New name, campus and courses – but NCH clings to ‘Oxbridge’ dream

‘Significant change’ at college highlights dwindling of former government aim for ‘challenger institutions’

July 7, 2021
Cambridge University students trying to get into a boat on the River Cam in Cambridge as a metaphor for NCH clings to ‘Oxbridge’ dream
Source: Alamy

The former New College of the Humanities has denied abandoning its original aspiration to provide an “Oxbridge-style” education after applying to rename itself “Northeastern University – London” following its takeover by the US institution, moving campus and reshaping its course offering.

NCH launched in a blaze of publicity in 2012 with a Bloomsbury base, £18,000-a-year fees and a roster of star academics, with ministers tailoring subsequent higher education legislation to boost its chances as a “challenger institution” competing with universities.

After suggestions that the college, formerly owned by its shareholders and founders on a for-profit basis, was struggling to find a financially viable model, Boston-based Northeastern University completed a takeover in 2019. Northeastern was attracted by the prospect of securing UK degree-awarding powers.

Now changes at the institution, founded by philosopher A. C. Grayling, raise questions about whether its experiment merited the political attention it gained and highlight the dwindling of former government aims to bring in new entrants.

The college, now known as NCH at Northeastern, last month applied to the Office for Students for permission to make a further name change: to “Northeastern University – London”.

Meanwhile, NCH is relocating from Bedford Square in Bloomsbury to St Katharine Docks in East London this summer. A spokeswoman said that the institution had “outgrown the capacity” of its current premises.

The college has also started offering apprenticeship programmes and “skills bootcamps”. The spokeswoman said that this would allow it to “provide educational opportunities to a wider range of learners”.

But, asked if the aim to provide “Oxbridge-style” tutorial education had been dropped, she responded with a flat “no”.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said he had found NCH “incredibly frustrating” to deal with during his time in government as an adviser to Conservative former universities minister Lord Willetts.

The institution “wanted to have its cake and eat it…[it] wanted no regulation, but it was desperate to have public funding” via access to Student Loans Company funding, he said. “I never really understood the model. They wanted to be the anti-state university with state funding.”

The college now charges fees capped at the national level of £9,250.

Mr Hillman said that while he was pleased to see NCH continue “in some form” because he was a supporter of diversity in the sector, “they do seem to have changed their direction in a really significant way”.

Large investors appeared to have little interest in investing in English higher education institutions and Boris Johnson’s government was taking a different approach to its Conservative predecessors, he continued.

Rather than “supply-side reform” and bringing “entirely new entrants” into higher education, the current government wants to create “competitive challenge” for universities via further education colleges, Mr Hillman said.

The NCH spokeswoman said that “becoming part of Northeastern University's global network has provided opportunities to further expand our course offerings building upon our inspiration from the liberal arts and founding principle to foster interdisciplinary learning and research”.

Professor Grayling said that the move to East London “creates the opportunity for the college to evolve and grow, diversify our portfolio of degree programmes, strengthen our links with Northeastern University, and also to develop relationships within our local community in order to widen participation, which the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is keen to support”.

“The move will also facilitate the college’s establishment of its own, unique identity as a higher education provider that is strongly differentiated from other UK universities,” Professor Grayling said.


Print headline: NCH clings to ‘Oxbridge’ dream

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Reader's comments (2)

NCH seems to have failed in its original ambitions, but most start-ups fail so there's no shame in that. NCH moreover, was a for-profit, and though too many for-profit institutions of HE are squalid, NCH was not that. So, again, no shame there. The regret is that, being a for-profit, NCH couldn't harness the idealism of its staff to carry on through thick and thin. Grayling is one of HE's great PR operators, and I regret he didn't exploit his abilities genuinely to create a third Oxbridge, one run democratically by the academics as a charity. Now, that would have been wonderful!
Leaving aside the slack editing (China link for Northeastern), pejorative framing of this article and snide image used, the way it reflects the mainstream view against private institutions is richly ironic for a private equity group-owned education outlet. I marvelled the other week about how a brand like the Times Higher could produce an amateur-hour podcast of superficial nonsense; now I understand. 'In March 2019, private equity group Inflexion Pvt. Equity Partners LLP acquired Times Higher Education from TPG Capital, becoming THE's fourth owners in 15 years. Following the acquisition by the private equity group, Times Higher Education was carved out as an independent entity from TES Global. The investment was made by Inflexion's dedicated mid-market buyout funds'. The exclusive advisor for the acquisition by Inflexion was Houlihan Lokey, an investment company which has previously assisted several private equity groups acquire for-profit educational organisations. Post-acquisition, Houlihan Lokey noted that the existing Times Higher Education team will work to meet the demand for data and branding products, and look at cross-selling to existing clients'. [source: wikipedia 'Times Higher Education']


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