New College of Humanities: New Chums on the block…… ?

Frothing at the mouth from bloggers, pundits and others – whether they know what they are talking about or not –  is always amusing, because it tends to lead to polemic at best, ranting at worst.

1.  By a website in writing, dated June 2011, The New College of Humanities (“New Chums” HT to Timothy Pitt-Payne QC) announced their intention to give birth to a “new concept in university-level education. It offers education in excellence and an outstanding academic environment in the heart of London. The College was founded by 14 of the world’s top academics.”

2.  “New Chums” will be financed by a £10 million investment.

(i) “SOME of Britain’s most celebrated academics have secured almost £10m in a private placement to launch a for-profit university that will charge £18,000 a year in tuition fees.”

(ii) “Cavendish Corporate Finance ran the private placing, which attracted investments from individuals and family funds. There are around 30 investors in the venture, including Grayling and most of the academics. The biggest investor is a family trust, which has a 35 per cent stake.” (City AM: New private university in £10m placing )

3. “New Chums” offers – quoted from their website:

  • preparation for a University of London degree, plus the Diploma of New College
  • a staff-student ratio better than 1:10
  • personal attention and one-to-one tutorials
  • richer course content and increased student-staff interaction
  • academic depth combined with practical career skills

Your choice of subjects includes Economics, Law, History, Literature and Philosophy. New College offers the highest-quality education, open to all through scholarships and bursaries.”

These are the basic facts.  Here are a few more ‘facts’:

[a]  The University of London has been providing external degrees – making education accessible to a very wide constituency and demographic – since 1858.   I have been involved in legal education since 1979.  For 12 years I had the pleasure of teaching many thousands of students from all walks of life and from 15 countries worldwide; teaching towards the University of London LLB degree under the auspices of The External Programme.   Our students, in fact, took many of the top London University places and prizes during this period.  The courses were run by Holborn Law Tutors (Now Holborn College), a private company.  We did make a profit – but the fees were not extravagant by today’s standards.

[b] “New Chums” will be providing tuition for the very well regarded London University degrees.  The high fees are a different issue – but there can be no doubting the quality of the degree which the students will receive if they satisfy the demanding examiners.  I express a personal view, from my own experience, that there is only one category of London University degree.  There is, I am still advised, no such thing as an ‘External” degree at London.  The fact that students study online, remotely, or at a private college does not alter the fact that they are awarded a London University degree.  I would also add, that in my opinion, London University degrees are hard and do not appear to have been affected by the ‘degree inflation’ endemic in other parts of our legal education system. It is difficult to get a First  or Upper Second on a London University degree by study outside the traditional University of London Colleges – and, I suspect, within the London colleges, also.


First up… David Allen Green, blogging at his excellent Jack of Kent blog:  AC Grayling’s Folly

Professor AC Grayling, a philosopher, has founded a College to teach the humanities to “gifted” undergraduates.

The college will be situated in Bloomsbury, just by the British Museum. It has already selected a “Professoriate” who will supposedly give over 100 lectures a year, notwithstanding almost all of them are academics at foreign universities.

In my view, almost everything about this College is an affront to the critical thinking and evidence-based approach that such an establishment should promote.

It is, in short, a sham.

I don’t agree with David Allen Green  (DAG) and dissect his propositions, seriatim:

1. First, it is not even a College in any meaningful sense.

DAG suggests that by teaching to a London University degree that “New Chums” is not a college.   This proposition is easy to deflect.  “New Chums” will be run on college lines, as many other universities and colleges are, public or private. This is clear from the website.  We have several private universities/colleges  in the UK:  Buckingham University and BPP University College, to name but two in the field of law. Both are extremely successful and well regarded by many.  DAG goes on to support his proposition that the college is not a college by virtue of the students paying £18,000 at “New Chums” when they could get the same degree for much less (£1000-£2000)  I fail to see how this logic makes “New Chums” any less of a college than others.  The teaching fee is, I admit, pacy.  I will address this issue below.

