A hot new topic for gossip in British university common rooms emerged over the weekend of 4/5 June with news of the launch of the “New College of the Humanities” (www.nchum.org), to be located in Bloomsbury, the home of many of the institutions that comprise the University of London.
Two aspects of the proposal grabbed journalists’ attention. One was the grand names that were apparently associated with it: led by the philosopher A.C. Grayling; the cast included biologists Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones, historians David Cannadine and Linda Colley (both currently at Princeton), the lawyer Ronald Dworkin, linguist Steven Pinker (at Harvard), and several others. It became quickly apparent, of course, that these famous academics would not actually be involved in the day to day work of the institution, but would look in occasionally to deliver lectures. When contacted by journalists, some seemed rather vague about the nature of the project.
The other striking feature was the level of fees to be charged: £18,000 ($29,000) a year for an undergraduate course – when Oxford and Cambridge, and indeed the great majority of UK universities, will be charging just £9,000 a year in 2012 to EU students. So what will be on offer that will encourage students to pay fees at twice the level charged by two of the best universities in the world?
The initial news reports said that the College would be awarding University of London degrees. What this turned out to mean was that the College would be teaching for what have historically been known as “London external” degrees. This is the system, rooted in one of the honourable aspects of Britain’s imperial past, whereby individuals anywhere in the world can apply to become students of the University of London and study for a syllabus prescribed by it, and eventually sit examinations that are marked in London. How or where the students obtain tuition, or even if they do, is of no interest to the University – its relationship is one of registration and examination with individual students. It is a popular system with students in countries such as India, where many English-speaking students wish to obtain a degree with international currency but cannot afford to study overseas. It is this system that the new College has adopted: its degrees, therefore, will not be its own, and it will need to teach to a prescribed syllabus, not one of its own devising.
It has also run into trouble with New College Oxford, which objects to the use of “New College” in its title. Possibly the North Carolina Humanities Council (www.nchumanities.org) will also have something to say.
The College will be a high-cost institution, located in the centre of one of the most expensive cities in the world – not to mention paying its famous teachers - and without the economies of scale and organisational resilience that its larger academic neighbours possess. The other small institutions in the area are all highly-specialist, with their own niche markets: the new College, by contrast, will be aiming to compete directly with University College London, King’s College, the LSE, and so on.
This is also a bad moment to start an institution relying significantly on recruiting international students. The British government, after years of encouraging universities to recruit more international students, is now reducing the number of visas to be made available to students: this will be a particular difficulty for a start-up, with no track record of successfully managing international student recruitment and progression.
Will the new College work? Presumably its target market will be international students who will be paying higher fees than £9,000 in most UK universities (though nowhere near £18,000 for humanities degrees), but are unable to gain admission to top-tier institutions. Will they be attracted by the big names, who will hardly ever be there? Will they expect the College to have its own degrees, rather than to be teaching for someone else’s? What do they think will be the currency of a London external degree, taught by an institution that no-one has heard of? Those of us who study higher education institutions should be grateful to Professor Grayling and his friends for providing us with a fascinating case study.