums business plan.  More to the point, he has failed (as he did in that lecture) to be aware that for every professor working in luxury in the Ivy League there are N academics slaving heroically, teaching Plato to Nato western Civ with one other colleague on effectively open access courses in ever-worse-funded state universities. A failure to note that inequality belies Johnson's laughable claim that Cannadine is a 'lefty'.  Ferguson, at least, is honest about his espousal of this sort of thing. 

NCHums would be an elite institution charging huge sums to deliver an unremarkable education to those (and only those) lucky enough to be able to pay.  Its only market value would be in creating a new 'in-club' for the 'already-haves'.  A University of Chums on Seats, indeed.  Grayling and co should be ashamed of themselves.  If we could place a charge of 'bringing the liberal arts and humanities into disrepute' against N-Chumz, then I for one would lay it before the CPS.

1: I have to wonder whether he wasn't invited because someone misheard and sent him Richard Dawkins' invite by mistake.  On the other hand it will give the N-Chumz rappers an easy solution to finding something that rhymes with Dawkins.
2: If I can brush up my photo-shopping skills, suitable illustration might follow...  A current straw poll suggests Niall Ferguson as favourite to be Dappy.
3: Applied ethics is supposed to be on the curriculum at NCHums - it would seem that those behind the operation and its press releases might need to sit in on the course themselves.


  1. As a librarian, one of the first things I did when looking at the NCH website was look to see what kind of a library it has. Turns out it doesn't. Students are entitled to use Senate House library (as are all University of London students). Senate House is an _excellent_ library, but will NCH students be expecting to fight over copies of set texts with other University of London students?

    There's also no mention of any kind of dedicated library service for NCH students, or any training and guidance on how to use the other wonderful (but not always easy to use) libraries in London. In my experience, even the keenest undergraduates require quite a lot of support at the beginning of their studies. NCH don't appear to have considered this at all.

    Frankly, I'd expect a lot more for £18k/yr... and that's before even looking at the syllabus, or considered who might be delivering most of the teaching (I'm pretty sure it won't be Grayling & co). Although maybe, at £18k/yr, you get someone to write the essays for you...?

    To me, NCH appears nothing other than a flashy commercial enterprise. All style over substance. I suspect anyone taken in by them in the near future is likely to be bitterly disappointed.

  2. Senate House Library has been under threat of closure for some years now. While I was last teaching in London, in any case, my students reported that it was so over-subscribed that the three or four copies it holds of each of the main textbooks or entry-level studies in various bits of the field I was teaching in, early medieval history, were always out. Of course they would say this but I can imagine it to be true. I wonder if this, like so much else of NCH's business non-plan, has been made up without actually checking anything. Really, the whole thing is incredible: if anything proves the need of state support of the humanities it's that the government itself can get so deeply behind something so shaky without doing any basic critique of the information they're presented with at all!

  3. I think, Jon, that the implication is rather that government needs some underpinning from the Humanities.
    I had thought that if one thing good came of this it might be that Senate House Library (indeed, a good library) got some sort of fixed support. As you say though, we probably ought not to be sanguine that NCHums has even bothered to acquire an agreement to use the place.
    I left London 8 1/2 years ago and apart from getting wind of the fact that SH was still under threat my knowledge of the situation is out of date. Back then the problem was (and I suspect still is) the attitude of KCL, UCL and Imperial, all of which have their own excellent libraries and in the case of Imperial a student body without much use for the subjects housed in Senate House anyway. They thus refused to play ball and continue to support the university library. This had meant (then) that Birkbeck students were charged (like everyone else) £60 for a ticket, which few took up (in spite of my encouragement). Which is a round-about way of saying that in some ways I'm glad to hear that SH library is oversubscribed. But it would not be great news for the over-privileged students of NCHums, who would presumably then add to the over-crowding of the BL...

  4. I think those two implications are the same, in the end, aren't they? The state needs the humanities, so it might want to think about paying for them.

    My picture of the Senate House situation is out of date now too, I was teaching at QMUL in 2007-8. They subsidised their students' tickets 100% (I could never justify one at Birkbeck myself, given that I also had access to Cambridge UL), which obviously made a difference to uptake, but I think this was a bargain they decided on rather than spend enough on their own library to make it unnecessary to send their students into the city centre.

    I've never yet quite found the BL out of seats, but the time must come. The NCH students wouldn't get much joy out of it, however, as it must have fewer copies of each item than does Senate House. Only one lucky chum would be able to get at the book at once... Some kind of contest could be arranged perhaps!


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