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Northeastern University in Boston plans to acquire the New College of the Humanities, a London-based institution with 210 students founded by the philosopher A. C. Grayling in 2012.
NCH prides itself on offering an education that melds aspects of the Oxford tutorial system and the American liberal arts college and boasts a roster of superstar visiting professors like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker who give guest lectures. From its start the private institution has been a controversial player in the United Kingdom’s heavily public higher education system, in large part because it is controlled by a for-profit company, Tertiary Education Services Limited.
Pending regulatory approvals, NCH will soon be known as NCH at Northeastern. Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun declined to share the details of the financial terms of the transaction but said the current shareholders will transfer their shares to Northeastern, a large not-for-profit research university with more than 20,000 students.
Northeastern is most well-known for its signature co-op program in which students alternate between full-time work placements and classroom study. NCH at Northeastern would become the sixth campus for Northeastern, which in addition to its main campus in Boston has campuses in Charlotte, N.C.; Seattle; Silicon Valley and Toronto and is in the process of opening one in Vancouver.
“We are building a global university system,” said Aoun. “The whole idea is that this global system will allow the learners to access our education wherever they are and wherever they need it and also allows mobility so the students can start in Boston, move to Silicon Valley, go to Vancouver and London, and in each place they will have a different curriculum and a different experience.”
Aoun said that Northeastern has 600 students in London each year. In an email to Northeastern faculty, administrators and staff, he wrote that the proposed acquisition will “pave the way for Northeastern to become the first U.S. university with a college in its global network that can confer undergraduate and graduate degrees in the U.K.”
However, NCH currently lacks the authority to grant its own degrees, and teaches degrees that are validated by a public university in Southampton, Solent University. Aoun said NCH is in the process for applying for a license to grant its own degrees. “Because they will be part of Northeastern, we will have the authority through them, through NCH, to offer degrees in the U.K.”
“Their application [for degree-granting powers] is very much strengthened, they believe, by this new partnership,” added Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs.
NCH’s executive dean, Martin Smith, declined to comment on the licensing issue, but said the tie-up with Northeastern “fast-forwards us considerably in terms of what we can do. One of the driving factors is the student experience. The ability to be able to travel and to take their degree elsewhere is hugely appealing to our students.”
An announcement from the master of the college, Grayling, says that in addition to the ability to study at multiple Northeastern campuses, NCH also expects its students to have access to Northeastern's career development department, "including internship and career development opportunities with a global network of more than 3,000 graduate employers."
Nick Hillman, the director of the London-based Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the deal is somewhat puzzling from another perspective. “Some people are asking what is in it for Northeastern given the small size of NCH and the fact that it doesn’t have its own degree-awarding powers,” he said.
“It has been struggling as an institution -- and I don’t say that with any relish, because I’m very pleased it exists. I think diversity of institutions is a good thing and we don’t have small specialist liberal arts colleges the way that you do in the U.S., so I’m glad it exists. I don’t want to see it fail, but we’re a bit confused.”
The most recent statement of accounts from the company that controls NCH, Tertiary Education Services, suggests that the college has struggled to meet its recruitment and financial targets, pushing the projected date on which it would become financially self-supporting further into the future. "Whilst student numbers are growing and the college is achieving excellent exam results, the present student numbers are not sufficient to meet all the costs of the college,” the corporate filing says.
The college dropped its U.K. and E.U. student tuition rate in September 2017 to bring it into line with tuition rates for other British universities; at 9,325 pounds (a little more than $12,100), annual tuition is now about half what it was when the college opened in 2012 (its original annual price tag of £18,000, or about $23,400 at today's currency conversion rate, was eye-popping in the British higher education context, attracting many critics who dismissed it as an intellectual playground for the rich).The TES filing says that the company received additional funding in the form of a loan from the college’s largest shareholder and that the shareholder “has confirmed their willingness to provide further funds if necessary to take the College through to break-even which is forecast to be in the financial year 2023/24."
The filing also notes that the directors "have been discussing a transaction with an overseas institution" -- presumably Northeastern -- "that would provide further assurances in terms of ongoing financial support."
"With any start-up organization there’s always going to be challenges, and one of the challenges has been around recruitment," said Martin. "Saying that, though, we’ve doubled the number of our first-year students from where we were in 2015."
Aoun said that NCH was an attractive partner for Northeastern because of the compelling vision of its founder, Grayling.
“He believes that the one-on-one attention to the students and the personalized education is key, hence the one-on-one tutorial; he also believed that it is possible and imperative to build a liberal arts college that has [a focus on] entrepreneurship and is experiential, and this is where we saw a fit with what we’re doing. We saw that this marriage between the two institutions will allow us to put together the best of U.K. education with the best of U.S. education," Aoun said.