2. Who will these “gifted” students be taught by?

DAG notes that students may well not get much ‘face time’ from the ‘professoriate’ and puts the boot in with a subtle, undermining, side comment..“In law, the two listed professors are not even authorities in any of the seven core LLB courses.”

Given the fairly substantial funding (I return to this later) and the reputation of the ‘founders’, I have no doubt at all that “New Chums” will be able to attract first class teachers on a part-time or full-time basis from some of our top universities.  I had no difficulty at all attracting first rate academics and practitioners in 25 years of running the academic side at Holborn and then, in the 1990s, at BPP  Law School.  In fact, 35+ current members of the Bar who are now practising Silks (QCs) taught at Holborn and/or BPP when they were younger. I also enjoyed the pleasure of working with some superb academic lawyers from leading universities who taught part-time at my colleges.  Professor Ewan Mckendrick –  a major player in the field of Contract law, now of Oxford, to name but one.   I would argue that the second proposition, therefore, may be dispensed with.  “New Chums” will be able to attract good teaching staff.

I have never taken the view that the presence of ‘stellar professors’ is essential to the success of a law (or other degree) school if the teaching staff know what they are doing and have the right skills and qualifications (and enthusiasm).  I suspect that the ‘stellar professors’ will make a good contribution but are unlikely to be right at the heart of day to day teaching and liaison with their students.

3. And what does it mean to be “gifted”?

DAG puts the proposition that being ‘gifted’ may merely involve the ability to pay the substantial fees.  I suspect that “New Chums” will exercise fairly stringent admissions criteria to ensure the quality of cohort.  I would be surprised if they take all who can simply pay. That would not make ‘business sense’ given their philosophical foundation for the ‘model’.  This latter, does not connote support for their philosophy.

DAG then puts the point:  “Almost all the contentions made on the College’s website are misconceived, or do not seem to be substantiated”

My response to this is that they may be ‘misconceived’  in his world view, a view which he is entitled to hold and put forward, but they are all capable of being substantiated. I can’t find much to quarrel with on the “New Chums” website in terms of what they promise and can deliver.  It seems to be fairly well laid out and clear. DAG is correct when he asserts that the students will have to come from a privileged background.  The fees of £18,000 per annum are high.

Let me put this proposition:  A bright student, from a privileged background, can’t get into Oxbridge or other top Russell Group University.  Given the difficulties faced by students from less highly regarded universities in getting a training contract or pupillage, they may well be attracted by getting a first class legal education from “New Chums” and getting a highly regarded London university degree – even if they have to pay through the nose to get it – at no cost to the taxpayer. If they can afford it – and that is a different moralo-ethical issue – why would they go to a less well regarded university where the degree won’t have the currency or regard with employers or Chambers as a University of London degree?

I don’t, for the reasons above, agree that this is AC Grayling’s folly.  I would prefer to see a new college giving very high quality tuition to a wider constituency at a lower price – but I have no real difficulty in saying that this is a venture which is likely to succeed – at no cost to the taxpayer –  but one which will raise many hackles from those, including myself, who prefer education to be provided by the state.  Unfortunately, the state can no longer afford to provide cheap education but that fact should not, of itself, prevent private investors coming into the market.

Professor Grayling, his ‘professoriate’ and their investors may make a complete hash of it. They may not.  I suspect that £10 million will not be enough.  The burn rate will be ‘stellar’.  Finally, I doubt, given my own experience in legal education over thirty years, that a law school can be profitable on anything under 250-300 students at £18,000. I understand that the plan is for the cohort to be rather lower in numbers.   This may not be a wise decision given the very real economics of running law schools  We shall soon see. I suspect the financial and legal press will be watching closely.


AC Grayling’s private university accused of copying syllabuses

This was amusing to read.  The point has been missed.  “New Chums” are not plagiarising.  They are merely publishing the University of London syllabuses they are teaching to.  Other colleges which teach to University of London degrees do exactly the same.

