The Gay Hussar is a Soho haunt so synonymous with left-wing politics that it has on the wall a newspaper front page trumpeting Labour’s 1945 general election victory. As such, it might not seem the most auspicious place to defend a private institution touted as a rival to Oxbridge and charging undergraduates tuition fees of £18,000 a year.
But this was where Anthony Grayling, former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, took on critics of his New College of the Humanities - with ample back-up from sympathisers.
The event on 14 June - organised by Times Higher Education and The New York Review of Books - saw 14 intellectual heavyweights representing universities and schools squashed into an upstairs dining room to hear what Professor Grayling had to say over goulash and a couple of glasses of wine.
The college, which is set to welcome its first students in September, has made offers to 91 out of some 350 applicants - “the intake of a modest or small Oxford or Cambridge college”, Professor Grayling said.
Just 29 per cent of the entrants are from state schools, and almost half of these hail from grammar schools. However, the college has made a big noise about its financial assistance programme: seven students will pay no fees, and 37 will pay a discounted rate of £7,200 a year.
Providing a “very demanding” broad-based liberal-arts education is the college’s aim. Students will get an off-the-peg University of London degree, but will have to study 20 modules rather than the minimum 12. They will also receive weekly one-on-one Oxbridge-style tutorials.
“We want to pimp their ride,” Professor Grayling said, referring to the improved experience he believes undergraduates will receive. By completion, students should be “dazzling and ready to go”, he added.
He said that as well as first-time undergraduates, the institution would also take in a “small number” of “refugees” from Russell Group universities who were “very dissatisfied” with the amount and quality of teaching they had received at their former institutions.
Access is the issue that has earned the college some of the fiercest criticism. This became more acute after the government made clear that the college’s students would not be allowed to access support from the Student Loans Company to pay the £18,000 fees or receive maintenance grants.
Professor Grayling insisted that the college had not expected such government support or to win the ability to sponsor international students, which it has also been denied. The institution already has a “substantial” endowment to help students with living costs, he said.
Having heard the college denounced as “parasitic”, “exploitative” and “an institution for the very rich” since its launch last year, Professor Grayling confessed that he had been surprised that “a very small, very ambitious” college had attracted so much vitriol.
“We see ourselves as taking nothing whatever from anybody,” he said.
Ronald Dworkin, professor of philosophy and of law at New York University as well as a lecturer at the New College of the Humanities, explained that he had received many “disobliging” emails castigating him for his involvement in what they deemed to be a “fascist, capitalist institution”.
The sense that Professor Grayling was playing in front of a home crowd grew when Vernon Bogdanor, research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History at King’s College London, attacked the “pathology of the British liberal Left” that had been so hostile to the venture.
“The assumption always is [that] competition drives down standards rather than driving up standards” - which is “utterly absurd”, he said. “I can’t understand it.”
But encircled by the college’s supporters, Thomas Docherty, professor of English at the University of Warwick, fought back.
“I don’t see why you [Professor Grayling] could not argue for this kind of thing [a broad liberal-arts education] in the system as it stands at the moment,” he said.
By working from outside the system as a private institution, the college was “complicit” in the government’s agenda, he added.
Competition creates “a reduction in choice which produces conformity”, Professor Docherty argued. It was an “easy caricature” that before tuition fees were introduced in 1998, all academics lived “port-swilling Brideshead Revisited” lives with no incentive to work hard, he said.
Sir Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times, renewed the attack on the college’s opponents.
He said that at The Guardian, where he is a columnist, he had sat as a “cuckoo in the nest” at editorial meetings and observed that reaction to the college had been akin to how an “Eastern European communist party might react to the arrival of an American missile”.
“I’ve been fascinated by Vernon’s problem. What is the psychology of these people? They’re so frightened by this [college]. They actually fear it,” he said.
“These are weak people who have given into the state and are now threatened when the state might in some sense desert them.”
Professor Docherty appeared to be a lone voice against the college until Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford, joined the fray.
“I’ve been really quite struck to see how two of the key advocates of [the college] in this room have proceeded by pathologising on the one hand and psychologising on the other those people who are of a different opinion,” he said.
As Professor Hotson saw it, the argument against the college was one of simple mathematics: “[You] charge £18,000 to three students who can afford it, and…use some of the surplus generated by that to allow someone who can’t [afford it] into [your] elite institution.”
The “net effect” would be “radically to accelerate the already dramatic divide of wealth and opportunity in this country”.
Professor Dworkin replied that “the degree to which the New College [of the Humanities] exacerbates the problem [of inequality] is marginal”, a point seized upon by Professor Docherty as an admission that the college would indeed increase inequality.
This forced Professor Dworkin to put on the “congressional record” that this “marginal” impact would only exist if he accepted Professor Hotson’s premise - which may or may not be true, he said.
Professor Grayling explained that the ultimate aim of the college was to build an endowment big enough to admit students on a needs-blind basis, although this would take “another five, 10, 15 years”.
Asked if the college had a total in mind, Professor Grayling declined to give an exact number but claimed that it had “done the sums”.
“Professor Grayling was asked for his business model…and there was no answer to that question,” Professor Hotson said. “I think we can safely assume that there is no business model.”
The New College of the Humanities founder bristled at the allegation. “If you think I’m going to start talking facts and figures and business models over pudding [“I think I am,” interjected Professor Hotson], you are dreaming,” Professor Grayling responded.
The two were left still hammering out the rights and wrongs of the college as the assorted heavyweights filed out of the restaurant.
The great and the good: for and against
Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history, University of Oxford
“Privatised education is…a mechanism for passing on opportunity from one generation to another rather than spreading it around, and it seems to be part of the basic funding rationale of this institution.”
Shearer West, head of the Humanities Division, University of Oxford
“I don’t actually recognise the Oxford a lot of the people around this room are talking about. It’s a different place than it used to be.”
Ken Gemes, professor of philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London, and a teacher at the New College of the Humanities
“All the debate is about fairness. It’s not that I’m against fairness. But from a foreigner’s perspective, it seems a particularly British obsession.”
Anthony Seldon, master, Wellington College
“[At my daughter’s] very top non-Oxbridge university…the teaching and the quality of the academics was just so second rate. The subjects they wrote books about were just utterly intellectually vapid.”
Geoffrey Robertson QC
“The arts degree there [at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge] is one of the narrowest in the world [and] includes mollycoddling…I would be very happy…to see Oxbridge abolished.”
Anthony Grayling, master, New College of the Humanities
“In a rather perverse way, it’s very flattering to be thought of as a great danger to the higher education system of the country. We’re a very small college.”