AC Grayling’s Private University is Odious


A group of well-known academics are setting up a private college in London which will charge students £18,000 a year in tuition fees. There will, as usual, be scholarships for the deserving poor. As a kind of Oxbridge by the Thames, the New College of the Humanities will offer students weekly one-on-one tutorials. For that kind of money, I would demand a team of live-in, round-the-clock tutors, ready to fill me in about Renaissance art or logical positivism at the snap of a finger. I would also expect them to iron my socks and polish my boots.

There will, however, be teaching from 14 "star" professors as well, including Linda Colley, Christopher Ricks, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson and David Cannadine. Somehow it's hard to imagine these guys rolling in at 9am and teaching for 12 to 15 hours a week, which is what you do in the real Oxbridge. Prospective students should talk to these professors' travel agents and insist on obtaining photocopies of their diaries. Students can, however, be fairly relaxed about the prospect of being kicked out. It would be like JK Rowling being kicked out by her publishers.

The master of the college will be public sage and identikit Islington Man, AC Grayling. Many observers, he comments, will be surprised to see a group of "almost pinko" academics pitching in to the project. If Dawkins, Colley, Ricks and Ferguson are pinko, I'm a deep shade of indigo. Anyway, why should anyone be surprised at the prospect of academics signing on for a cushy job at 25% more than the average university salary, with shares in the enterprise to boot?

What would prevent most of us from doing so is the nausea which wells to the throat at the thought of this disgustingly elitist outfit. British universities, plundered of resources by the bankers and financiers they educated, are not best served by a 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. Grayling and his friends are taking advantage of a crumbling university system to rake off money from the rich. As such, they are betraying all those academics who have been fighting the cuts for the sake of their students.

If a system of US-type private liberal arts colleges like this one gains ground in Britain, the result will be to relegate an already impoverished state university system to second-class status. So far, British society has held the view that the education of doctors, teachers, social workers and so on is too momentous a matter to be left to the vagaries of the profit motive. This is why though there are already one or two private universities in the country, nobody has a clue where they are. This new college, however, could be the thin end of an ugly wedge. Why should Grayling, Dawkins and their chums care about that, though, when they will be drawing down mega-salaries for what is reported to be an extremely modest amount of lecturing?

In the US, getting yourself a decent education depends in part on the whims of the well-heeled. It is they who decide whether to obtain their tax breaks by donating a new theatre or lab to your college, or whether to find some more devious way of avoiding the inland revenue. This new venture in Bloomsbury is said to be backed by multimillion pound funding from private investors. While the Graylings and Colleys spout on in the classrooms about humane values, they are in the pay of those who would not recognise such things if they were to move into their living rooms.

This piece of the so-called private sector will actually be parasitic on the public one, rather like surgeons who use public facilities for private operations. The college's degrees will be awarded by the University of London, which ought to know better than to collude in an enterprise which could result in seeing its professors poached by those with the biggest bank balances. London Uni will share its libraries and other facilities too, thus ensuring that its own students are forced to share resources with those who have bought their way in.

Grayling and his colleagues, good liberals all except for the flag-waving Ferguson, are naturally committed to the ideal of following the argument wherever it leads. The only problem is that under these circumstances it leads straight to the bank. If education is to be treated as a commodity, then we should stop pussyfooting around. I already ask my students at the start of a session whether they can afford my £50 insights into Wuthering Heights, or whether they will settle for a few mediocre ideas at £10 a piece.

The new college, staffed as it is by such notable liberals, will of course be open to all viewpoints. Well, sort of. One takes it there will not be a theology department. It is reasonable to suppose that Tariq Ali will not be appointed professor of politics. The teaching of history, if the work of Dawkins and Grayling is anything to judge by, will be of a distinctly Whiggish kind. Grayling peddles a Just So version of English history, breathtaking in its crudity and complacency, in which freedom has been on the rise for centuries and has only recently run into trouble. Dawkins touts a simple-minded, off-the-peg version of Enlightenment in which people in the west have all been getting nicer and nicer, and would have ended up as civilised as an Oxford high table were it not for a nasty bunch of religious fundamentalists. Who would pay £18,000 a year to listen to this outdated Victorian rationalism when they could buy themselves a second-hand copy of John Stuart Mill?

To mention Mill in the same breath as Grayling, however, is to do a great liberal a grave disservice. Mill refused to allow his passion for freedom to blind him to gross inequality. By contrast Grayling is the kind of liberal who is prepared to let equality go hang. Freedom from state intervention for him means freedom to charge students sky high fees. If this catches on, the current crisis in universities will escalate into educational apartheid of the kind that we already have at secondary school level. There will be a number of private unis where students are assigned fags and expect to stroll into the Foreign Office with a third-class degree, and a lot of other places which cannot afford to paint the walls. Just when the real Oxford and Cambridge have been dragging themselves inch by inch into the modern democratic world, an ultra-Oxbridge is being proposed which will probably have an even lower intake of working class students than Cambridge did when I was there in the 1960s. Grayling's scheme is odious.

  

Leave a comment