Give AC Grayling’s new college a chance

Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian:  Critics want to tar and feather the New College for the Humanities’ academics, but this experiment may work

Sarah Churchwell’s article is worth a look.

We will be discussing this issue on #WithoutPrejudice this week.  I suspect that it will be a spirited discussion.  The moral issue of private education, the high fees, the perceived ‘elitism’ of “New Chums” is, of course, a very different matter to the raw fact of existence and execution of the project.

David Allen Green asserted:  “In my view, almost everything about this College is an affront to the critical thinking and evidence-based approach that such an establishment should promote. “

As we don’t have any ‘evidence based’ detail upon which, as yet, to assess the approach “New Chums” are going to take in terms of their teaching and encouragement of students to take responsibility for their own learning, or access to any of their teaching materials, I find it difficult to support this proposition and, therefore, for the present, dismiss it as credible criticism. I am unsure, from the text of David Allen Green’s blog post what he means by ‘evidence based’ approach in this context, so I cannot comment on the latter.

I don’t think the case has been proved that this is AC Grayling’s folly – yet.  I am open to persuasion and argument as always.  I have never developed a taste for coming down mountains with tablets of stone.  I am looking forward to developing this topic in discussion with David Allen Green on the morrow in our fortnightly Without Prejudice podcast.  It should be fun – as indeed, should all debate.


You may also like to read Sarah Churchwell’s blog post…

Thoughts on the New College for the Humanities

27 thoughts on “New College of Humanities: New Chums on the block…… ?

  1. Still scratching my head about its “profit making charity” status. Won’t it cost the taxpayer some money by virtue of its charity status?

    How does this differ from the charitable status of public schools like Eton, which so many people want to abolish?

  2. The moment I read about this initiative, I knew it would raise the hackles of David Allen Green. You don’t really need to go beyond the idea of a self-professing elitist institution charging high fees targeting an affluent and privileged customer base. The rest of the objection just look like a smoke screen to me to the real objections.

    As for University of London degrees not having been subject to grade inflation, as the possessor of one of some vintage, I’m glad to hear it. I think my old college has had to move to 4 year courses to maintain standards (albeit I it’s not long part of the London system). There is, possibly, still some hope.

  3. Hi Charon

    Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. These are my initial responses.

    1. First, it is not even a College in any meaningful sense.

    Well, it is not a college of the University of London. They have distanced themselves from the enterprise. Nor does it award its own degrees. And nor does it devise its own syllabuses. And nor deos it have its own campus or facilities, which will be rented (at a commercial rate) from the Univeristy of London.

    Is there an entity which, given all this, can really still call itself a College? I grant you that it calls itself one and that it will charge students for courses and pay teachers. But so can a tutorial agency.

    2. Who will these “gifted” students be taught by?

    Not by the advertised and trumpted “professoriate” in any meaningful way.

    3. And what does it mean to be “gifted”?

    £18,000 per annum for three years for the vast majority of students. There is simply no sesnible defintion of “gifted” which applies in this situation.

    However, we will discuss more fully on “Without Prejudice” tomorrow 🙂

    Very best wishes

  4. An interesting development and I too will look forward to the podcast.

    In practice, assuming they let in foreign students, I don’t suppose they would have too much difficulty getting 300 students at £18K per annum = £5.4m p.a. There are some people who would give their “high teeth” for this degree. Will they have to “over recruit” to allow for students leaving the course?

    Is this in any way a “charity” as the comment from Tigger indicates? I’m not sure that it is.

  5. David

    1. The University of London gave birth to many traditional universities. Many of the red bricks, now with wholly independent status, started off life as ‘Colleges’ of the university of London – doing University of London degrees. They did not have their own degrees.

    2. I suspect that many Colleges in this country do not own their own facilities. They rent them at commercial rates.

    3. The University of London have always maintained a policy of ‘distance’ from colleges teaching to their examinations – although I understand it is now possible to gain some form of ‘recognition’ once a track record is established. I will check this latter)

    4. The concept of a College is more of a state of mind, an attitude, than one of bricks and mortar. Would you say that an online programme run by a traditional university was any less one provided by that university, simply for lack of bricks and mortar?

