Grayling cries freedom

New College is a necessary response to a state-run model that denudes our precious autonomy, argues Frank Furedi

June 16, 2011

The language used by the critics of A.C. Grayling to pathologise his initiative, the New College of the Humanities, is testimony to a profound sense of insecurity and disorientation. In recent days I have heard colleagues use terms such as "disgusting", "parasitic", "exploitative", "hypocritical" and "odious" to describe what is a relatively modest attempt to break out of the one-dimensional and highly centralised state-dominated model of higher education.

Academics who have stood by and grumbled while their universities have become bureaucratised and subject to a philistine policy-driven agenda have come alive to denounce a "repugnant" institution that will "undermine" higher education. At a time when so many academics find it difficult to put forward an effective case for defending the humanities, some denounce New College for charging £18,000 a year for a degree that offers such poor job prospects!

There is a compelling argument for developing a humanities-focused liberal-arts college system of education. Historically, such an education provided students with the cultural and intellectual capital necessary for assuming their role as active citizens. A good liberal-arts education not only exposes undergraduates to the humanities, it also encourages them to take language and science courses. Its focus on the provision of an intellectual legacy helps foster a climate where students take education seriously. For some, this helps to provide the foundation for intellectual independence. At its best, a liberal-arts education compares favourably with the courses offered by the best universities.

Upholding this form of education is particularly relevant today. At a time when the government devalues the humanities and treats higher education as a vehicle for training, any attempt to promote the liberal arts should be welcomed. Universities face powerful pressures to subordinate higher education to a narrow instrumentalist agenda. Given the imperative of centralisation, most universities are unlikely to do anything more than go through the motions of opposing this trend. Many academics feel frustrated because this is not what they signed up for, but feel constrained by the ethos and the managerial imperative that dominates their institutions. In such circumstances, it is essential to think the unthinkable and engage in institutional innovation. Such experimentation in UK higher education is long overdue.

Besides difficult financial issues, British universities also face significant political and policy constraints. The existing government, like previous ones, has adopted a highly interventionist approach that denudes institutional autonomy and independence of any meaning. Public institutions are necessarily accountable to society, but in recent decades even the ethos that dominates university life has become subject to the external influence of policymakers. This is not a minor niggle. The university requires a significant degree of autonomy if it is to provide a hospitable environment for scholarship and scientific research: this is why it is necessary to free it from the policymakers. One important way of creating such an environment is through setting up independent and private universities. What we actually need is a Free University Movement - one that attempts to free higher education from the existing state-run monolithic model.

Unfortunately, the sector has grown comfortable with a regime that spares it of the responsibility to make decisions for itself. Its reaction to New College indicates that a significant section of the academic community dreads institutional innovation: that is why the language used to criticise the initiative has such a moralistic tone. Apparently, the 14 professors involved are "greedy" individuals whose objective is nothing less than the privatisation of higher education. The idea that they could have decided that to improve the quality of education new institutions are needed is dismissed as mercenary subterfuge.

Whatever their motives, the founders of New College have initiated a debate that will not be shut down by hysterical moral condemnation. In our hearts, far too many of us know that without greater independence, the promise of our intellectual passion will not be realised.

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