The 'gold standard' of Grayling is not struck from an Oxbridge mint

New College of the Humanities' pedagogic model has only a passing resemblance to the ancient universities' teaching, argues Julia Horn

September 13, 2012

Credit: Peter Beatty

A.C. Grayling's New College of the Humanities will soon open its doors to its first cohort of students.

In advance publicity, students have been promised "one-to-one tutorials each week", in a move that the media have quickly relabelled "Oxbridge-style tutorials". The college has been attacked from many quarters by those who oppose the principle of private higher education. Yet the claims about one-to-one tutorials, the comparisons with Oxbridge and Grayling's argument that "what's important about a degree is how it is taught and who it is taught by" have barely raised an eyebrow. So, is the college really offering "Oxbridge-style tutorials"?

Its website says: "One-to-one tutorials are becoming a rarity in UK higher education, but they are central to the NCH approach. You will have two one-hour tutorials every week, and half of your tutorials will be one-to-one...We offer one of the best staff-student ratios in the UK and extra contact hours, so you can be sure of personal support for your studies."

I would suggest that students at the college are going to experience something quite different from an Oxbridge-style tutorial system. Grayling's college offers 12 hours of contact time a week including two tutorials. By contrast, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge typically offer low contact hours in the humanities (students' diaries suggest that two to three hours is not abnormal), but with expectations of high levels of independent study in order to produce an essay for each tutorial. This preparation is essential to the Oxbridge humanities tutorial as it is currently practised, because it enables conversation to build on the students' essays. The tutor can take students beyond the point they were able to reach independently and, crucially, the essay acts as a starting point rather than a summary of what the student has learned.

The Oxbridge tutorial is, then - ideally - a rich environment for feedback and for developing ideas in conversation. Without the written essay, it could easily become more like guided study, in which the tutor walks the students through preparatory ideas and they listen, awed by the tutor's knowledge. It is hard to imagine how NCH students could prepare for two tutorials a week alongside another 10 hours of classes without some significant change in pedagogy.

It is also fascinating to note that the college has focused on the one-to-one tutorial in its publicity, calling it "the gold standard" at a time when the numbers of such tutorials given at Oxbridge are, slowly but surely, declining. While there are good economic reasons for this - not least cutting the burden that one-to-one work places on academic time - there are non-economic reasons, too.

For example, when the Oxford University Student Union undertook a review of teaching in 2010, students reported that one-to-one tutorials were "frequently felt to be less satisfying and useful than those involving tutorial partners. Students frequently stated that they enjoyed a tutorial most when other students were present owing to the greater levels of discussion and debate which took place. This style of learning is, by definition, not possible in singleton tutorials." The student union's report concluded that "singleton tutorials" should be reduced. In short, if Grayling's college is imitating Oxbridge, it is not borrowing those aspects most valued by students.

NCH's pedagogic model, then, seems related to Oxbridge tutorials only because, in the eyes of the media, a one-to-one teaching setting equates to the Oxbridge tutorial. Perhaps a better comparison might be the US liberal-arts colleges? There, one-to-one teaching, experimental curricula and a focus on undergraduates are the norm. However, in this respect it seems disappointing that NCH has chosen to follow the University of London syllabus, for however creative the teaching might be, the design of the curriculum and its assessment - mostly exam-based, to enable international participation - will remain in the control of others. Intriguingly, Grayling has called school exams "the distorting tyranny of the exam hamster-wheel", but his views on higher education exams remain unknown.

I, for one, will be watching the opening of the college with interest and waiting to see how its students describe their experiences. I will be fascinated to see how one-to-one teaching dovetails with a relatively high number of contact hours, and what the much publicised "professional programme" offers in comparison with the many career preparation, enterprise or business-oriented courses on offer elsewhere in the sector. I wonder if, in time, the institution will offer its own degree courses and thus truly experiment and provide new forms of undergraduate study in the humanities. Only then, I think, will Grayling be able to be judged on his claim that "what's important about a degree is how it is taught and who it is taught by".

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