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Furor Over New British College

June 9, 2011

A huge row erupted in Britain this week over plans for a new private college that will charge £18,000 a year (nearly $30,000) for one-to-one Oxbridge-style tutorials and lectures from "celebrity professors."

The New College of the Humanities, launched by Anthony Grayling, former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, aims to ­emu­late the American liberal arts model and counter what he called the "crazy situation" in English higher education.

But within hours of unveiling the institution, which will offer teaching from academic luminaries including Richard Dawkins, Simon Blackburn and Niall Ferguson, the plans were under attack.

Much of the anger surrounded the use of University of London ­Inter­national Programme (ULIP) ­degrees, available to any student around the world for a fraction of the New College price. Many London academics pointed out that they had designed much of the course content. There was also anger that New College was using ULIP course descriptions on its website.

Alongside a barrage of criticism in the mainstream media, the controversy spilled onto Twitter and also led to a frantic editing battle on Wikipedia, when comments about the original source of some New College ­courses were removed. Current London students also ­pro­tested that New College students would be allowed to use publicly funded facilities such as the main University of London ­Senate House Library in ­Bloomsbury.

As the anger grew, Dawkins distanced himself from the launch, while David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, released a statement making clear that Grayling had resigned from his post to lead New College.

Meanwhile, questions were raised about investors in the venture, which will be one-third owned by academics, with much of the rest of the money coming from wealthy individuals, including a manager at a Swiss private equity firm.

Others asked why New College called itself a "university college" when it did not award degrees, and questioned whether accreditation to recruit overseas students had been properly considered. Aldwyn Cooper, principal of ­Regent's College, a private institution, said he was puzzled about who New College --­ which eventually wants 375 students, but no more than a third from overseas ­ -- was ­targeting. "I am not quite sure what the market would be," he said.

And Denise Walker, headteacher of Methwold High School, a state school in Norfolk that hopes to offer ULIP degree courses to local students for a total of £7,500, said she was baffled by New College's plans to charge total fees of £54,000: "We need to find ways to give other people opportunities, rather than the same people the same opportunities."

Grayling defended the use of ULIP degrees, which echoes a model advocated by David Willetts, the universities and science minister. He said the price tag, ­ which will be partly or completely waived for some students, ­ reflected tuition costs, additional core modules in subjects such as applied ethics, and extra training in employment skills. He added: "What's important about a degree is how it is taught and who it is taught by."

At least one well-known academic would deliver a lecture each day of the academic year, he said, although the bulk of teaching would come from other full-time staff.

Grayling said the college had been launched as a private company ­ with a separate charitable trust handling scholarships ­ because setting up a nonprofit charity was too time-consuming. He also insisted that safeguards prevented shareholders of the company, ­ which originally had the trading name "Grayling Hall," ­ from influencing academic matters.

"This is not going to make a lot of people go and live in the Bahamas and be rich," he said, adding that he wanted to emulate the American model, "given that society is not going to invest massively in [the sector] anymore."

 

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