New College of the Humanities enrolls its first class of 60 students this fall, but it has already attained notoriety in seeming disproportion to its small size and tender age. The London-based, quasi-for-profit college, which charges £18,000 (about $29,000) per year in tuition and fees, has been criticized as expensive and elitist, and decried as the embodiment of trends toward privatization and commercialization in British higher education.
A.C. Grayling, the master of the college and a philosopher whose more than 20 books  include The Good Book: A Secular Bible, Liberty in the Age of Terror: A Defence of Civil Society and Enlightenment Values, and volumes on Wittgenstein and Descartes, maintains he is as angered by those trends as anyone. But he says that if the government refuses to fund humanities education – it has eliminated all subsidies for teaching in the humanities and social sciences – and if it insists on shifting the burden of paying for college from the tax base to the student, then a new model of higher education is needed. The fee cap for Britain’s public universities has nearly tripled, from £3,375 in 2011-12 to £9,000 this year.
“If we are no longer going to invest as a society in education, and if we are going to ask people who go to college to pay themselves, then we need a model to fund students who can’t pay,” Grayling says. “And I think you’ve got a model in the U.S.: it’s the endowment model” – in which charitable donors subsidize tuition fees for students who can’t pay, while those who can pay do so handsomely. Grayling says that about a third of the students in New College’s initial class are receiving either full scholarships or partial “exhibitions” (which reduce the cost of tuition to £7,200 per year – a rate that is less expensive than the public university maximum).
“What I’m trying to do is to embody a Communist principle,” Grayling says, quoting Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
So says a man who has been accused in the press of profiteering – of, essentially, capitalizing on cuts to the public higher education sector. To unravel this seeming contradiction, one has to look closely at the structure of New College of the Humanities, a not-for-profit institution nested within a for-profit company. Academically, New College seeks to replicate two widely admired models – the American liberal arts college and the Oxford tutorial – while creating a new model entirely of its own.
‘A Very Rich Package’
The American liberal arts model has gained popularity abroad , and Grayling sees it as an antidote to what he describes as early and excessive specialization in the traditional British model of higher education. “I want the breadth,” says Grayling, “but I also want the depth.” The Oxford tutorial model allows for the latter: New College advertises that in a typical week, a student will have a one-on-one tutorial and a small-group tutorial (in groups of two to four students), in addition to four lectures or seminars. Students will have at least 12 contact hours with faculty per week.
The college has recruited a full-time faculty who will teach the courses and tutorials. In addition, Grayling has assembled a group of all-star academics – among them Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, Steven Pinker, and Peter Singer -- to serve as the “professoriate.” These academics -- who maintain their primary teaching and research allegiances elsewhere (at the likes of Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton Universities) -- will give guest lectures. Some will lecture up to 20 times, others once or twice in an academic year. Grayling describes these lectures as “very much the icing on the cake.”
“A week does not go by without two or three of what you might call our distinguished visiting professors giving a lecture or a series of lectures,” Grayling says. “What we want is constant inspiration. We want students to constantly be in contact with minds like that.”
New College lacks governmental authority to award its own degrees. Instead, the institution will be preparing students to sit for exams in order to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics, English, history, law or philosophy through the University of London’s International Programs. The college’s critics have therefore called it a mere high-priced “crammer.” Why pay New College of the Humanities £18,000 per year to study toward a degree that costs between £3,678 and £10,955 – in total – if you enrolled directly through the University of London?
New College’s gambit is that students will pay for a certain “value-added” experience. In addition to studying toward a University of London degree, students will earn a New College of the Humanities diploma (a word that means something quite different than “degree” in England; as Andrew McGettigan, an expert on the country’s higher education system, says, “I can run a book group for ten weeks and give you a diploma.”) The diploma includes four “contextual” courses in a discipline other than the student’s degree subject (a minor, if you will), three core courses -- in logic and critical thinking, science literacy and applied ethics -- and a professional program aimed at cultivating skills such as financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and management. And then of course there are all those guest lectures by the all-star professoriate.
“We expect that when students go to university to study philosophy or literature or whatever it might be that they pick up a variety of critical skills,” Grayling says. “The regime that we’ve set up at my college is we don’t leave that up to chance. We don’t leave that up to osmosis.”
“We think that higher education ought to be a very rich package, so that students are busy, they’re kept very interested, and it’s a very full experience,” he continues.
The college’s critics, however, have described New College as “a gated intellectual community for the rich, out of reach of almost everyone.” (So wrote Sam Raphael , a lecturer in politics and international relations at Kingston University London, in a letter to The Guardian last year.) In an interview, Des Freedman, a reader in communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and coeditor of The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, dismissed New College as a “privileged finishing school for people who can’t make the grade at Oxbridge.”
Underlying the criticism of New College has been skepticism of its financial model. The institution has three parts. The college itself – legally known as New College of the Humanities, Limited -- is not-for-profit: although it is registered as a private limited company, its bylaws stipulate that all income must be used to promote the objectives of the company, and prohibit the distribution of profits to directors except in the form of payments for services, or payments for indemnities, insurance, or interest.
In addition to the college itself, there is a separate charitable trust, which will raise money for the endowment. Finally, the third entity is a profit-making arm – Tertiary Education Services, Limited – that the college will pay to provide its various services, such as personnel, payroll, legal advice, and building maintenance. Crucially, the for-profit entity, Tertiary Education Services, owns the not-for-profit New College. Grayling says the intent is that some of the company’s profits will be donated to the charitable trust, but he didn’t offer specifics percentages in this regard. He also acknowledged that the company's investors will expect a return.
Grayling likens the structure of New College to that of any nonprofit university that has a profit-making center or unit -- a university that derives revenue from a patent obtained by a professor, for example. McGettigan disputes this interpretation in his blog , Critical Education: “Grayling’s claim that he is only doing what the established universities are doing is not true – their subsidiaries may make profits, but any surplus or profit goes up the chain to the charitable teaching institution,” he wrote. “NCH works the other way – the teaching institution is a subsidiary of the profit-distributing company. The money moves in the opposite direction.”
The directors of Tertiary Education Services include the Swiss investors Oliver and Eva Ebstein, multiple venture capitalists, and Grayling himself. The other members of the professoriate are shareholders, although Grayling describes their stake in the company as largely symbolic. Indeed, Simon Blackburn, a member of New College’s professoriate, describes his stake as “pro forma rather than substantial.” As he explains it, “I do not expect to profit from the enterprise beyond drawing a salary for teaching.” Blackburn, a fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge University and half-time research professor in philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will be teaching an eight-session course at New College this year on "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness."
Looking ahead, Grayling hopes to grow the college to 1,000 students within 10 years, including 100 graduate students. He expects that the college will obtain its own degree-granting authority “in due course.” The college also has a regulatory hurdle to clear in order to host foreign students: New College does not have government approval to sponsor students from outside the European Union at this point.
“The thing to do is to prove yourself,” Grayling says. “You’ve got to be able to make a case for what you’re doing; you’ve got to show that the intent is honorable.”
New College of the Humanities’ first fall term begins on Monday.