Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Thoughts on the New College for the Humanities

As an American who has been an academic in the UK for 12 years, let me see if I’ve got this straight: everyone wants (the right) to attend the best universities that money can buy, but no one wants to pay any money. And when a new college announces that it will charge the rich what it actually costs to attend universities, people are baying for its founders’ blood?

Since the announcement of the proposed New College for the Humanities, Twitter has been awash with righteous indignation expressed with all the depth and complexity afforded by 140 characters and the ease of the retweet, which means you don’t have to do any arguing at all. Academic bloggers have been proposing ‘greylisting’ and boycotting those involved with the project (raising the age-old philosophical conundrum: if you’re boycotted by the unknown will anybody care?). Its founders are accused of being financially motivated, in which case they are stupid: if you want to get rich open an investment bank, not a university.

Take Terry Eagleton’s piece for CiF yesterday: his facile argument was based on a press release, a half-built website, some hasty journalism, a great many unsupported suppositions, and a straw (bogey)man in the shape of the looming spectre of the sinister US education system to terrify us all with the prospect of turning into a country with some of the finest universities—both public and private—in the world.

Eagleton’s argument relies in part upon a gross oversimplification of the US system, which has operated for generations by means of a highly complex mix of private and public funding. The US doesn’t have a two-tier system: it’s more like a 20-tier system. All the tiers charge tuition fees of some kind, and all of them agree to waive varying portions of those fees, for varying reasons and under varying circumstances, while offering and receiving varying subsidies from varying funding bodies; the costs are scaled according to excellence, yes, but also to size, financial need, academic merit, and location, among other factors. Meretricious, isn’t it?

What the US system does have in common with the UK is that most of its state-funded universities are in grave financial difficulty, in part because both nations are populated by those who fervently believe in the principle of universal education and just as fervently object to paying higher taxes or tuition fees.

Nor are the US “private liberal arts colleges” that Eagleton decries (some of which he hasn’t been above working for) the nefarious corporate puppets of his and other similarly cartoonish portraits: they are all funded in great part by voluntary alumni donations from individuals—by no means all billionaires in search of a tax break. Ordinary Americans routinely give back to their universities, when they can, if they choose, because they understand that such educations actually entail huge costs—in both human and material resources. (Anyone who wants to understand the quandaries facing universities on both sides of the Atlantic might better begin with Louis Menand’s surgically precise essay “Debating the Value of College in America” in this week’s New Yorker, rather than Eagleton’s simplistic diatribe.)

There has been an enormous conflation in the coverage of the NCH story among the meanings of "private,” "commercial" and "for-profit." Private universities – just like private secondary schools, such as Eton, Westminster, or St Paul’s - can be publicly inspected, publicly accountable, not-for-profit, but primarily funded by tuition fees. Some people may well feel that the last thing the country needs is more private education on this model, but what Grayling is proposing is hardly revolutionary, or unheard of here. It has been likened to Buckingham, which is just silly: the point about Buckingham, in my understanding (I have no direct knowledge of it, so this is simply hearsay) is that it requires little to no academic qualifications for entry, and simply admits anyone who pays the cash. What Grayling is proposing is not like Buckingham but like Eton: expensive, independent, and high-quality education. People may not like it, but there is a clear and highly functioning model for it in this country.*

And if “private” simply means “independent,” is independence really by definition "odious," in Eagleton’s word—especially in an era when the government is stabbing its own political and economic agenda into the heart of the academy? One of the benefits of such independence is that the government can’t claim the (purchased) right to determine which subjects should be taught, how to teach them, or to set largely useless measurement systems such as the REF (to the tune of wasting about £2 billion of the education budget) or, as in the case of the current government, create incentives in violation of the Haldane Principle for funding bodies to reward those universities that align their research with the government’s “Big Society” initiative. The government’s “public funds” come to universities with enormous strings attached—otherwise known as enough rope to hang ourselves with.

Let’s be clear about one thing: the people selling the study of humanities down the river in this country are not academics like AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins who have devoted their lives to research and education—they are in Whitehall, where it has been agreed on both sides of the political aisle that only the so-called STEM subjects will be publicly funded. The government already plans to withdraw all public funds from the teaching of the humanities and rely solely upon fees-paying students to finance it anyway. So in what way is the NCH the party guilty of “selling out the humanities”? At the very least, it is saying that the study of the humanities is worth paying £18,000 a year for. Terry Eagleton thinks he should get his socks ironed for paying that much money: perhaps that’s because when he got his free education, it was at the expense of thousands of taxpayers in this country who never went to the universities they subsidized him to attend. No wonder he expects to get his boots polished, too.

