Friday, 17 June 2011

Private Virtues?

There has been a great deal of fuss in England over the past couple of weeks about proposals by the philosopher A.C. Grayling to set up a private college, the New College for the Humanities, to teach fee paying students and, he maintains, defend the humanities in an age when they are under attack from governments obsessed by economic growth.

The disdain subsequently heaped on the heads of those who originated the scheme has been remarkable. Terry Eagleton, a literary critic and erstwhile Marxist theorist, described the plan as odious. A large portion of academics from Birkbeck college, Grayling’s own institution, wrote to denounce it. The head of Royal Holloway College put out a statement of disapproval about the courses, the head of New College, Oxford, put out another disapproving of the name. A meeting to discuss the idea was disrupted by a miniature riot, complete with smoke-bombs. Arguments in favour have appeared in the Financial Times and from the (conservative) Mayor of London; arguments against primarily in the Guardian.

The locations indicate the political split of the argument: so far it has been along almost classical left/right lines. Grayling (who rather regards himself as a pinko) was clearly taken aback by the response, but then took to the comments pages as well to mount a defence.

His point about the need to protect the humanities, for academics to get back to their knitting and pay attention to students has some considerable merit, of course, although he is scarcely the first to make it.

The humanities have indeed been targetted as economically unproductive; the vital freedoms to research have been undermined; government policy is to force academics into devoting more time to research because of the funding structure, then to criticise them when they do so. Pressure (real and implicit) has been put on research councils to divert money into government approved projects. And the new, complex fee structure based on loans is to be accompanied by a staggering new level of regulation which will extinguish most of the remaining autonomy that universities possess.

There is thus a case to be made that the biggest danger now to academic freedom, and the continued surivival of the humanities, is the government itself, which has switched in the past 30 years from being the acknowledged guardian of intellectual freedom to its greatest and most powerful enemy. Unless the humanities – or a section of them – break the stranglehold somehow, then the prospects will be bleak indeed. Some form of autonomous status does, at least, need to be thought about as a component of any solution -- although universities, of course, are already supposedly private institutions.

So far so good; or at least defensible. Up to this point, Professor Grayling scarcely deserves the intensity of the assault which has greeted his actions. Nonetheless, there are deep flaws in the idea behind NCH, and these seriously compromise the validity of the whole scheme.

From a perfectly reasonable starting point, the arguments rapidly become less appealing. In his Independent article, for example, definitions seem a little loose. Professor Grayling also insists that his critics argue to his strengths, rather than their own, which is rather disingenuous of him. It is only a legitimate plea if he, in turn, is prepared to argue on his critics’ strong ground as well, and this he does not do.

To bolster the case for the new college, two main comparisons have been deployed; one is the example of private American universities, the other Oxford and Cambridge. Both have their problems.

Nobody doubts, of course, the impressive nature of the American private universities. The big seven have been staggeringly successful, and the many private liberal arts colleges also have an exceptionally high reputation. Were NCH to emulate them it could make a significant contribution – although the vast cost, the continued social exclusivity and the consequently unhealthy concentration of resources into a few places (more even than the Oxbridge/the rest divide here) would be hard for the more collectivist British ever to accept.

But NCH is not going to be another Amherst or Williams – even geographically, as a metropolitan bias is likely to impose crippling overheads before it is even off the ground. Most of the American liberal arts colleges are buried deep in the country for a reason: it is cheaper there. NCH will be competing for space in some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. Financially, a small market town in the north of England would have been more sensible – although less chic.

Nor will NCH provide an intellectual community, its own facilities or even its own degree course: it will be teaching bits of the London University external degree syllabus like any tutorial college. Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr do not, I think, download their curricula from the internet, nor do their students pop off to the local state university if they want something to eat.

Rather than being a high-end liberal arts college, NCH as currently set up is a bare-bones profit-making company, and in this sector the record of equivalent organisations in the U.S. has been both dismal and, recently, mired in controversy. NCH has shareholders, investors and all the rest of it, and I know of no example anywhere or at any time when such an organisation has achieved anything of note. Obscuring the distinction between non-profit and for-profit in the general term “private” is not helpful.

Equally, the college has been decidedly vague over what the "profit" bit actually means: is it a merely legal convenience, or are they seriously expecting to extract revenue? The lack of precision here leaves the entire venture open to suspicion as to the ultimate motives. Indeed, in his article in the Guardian, and another in the Independent, Professor Grayling never even mentions the word "profit," let alone deals with the very real issues aroused by a profit-seeking educational company.

The second comparison – to Oxford and Cambridge – is also dubious. This is not entirely Professor Grayling’s fault; he at no time suggested that he was going to try and rival the two universities; that was the gloss put in it by the newspapers. Nonetheless, he did rather bring it on himself by saying the NCH would emulate the experience of the students with the one-to-one tutorial which is the jewel in the crown of the Oxbridge system.

I am doubtful about this aim, not because it is unworthy, but because I think that it misses the entire point about the tutorial system and why it is both so successful -- and so difficult to reproduce anywhere else.

