Settling back on a chesterfield sofa at the £18,000-a-year New College of the Humanities, Anthony Grayling, the college’s master, reflects on a tumultuous three years.
When the college, situated in a smart Bloomsbury town house in London’s Bedford Square, opened its doors in 2012, Grayling was one of the most controversial figures in academia.
With his band of celebrity friends-turned-guest professors, he was accused of betraying the humanities and ushering in a high-fee, for-profit model that would put elite university education out of reach for the majority of students.
However, with the college’s first students due to graduate this summer, Grayling says that he feels more vindicated than ever in setting up his institution.
That is partly down to the academic performance of NCH’s first cohort, who he says achieve at least one degree classification higher on average than other students taking the University of London International Programmes – the degrees the college offers.
“Our students walk away with all the academic prizes,” he says, adding that several are heading to Oxbridge colleges for postgraduate study this autumn.
“That validates how we pick students and the teaching by my faculty, who are all research active,” he says.
However, despite the blaze of publicity that heralded the college’s opening (it featured on the front page of The Sunday Times), student numbers of about 160 are still well below the 1,000-student body mentioned three years ago. “The 1,000 students was our aim after 10 years,” Grayling points out, saying that student intake will pick up soon as the college is poised to gain the Home Office accreditation it needs to recruit international students.
“The silver lining is that we can iron out any wrinkles in how we approach teaching before we start to grow,” he says.
Nonetheless, Grayling believes that the NCH has received “not a jot of help” from the sector as it sought to navigate a “Byzantine system of obstacles”.
“Higher education is a closed shop and existing universities are not keen on competition,” he says.
“Those who sit on bodies like the Quality Assurance Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England do not make it easy for the new kid on the block,” he adds.
In addition to the college’s success, an impending post-election shake-up of higher education will further justify Grayling’s argument for an £18,000-a-year college, he claims.
“I feel the ground shifting under our feet,” he says, adding that an “earthquake is happening under the landscape of higher education”.
“If the Tories get in, there is a real expectation that fees will rise, while it is almost certain any deficit created by Labour’s plans for £6,000 fees will not be made up,” he predicts.
“Labour’s plans will mean universities cannot make [a deficit] up by taking more students,” he says.
Whichever party – or group of parties – takes office next month, the “funding crisis will speed up the process of universities going independent”, allowing them to charge far higher fees, with the University of Cambridge likely to go first, Grayling predicts.
“They are losing about £70 million on undergraduate teaching a year while having to observe all these restrictions from the Office for Fair Access,” says Grayling, who believes the endowment model at NCH, which has raised £2.5 million so far, is a more effective way to support poorer students.
But would elite universities risk cutting themselves off from public research funding by going private?
That would not happen, argues Grayling, as UK research could not afford to cut itself off from a world-class institution such as Cambridge.
“All sorts of agencies are going to need their research,” he says, adding that “Cambridge is losing money [on teaching] big time” and “it is unsustainable”.
If private institutions were able to access large amounts of public research cash, might the NCH consider submitting itself to the next research excellence framework?
Grayling rules it out, claiming that the REF represents a “Thatcherite, industrialised idea of academic life” and the need to publish constantly is unsuited to promoting humanities scholarship.
“To mimic the sciences is to miss the way that advances are made in the humanities,” he says, adding that he would rather his academics produced a good book “every 50 years” than write endless journal articles that go unread.
“[To] produce three or four publications every four years is to fell forests for no good purpose,” he says.
160 students are studying at the NCH three years after it opened. Its target is 1,000 after 10 years
University of Glasgow
Honorary degrees have been conferred on Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond by the University of Glasgow. Former prime minister Mr Brown, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, was due to receive his honorary degree on 29 April. Former Scottish First Minister Mr Salmond, an alumnus of the University of St Andrews who is hoping to be elected MP in the constituency of Gordon in the general election, received his on 21 April.
University of Manchester
Scientists have discovered a way to make trees grow bigger and faster. Plant scientists at the University of Manchester discovered two genes in poplar trees that, when overexpressed, are able to drive cell division in the trunk at twice the normal rate. If confirmed in the field, the discovery could help meet the demand for biomass from the growing biofuel and industrial biotechnology sectors, as well as help plants cope with climate change.
Bucks New University
An academic has been helping the families of victims of the Germanwings plane disaster who wanted to visit the crash site in the French Alps. Gail Rowntree, course leader of the MA in leadership and management at Bucks New University, travelled to Marseilles to set up and run a family assistance centre in the aftermath of the tragedy, which resulted in 150 people losing their lives.
University of Exeter
Scientists in Cornwall have asked people who visit the coastline in England and Wales to take part in research on the health effects of marine pollution. Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School are working with Surfers Against Sewage, a campaign group, to investigate whether visits to the beach affect people’s health, particularly if they enter the sea. Tougher standards coming into force in 2015 mean that more UK beaches could fail water quality tests.
A “Campus in the City” initiative will close with a “thank you” event to celebrate its success. Lancaster University’s 10-week programme, which aimed to reinforce links with the local community, held 60 events in the city centre, including ones on the impact of the First World War on Lancaster and the well-being of older people. Christopher May, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, said that the events, attended by more than 5,000 people, had “delivered real value to the community”.
International growth and success has earned a university a Queen’s Award for Enterprise. Coventry University will receive the award in recognition of an international programme that draws students from more than 150 different nations and operates teaching programmes abroad for more than 12,000 students at 14 different locations. The award also recognises the “positive contribution” subsidiary company Coventry University Enterprises has made to the institution’s international operations as well as its research programmes, the university said.
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
A university psychiatrist has been named as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. Vikram Patel, professor of international mental health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was described in the list as a “well-being warrior” for his work on how to bring better mental healthcare to low-income communities. He had “spread the simple yet profound idea of mental health for all” said psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen in the magazine.
University of Roehampton
An acclaimed public artwork is to be returned to its original location at the heart of a London university campus. The Watchers – three two-metre high abstract bronze figures by 20th-century sculptor Lynn Chadwick – will be installed at the University of Roehampton later this year, nine years after one of the figures was stolen from the institution’s Wandsworth campus. The missing bronze will be recast and the sculpture placed outside a new hall of residence named after the British artist.