As far as I can see, the accepted position of principle in the UK today is that every taxpayer should pay to support universities, regardless of whether they or their relatives have ever sought or been granted a university place, in the hopes that they might one day get such a place, or to protect their notional right to access it some day. Meanwhile, as we all know, the reality is that thousands of academically qualified students are currently being denied university places that their families’ taxes have helped pay for.

How is that prima facie a less “odious” system than charging the rich directly to pay for the education they actually receive—especially if (and this is a crucial caveat) that tuition is used to subsidize the educational opportunities of the disadvantaged? How is that less “odious” than the rich receiving a free education and the poor still being boxed out? Rumor has it that the money middle-class parents are currently saving on university fees, after they’ve become accustomed to paying for private schools, is being turned into cash to buy London property, thus further squeezing the poor out of the avenues of access to upward mobility. This “free” education everyone wants has very high costs, but no one wants to admit it.

In 2004 the Times Higher Education Supplement reported a think tank’s finding that it costs £21,000 a year to educate a single Oxford student. Those costs will have risen since—so if its teaching and research are of equivalent quality (again, an important if), the NCH would in fact be offering a discounted rate. Similarly, I am not certain where Eagleton learned that Grayling et al will be “drawing down mega-salaries” from this initiative—all I have seen is that they will be offering academics 25% above the going rate, which currently starts at just over £27,000. By my calculations this means Grayling’s traitors to the cause of education will start with “mega-salaries” of around £34,000. Compare that with GPs, who are being incentivized to manage their own practices, and routinely earn well over £100,000 annually.

Grayling has been quoted saying he intends for NCH to learn from the US model—which doesn’t use fees to enrich shareholders. I have seen no evidence that NCH—a registered charity according to its website—proposes to do so, either. (*NB: This evidence has been shown to me since this writing: see post above.) Let’s also bear in mind that “learning from” a model doesn’t necessarily mean replicating it: it can, and should, mean improving upon it. Grayling has said explicitly that he intends to use the high tuition fees to subsidize the poor and widen access to university study. At present, NCH says 20% of its students will be on financial support, which isn’t nearly enough; when I said so on Twitter, it responded to me that it intends to increase that number, and that it has set up a charitable trust to offer more support. We will need to see just how much support that is. If NCH turns out to be for-profit, or if in practice it admits only the rich and squeezes out the poor, then it will fully deserve condemnation.

But it is also the case that, should NCH only admit the rich, white boys who didn’t get into Oxford and think that’s unfair (if they want to think about injustice, they should consider structural poverty—but then again, they haven’t been admitted to university, so they probably don't know what structural poverty is), there are ways to pressure institutions other than with funding. To wit: if private universities begin to mushroom, the government could refuse accreditation to any university that doesn’t achieve minimum standards of diversity--otherwise known as a minimum standard of decency.

Not that this government has any intention of doing any such thing: their entire agenda has been calculated to create just such institutions as this. Of course they want to privatize universities—but that needn’t be the same thing as commercializing them, and the fact is that there are advantages to independence, as I mentioned above. At the moment, UK universities have the worst of both worlds: all the pressures of fundraising and none of the autonomy to set their own intellectual agenda. In fact, the government rigs the game even more crassly than most people realize, because they cut funds and then limit both student fees and student numbers, and tell us to make up a shortfall. How would we do that, if they won’t give us more money, we can’t charge the students more money, and we can’t admit more students, you ask? Good question. The only way is by getting external funds—of exactly the kind that Grayling is being denounced for having raised. It is what every “public” university in the country is currently scrambling to do anyway. Most universities I know would give their eye-teeth to have venture capital behind them.