    I seem to recall that the Open University runs excellent distance learning programmes. In fact, I am doing a podcast with Gary Slapper of the OU on Friday. I shall put your points to him. I rather suspect that the OU rents accommodation around the country when they hold face to face tutorials. I can’t imagine that it would be good economics for them to have so much freehold or leasehold property – much of the time empty.

    5. As to the professoriate: It is unusual for senior professors in universities to have the teaching load of other members of the academic faculty. It is quite common for traditional universities to have ‘visiting professors’. I addressed this issue in the main body of my blog post and do not really need to add to the point more than I have done so?

    6. Oxbridge and top Russell group universities would charge significantly more than £9000 p.a. if permitted to do so. Indeed, for overseas students, the fees charged are far higher. I cannot see Oxbridge et al dispensing with their entrance criteria simply because the fees are high? I suspect that there will be sufficient ‘gifted’ students – in the sense of having high entrance qualifications – to meet “New Chums” entrance standards.

  6. I’m looking forward to the podcast. Not sure I agree with you though on this one, Charon. I can’t help thinking this new “college” is just a misguided vanity project. It’s a distraction really from the main issues surrounding higher education funding – and the need to fund properly a comprehensive system accessible to the widest number of people, although I accept Sarah Churchwell’s point that people need to be prepared to pay for that through taxation. I was pleased to see my old gaff giving two fingers to the government today, even if they haven’t got their house entirely in order themselves.

    Bring on the Rioja Module!

    Good luck with the podcast!

  7. Jon and others.

    I agree… it may well be a vanity project. I’m prepared to see how they fare. I suspect that “New Chums” will do well if they get the numbers right.

    Whether such a venture should be allowed to succeed in modern 21st Century Britain – is, of course, a matter of opinion. There will be many who do not approve. I cannot see this story staying on the ‘political’ agenda for long. The bandwagon will roll on. There are, after all, rather more important issues in our country than a new private college.

  8. Very interesting post – congrats. As I think you know beyond the implications of such high fees on access/diversity, I think the criticisms to be made of NCH are much more subtle than the debate so far has tended to suggest. The point about the UoL syllabus is not that it is plagiarism, but that it is not innovative, for instance. Assessment drives much of education practice in good and bad ways. If they really want to innovate they’ll have to seek degree awarding powers PDQ – but I can see why they started here. It’ll be interesting to see how they fill in the gaps; how other institutions react to their ‘stars’going into competition with themselves; etc.

    On your specific points, I’d like to suggest for the most part senior profs do rather more teaching than 5 hours a year (which is the normal minimum they are looking for from their ‘stars’).

    Not sure what you mean by burn rate (bad debts? failures and withdrawals??)

  9. I did my law degree as a mature student with the Open University having obtained a degree in another subject at a traditional University years earlier. The OU law degree is affiliated to the College of Law, and as students on the OU law degree programme we did go into the Bloomsbury College of Law one Saturday during the course for a specific workshop.

    The Open University course is taught by distance learning with all the reading materials you need sent to you in the post. There is no campus. Face to face tutorials are available once a month but they are optional. The tutorials I went to, as I lived in London when doing my law degree, took place at Regents College and I am sure they simply hired the rooms out to the OU for these tutorials.

    There was, indeed, a difference of approach between my two degrees with one being largely face to face teaching and the other being a distance learning course, but I did not regard the Open University as any less of a University because it was a distance learning course.

  10. Richard – sorry: “Burn Rate’ is a term used VCs and investment banks. It means, in broad terms, the expenditure needed to establish a venture to a point where it goes profitable – and therefore ‘interesting’.

    Underfunding is one of the main reasons t businesses go down. Let us hope that £10 million is enough. VCs tend not to enjoy having to dip into their funds twice.

