Anyone who thinks philosophers have little or no impact on government policy should think again.
According to Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, A. C. Grayling – one of the country’s most recognisable academics – has had a crucial impact on the higher education White Paper, as a result of the trials and tribulations he has faced in launching the New College of the Humanities.
As anyone who has followed this saga will know, NCH is the alternative provider (or “challenger institution”, as the White Paper calls them) that made headlines when it launched with a posh Bloomsbury-base and even posher roster of star academics, with the explicit aim of rivalling Oxbridge.
The profile of the project was raised further by the size of the tuition fees: £18,000 a year is double the sum paid by those at Oxbridge-proper.
But the regulatory environment proved far trickier to navigate than Grayling may have expected.
Initially, NCH taught University of London degrees. Then, in 2015, it negotiated a deal to offer degrees validated by Southampton Solent University, seen as a step towards gaining autonomy.
Speaking at the time, the NCH’s chief executive said that “the only route to university status and degree-awarding powers is via validation, so it was necessary for us to transition from the University of London International Programmes, where validation is not available to us, to a validated degree”.
It’s probably fair to say that degrees awarded by a post-1992 university – however good it may be – was not in the NCH’s original business plan.
One of the eye-catching changes ushered in by the White Paper is the move to allow the “best” alternative providers to wield degree-awarding powers straight away.
This will initially be on a “probationary” basis, with full powers awarded after three years.
But the point is clear: the universities minister, Jo Johnson, wants to strip existing universities of the power to act like bouncers, deciding who should and should not be let in.
This is no surprise. Johnson laid out his thinking very clearly in a speech at Universities UK’s annual conference last year: “The requirement for new providers to seek out a suitable validating body from amongst the pool of incumbents is quite frankly anti-competitive,” he told vice-chancellors. “It’s akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant.”
But is it correct to assume that this high-profile example was at the forefront of Johnson’s mind?
In an interview with Times Higher Education before the publication of the White Paper, I asked Johnson if he was thinking of Grayling’s venture when he formulated the plans
Here’s what he said: “No, not in particular. Validation can still operate as a route for those who want to be validated. But we also want a system whereby the high-quality new entrant can come in under their own brand and offer their own degrees. If a Harvard or a Google or an MIT or an Indian Institute of Technology wants to come and set up and offer their own degrees, we want them to be able to do so. When they can demonstrate they are offering high-quality provision, we want them to be able to do that, so that people in these countries can benefit.”
It was interesting that the examples Johnson used were all prestigious overseas institutions, plus one of the American tech giants (Facebook has been mentioned as another potential “challenger” in coverage elsewhere).
This suggests a level of ambition for the “alternative” segment of the market that goes well beyond some of the more commercially-focused players that we have seen in this space thus far, and may be focused on prestigious institutions with a long track-record as much as on entirely new innovators.
It remains to be seen whether this is a realistic wish-list, though Johnson’s willingness to discuss names publicly does raise the question of whether he has already had discussions with interested parties of this ilk.
But from Grayling’s perspective, there’s something to be said for new start-ups.
Responding to the White Paper, he put it like this: “If you approve of innovation, and you believe it is at least as likely to come from new institutions as incumbents, then it is surely right to lift penalties on the fact of being new.”