Leader: Anthony's Dream School

Recipe for success: take a pinch of existing material, sprinkle a little academic stardust and charge punters £18,000 a year

June 9, 2011

The Browne Review was higher education's watershed moment. It was explicit about raising undergraduate tuition fees and introducing competition into the sector, despite being skimpier than one of Rihanna's outfits and with little research to cover the important bits. It is therefore unsurprising that it is these areas that have attracted the most attention, with postgraduate education being almost entirely overlooked.

Higher fees for home students combined with public funding cuts will undoubtedly leave some postgraduate subjects out of reach for Britons. Even more importantly, this could have a devastating knock-on effect on the whole academy. Nigel Carrington, rector of the University of the Arts London, warns that UK universities could end up educating the workforce of their global competitors while being unable to nurture the next generation of British scholars.

Of course, our public universities could be exploited at home by a new wave of for-profit institutions set to be ushered in by forthcoming government legislation. First off the blocks is the unashamedly elitist, Ivy League-inspired New College of the Humanities, which will offer an intense teaching experience from a line-up of academic superstars.

"We're open to anybody who has talent and ability," it declares on its website - well, anybody who has £18,000 a year to spare. Dubbed by some newspapers as the "new Oxbridge", it will charge the true cost of undergraduate tuition at our two leading universities (although scholarships are on offer), and will replicate their famous one-to-one tutorial system.

Entry requirements will be high, but you can still get in if "we like the cut of someone's jib" (yes, really), says its master, philosopher Anthony Grayling, in a promotional video.

There are still many questions surrounding the enterprise (which, with the founding professoriate's average age at well over 60, appears less like a college and more like a retirement home): for example, how can all those huge egos teach under one roof, and why couldn't they come up with their own course content? The college will use material based on the University of London International Programme (which costs only a few thousand pounds if studied directly) - courses designed by staff at the federal university's constituent institutions. Unsurprisingly, many of them are a little upset to find the material they devised being bought off the shelf, repackaged with a few extra modules, sprinkled with scholarly stardust and sold on at a vastly inflated price.

It is, of course, understandable that when subjects are under threat, academics would want to do something about it, although as Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, has pointed out in her blog, it might have been better if these scholarly superheroes directed their energies at saving the state-funded humanities instead.

Professor Grayling says that the New College of the Humanities is a genuine attempt to replicate the successful US model on these shores, "given that society itself is not going to invest massively" in the academy any more. It is admirable that these brilliant minds are putting their money where their mouth is, but it is a shame that they could not devise anything better than a scheme that would make a second-hand car salesman proud.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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