  11. The OU also provides tutor support by e-mail and telephone, together with online facilities which are second to none, imho. I have two other degrees, studied traditionally with top Russells. Whilst these span a couple of decades and a ready comparison is not straightforward, I would still rate the OU as the best for the quality of its delivery of education.

    The “distance” aspect was never a disadvantage. Not only did it remove the dead-time of chasing down missing materials, and the tedium of sitting through mediocre gang lectures etc., but, by necessity, it demanded the use and development of first rate communication skills both of the univeristy and students.

    At law school, the subsequent mocking of Open University graduates by those from traditionall universities, including those from Oxbridge, certainly did not last long when the Open University graduates consistently took the top grades.

    It seems to me that the hoo-haa over NCH is coming only from one direction, and for only one reason. It is coming from the faux-elitists from Oxbridge and is all about their own self-aggrandisement.

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  13. Charon: David seems to have done a fairly good job here of rebutting your dissection. Few of your further responses to this seem convincing, particularly your use of the OU as an analogy, which is of course a distance-learning institution and hence hardly comparable to the stated aims of the UCH (indeed, it’s more comparable to the UoL International degrees that UCH students could take for £1.5k pa rather than £18k).

    I’d like to take issue, however, with your suggestion that “It is unusual for senior professors in universities to have the teaching load of other members of the academic faculty.” A single example of such a senior professor – who one could even call a telly-don too, since her series on Pompeii – is Mary Beard, who outlined a regular day on her blog a little while ago:

    In my experience studying at Oxbridge as both an undergraduate and postgraduate, this intensive level of involvement in front-line teaching on the part of senior faculty is absolutely the norm there. I daresay many of the staff of UCH will work similarly hard – but it will be at the institutions which employ them to do so full-time, Princeton, Harvard, Oxford and so forth. To suggest the role of the professoriate will be anything like that in an ordinary university is utterly untenable; indeed, were it to be, I’m sure the universities paying Grayling’s 14 full-time might have something to say about it.

  14. Tom – I would agree that many professors do have a fairly heavy teaching load – perhaps not as high as more junior faculty members because of research and other commitments.

    It will be interesting to see how the NCH project fares. I suspect, provided they get the financing and numbers right, it will, in time, build a very credible track record.

    We shall see. There was a time when academe was rather ‘sniffy’ about redbrick universities. Some of those have gone on to establish excellent reputations.

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  17. I can see this working quite nicely as a money-making enterprise, but do wonder what the students will get for their money. Teaching might be better, but what what about the rest of university life? It sounds pretty hopeless to me.

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  19. I’d like to see you address 2 points – if the podcast is not yet recorded:

    There is a Dawkins segment on the Pod Delusion podcast which is worth a listen.

    1 – How the fees divide up. 18k (plus 2k a year ish for the degree) has to cover costs, ultimately profit on the £10m invested, and subsidy to the bursaries.

    The cross-subsidy for bursaries looks like 2-4k alone on the back of my envelope.

    How much do you reckon will be spent on giving an education?
    Grayling/Dawkins have been claiming that it costs £18k to give an “Oxbridge-style” education. I’m not sure where that 18k is coming from, as some of it seems to be going on cross-subsidy or to investors.

    2 – What does DAB as a Skeptic make of the Science Literacy curriculum, and the rest of the diploma?

    (My view, not published yet, and admittedly coloured by my pretty low opinion of Dawkins, is that it’s a “let me teach you what I think” course under the label of science literacy).

    Personally, I wish them luck, and think the anticuts lot have been overdoing it more than slightly. The problem is that many of the critics are politically wedded to an effective state monopoly, and feel betrayed. The other problem is that the protestors are idiots.

    Matt W

  20. [Interest declared: I teach at Cambridge.] New Chums will be competition. Good luck to them. Their success will be good for us and good for education in the UK. But the implication that people like Colley are going to be doing a full job of teaching is not completely convincing; she is a prof at Princeton, who are unlikely to look kindly on her drawing two salaries.

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