There are legitimate questions being asked of NCH about how much teaching its starry professoriate will actually do, and about the apparent lack of diversity among NCH’s big names (as one of my academic friends on Twitter put it, they “look far too male and crusty”; they also look overwhelmingly white). It needs to defend its evident use of the intellectual property of others, including the alleged lifting of syllabi from other institutions. Its relationship to the facilities and infrastructure of publicly funded universities needs to be clarified, and I wish that an institution with aspirations to excellence had given more obvious thought to its curriculum: I’m not convinced by any definition of “Humanities” that doesn’t stretch far enough back to include Classics, or far enough forward to recognize that, for example, “American literature” cannot be apprehended sufficiently in a final-year semester. It will need to clarify the qualifications of its students and the promotion criteria for its staff: what, for example, will the role of research be in Grayling’s brave new world? The importance of funded independent research to the academic excellence of the Ivy Leagues cannot be overstated. Most important, it needs to clarify whether it will in fact just happily accept the children of the rich, and ignore the children of the poor, in which case I will be at the front of the picket line.

None of these questions have yet been answered: nor have we given them a chance to do so. The public outcry over the last few days to the simple announcement of an educational initiative has been characterized by hysteria, inflamed outrage, and reflexive denunciation, and even, Twitter tells me, a protest meeting the other day, which seems a trifle premature, to say the least. What happened to the reasoned consideration of a case on the basis of actual evidence?

Personally, I’m going to wait for such evidence before I draw conclusions. As Mary Beard blogged after the announcement: "I have to confess to some sympathy with this: if there is to be a sustained assault on the humanities, then maybe someone has to get off their ass and take the teaching into their own hands; and if there are to be more and more central demands from central government (many of them tick-box, but still hugely time-consuming), then maybe one simply has to set up a new show outside of all that silliness." She then tweeted that she was going to wait and see, “with reservations.” In the spirit of Professor Beard’s classicism let me just add: Ditto.

Higher education in the UK today is in a parlous state, as no one knows better than those of us who work in it. The NCH is trying something different, and the nation is rushing to judgment. Actually, it is rushing to tar and feather. Maybe what the NCH is doing will indeed prove odious; if they further erode the already fragile state of the study and teaching of the humanities in the UK—and its availability to any able student regardless of financial means—I will oppose them as fiercely as anyone. But shall we learn a bit more about what they’re trying to achieve, and how they propose to achieve it, before we greylist, boycott, or hang them in effigy?

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at UEA. She is also an Ivy-League educated American.

*Since I wrote this piece, on Monday 7 June, further information has been brought to my attention showing that Grayling does indeed intend NCH to be at least partially for-profit. This is a different kettle of fish. I have offered a few quick thoughts and links in the next post, but they are sketchy at best...

Copyright © 2011 Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.


  1. So what does "partially for-profit" mean? Is that like being partially pregnant?

  2. I was fully prepared to read your argument until you took a pointless swipe at Twitter.

  3. @Oliver: I love twitter. But people were using it in an extremely facile way, that was my point. I'm on twitter all the time, for a reason.

  4. @maseebat I've been told by those involved that "NCH is both a company - producing revenues and ploughing part of them back into funding financial aid - AND a charitable trust. So there will be money going to shareholders eventually it seems, but it's not a get-rich-quick scheme." That's what I meant by partially for-profit.

  5. Further to my tweets on this subject, I'd like to take up your remarks on taxation:

    "when [Terry Eagleton] got his free education, it was at the expense of thousands of taxpayers in this country who never went to the universities they subsidized him to attend"


    "the accepted position of principle in the UK today is that every taxpayer should pay to support universities, regardless of whether they or their relatives have ever sought or been granted a university place, in the hopes that they might one day get such a place, or to protect their notional right to access it some day"

    Last time I looked, the percentage of young people entering HE was heading towards 50% (though it may now start to retreat). Ok, so the other 50+% (or at least most of them) will enter the world of work without HE and begin paying income tax. But income tax is spent on all sorts of things (not just Universities) and is (though it's not usually put like this) "means tested" so that higher earners pay a lot more.

    On average, those with a higher education tend to earn more than those without.

    In other words, the worst you could say about a system where university education were to be supported by a greater or lesser extent by taxation, is that this would be slightly unfair to *some* high earners who did not go to university or send their children there. Except that even such people benefit in all kinds of ways from living in a highly educated country.

    Remember, even the much maligned (in this article) Terry Eagleton is a tax payer.

  6. I reckon it's a plot by those godless humanists Grayling, Dawkins & co to train up a cadre of future leaders to infiltrate politics & the media to do their dirty work of spreading atheism and rationality!

  7. "... UK universities have ... none of the autonomy to set their own intellectual agenda." Hardly surprising, that's not their function. I work in a UK university and, like everyone I know in a university anywhere, I am expected by my employer to set and pursue my own intellectual agenda.