Paul Flewers

Porterhouse Bloomsbury?
The New College of the Humanities

Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Author: Mike Jones
Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011.
Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive: by Paul Flewers & David Walters in 2017 & 2018
Copyright: New Interventions & Paul Flewers. Used here with permission.

There has been much disgruntlement across the higher education sector and on the left about the proposal to set up the New College of the Humanities in London. Writing in the Guardian, Terry Eagleton considered the NCH to be a ‘disgustingly élitist outfit’ with its ‘bunch of prima donnas jumping ship and creaming off the bright and loaded’: ‘It is as though a group of medics in a hard-pressed public hospital were to down scalpels and slink off to start a lucrative private clinic.’

Adopting a less splenetic but equally alarmed tone, a group of Birkbeck academics claimed that the NCH is ‘at the vanguard’ of the government’s ‘assault on public education’:

The forthcoming higher education white paper will likely further seek to marketise the sector, launching a race to the bottom with private outfits first leeching off then asset-stripping our publicly-funded universities to offer knockdown education at a profit. Going down that road will deliver a handful of prestigious research universities, which may choose eventually to become private institutions, and a host of cut-price private providers who care little about educational standards. Far from serving to improve quality or defend the humanities, this opportunistic venture will hasten the decline of the reputation for excellence that British universities, as public institutions, have fought so hard to establish.

The NCH is an unusual venture. Opening in 2012 — the year when undergraduate tuition fees across the higher education sector will increase precipitately, mostly to £9000 per annum — and suitably located in Bloomsbury, the traditional heart of London’s intellectual life, it is offering University of London humanities degrees for £18 000 per annum. It is fronted by a team of 14 academics who, if not exactly household names, are reasonably well known to the general public and certainly to those with an interest in history or philosophy. After all, we’ve watched them on the telly and seen their books in Waterstone’s.

And so we have Professors AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson and a gaggle of other luminaries of the world of humanities. These — to quote from the NCH website — ‘distinguished academics of international reputation’ make up the professoriate, and ‘have given their expertise, experience and advice to the founding of NCH’. But what are these big names for? Does the mere fact of an academic having a programme on the BBC or Channel 4 or writing a book that breaks into the popular market somehow make him more qualified to front a new venture in higher education than a more obscure professor who eschews the broad brush of popular history for the intricacies of more specialised areas of study? The Birkbeck academics state that ‘precisely how much teaching they will do remains an open question’. The website promises that ‘they will visit the College to lecture and meet students, and to advise the full-time academic staff on the delivery of the curriculum’. As for those actually doing the teaching, so far on the website we have the grand total of three somewhat less illustrious names.

Apart from offering University of London degrees and ‘the Diploma of New College’ — whatever that is — what do students get for their £18 000 annual fee? The NCH website promises ‘a staff-student ratio better than 1:10’, ‘personal attention and one-to-one tutorials’, ‘richer course content and increased student-staff interaction’, and ‘academic depth combined with practical career skills’. However, having completed an undergraduate degree course in a constituent college of the University of London, I can happily state that I and my fellow students considered that the staff-student ratios, ‘personal attention’, ‘course content’, ‘student-staff interaction’ and ‘academic depth’ were perfectly adequate.

So what is the purpose of the NCH? Although a University of London degree is highly considered around the world, it is not that difficult with the requisite A-level scores to obtain a place on a humanities course in one or another of the university’s colleges, and there are usually a fair number of unfilled places on such courses in the clearing advertisements that appear in the press during the summer. This shortfall in applicants will almost certainly increase in 2012 when tuition fees increase to £9000 per annum. Doing a humanities degree in any of the University of London’s colleges is by no means an easy ride, yet considerable numbers of students manage to obtain upper-second-class degrees every year, and even first-class degrees are not that rare. There is only one conclusion that can be drawn.

Nearly four decades ago, the novelist Tom Sharp wrote Porterhouse Blue, a very amusing novel about a fictional Cambridge college that, amongst its other peculiarities, had an interesting admissions policy. In exchange for a confidential ‘endowment subscription’, lads were admitted who would otherwise not get into a prestigious higher education establishment. And then the wily head porter would, in exchange for a suitable sum, arrange for bright but impecunious research students in other colleges to write their essays and even sit their examinations. By such means the less gifted sons of the élite would be able to brandish the necessary impressive degree certificate in order to ease their entry into the world of national politics, high finance and other such places of wealth and influence.

Now I’m not suggesting for one second that those attending the NCH would feel the need to slip a few quid to needy research students in neighbouring University of London colleges in exchange for a suitably intelligent essay or would dream of indulging in a spot of personation at examination time. I certainly do not believe that NCH academics would ever condone such fraudulent practices. But there are times when fiction can be uncomfortably close to fact. Why, when good A-level results can usually ensure access to a University of London humanities course, should anyone wish to pay £18 000 per year when one can pay one-half of that for exactly the same qualification at one of the university’s perfectly adequate colleges? One is forced to conclude that this new college will effectively be a forcing house for the none-too-bright offspring of well-to-do parents.

There are a lot of unpleasant things happening in the world of higher education, most notably the drastic reduction of state funding of universities and the resulting cuts in jobs, courses and provisions and massive increases in tuition fees. The New College of the Humanities is an unwelcome newcomer on the scene, and nobody concerned about the future of higher education can look at it without feeling considerable disquiet. I can understand the fears and concerns of those who have protested. But altogether I feel that it is not the dire threat to higher education that so many have deemed it to be. My prediction is that all it will attract, apart from the few lucky enough to win a scholarship covering their tuition fees, will be well-heeled mediocrities, those not only unable to obtain the requisite A-level grades to enter Oxford or Cambridge, but also unable to get a place at one of the University of London’s colleges. And it will remain to be seen whether the college, with all its academic prowess and generous student facilities, will be able to transform such also-rans into students with sufficient intellectual abilities to complete successfully the vigorous process of a University of London humanities course. Its future as a successful college of higher education is by no means guaranteed.



Last updated on 9 January 2018