The tutorial system is both expensive and time-consuming. Fellows of Oxford colleges typically teach 12 to 15 hours a week, and in addition give lectures and seminars, so that there is a basic load of around 20 hours teaching, plus marking plus setting exams. They have no secretaries and so do much of the administrative work themselves, and matching up teachers and students individually can take large amounts of time.

On top of that they spend much time in meetings of both college and whatever faculty they belong to, take their turn at college offices (Dean, finance, admissions and so on) and, finally, produce research to satisfy government requirements.

This is an unusually heavy load, and is not significantly better paid than jobs anywhere else in the Higher education sector. It is maintained primarily because of a sense of ownership: fellows are members of the governing body of the college, and are the trustees of their organisation. Even heads of house have very little power in comparison. The decision to work harder than they need is theirs alone, despite the best efforts of government and university to take that power away.

The point is that only an extraordinarily powerful collective spirit can maintain a system which is wearisome and frequently subject to outside attack, and it is this which is likely to be absent from the New College of the Humanities. How could it be otherwise? The grand figures who are the shareholders will not, it appears, be getting down and dirty with undergraduates day after day. The teaching staff equally will have no sense of ownership or control – because they will have neither.

Even junior research fellows in many Oxford colleges are on the governing body with an equal vote to everyone else. Will NCH emulate this egalitarian practice? If it does not, any comparison to the "Oxbridge experience" will be ephemeral window-dressing, and although the documentation is so far hazy, it appears that all effective power will in fact be concentrated into the hands of founders and investors, with little going to the people doing the work.

Professor Grayling suggests that his college will, in the long term, be able to sustain a financially (though not educationally) inefficient teaching system in a structure designed to maximise profit, and also be able to attract teaching staff who will be simultaneously high quality and mere employees.

It may be that some ingredient has not yet been mentioned, but as it stands I do not see how this can work, especially in an organisation with unnecessarily high fixed costs and no endowment. Tutorials are sustained by the underlying structure of the colleges: it will be exceptionally difficult to graft them onto an entirely different format.

This points to a further problem underlying both the outraged response to the proposed college and the bemused failure to understand that response. It was presented, from the start, as a celebrity venture: rather like a fantasy football team, heavy emphasis was placed on the high-profile figures involved. The first thing a visitor to the website sees is a large photograph of Professor Grayling; click a link, and there is another one...

This was a terrible mistake. The English have a profound distrust of such people – celebrity academics, I fear, have not the slightest idea how much they are disliked almost on principle. Much of the new professoriate is based in the U.S., which is even worse, and collectively made the error of assuming the venture would be well-received because of their participation. In fact, it was the main reason for the violence of the reaction.

This may be a national failing, but not taking it into account was very foolish: on its own it guaranteed that the new venture would be perceived as an initiative by a bunch of grandees dismissive of their erstwhile colleagues and ready to profit from their misfortune.

Subsequent reports that some of the partners would only be jetting over from the East Coast to give a couple of lectures every year did not help either: paying £18,000 to be taught in tutorials by the likes of Niall Ferguson is one thing; paying that amount of money to see him a couple of times at the far end of a lecture theatre when you can watch him on the telly for nothing is another.

The founding fathers of NCH, in fact, lack the collective spirit which a venture like this must have if it is to succeed in the long term. Many of them were, at one time, fellows of Oxbridge colleges; nearly all left, often enough because they were not suited to the (very real) constraints on their own liberty that being a tutorial fellow involves.

Equally, they are, for the most part, old men – only Ferguson is under 50, most are over 60, and one is 80. Three decades of feminism has resulted in one woman being involved. There is nothing wrong with the wisdom of age, of course -- indeed, I find it more compelling with every year that passes -- but I doubt they will surprise their students with new ideas. And it does pose the problem of what happens next.

Even if founded with the most honourable intentions, what about their successors? How is that transition to be made? If a shareholder wishes to sell up, what is to stop the institution falling into the hands of people who are seriously keen on the idea of maximising profit? Members of the governing body of an Oxford college are not there, after all, because they buy their seat, and do not expect a return on any investment.

Good will and intentions are rarely, in the long term, a match for money, and he who controls the money, controls the organisation. The idea that academic freedom can be maintained without an overwhelmingly powerful mechanism to limit the influence of outsiders is a naive one – as, indeed, the fate of public universities has demonstrated in the past 30 years.

A simple point illustrates this: several of the leading figures are evangelical atheists, with a highly contemptuous view of religion. How will NCH teach history, which cannot be understood without an extremely sophisticated understanding of the phenomenon? What place, and what guarantees, will there be for any young, untenured, historian with a more nuanced view?

The professoriate presents, in any case, an unusual view of the humanities: a quarter of them are scientists, but there is no-one who has much interest in anything other than the Anglo-Saxon world. There will be a compulsary course on scientific awareness, including evolutionary biology, but, it seems, no art, no languages, only a superficial glance at the classics and ancient history and no literature except for English. Nor, of course, is there to be even an optional module in understanding religion.

If the cultures of France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Spain scarcely exist, the rest of the world is entirely absent. Of the three historians on the board, two write only about England, one writes predominantly on England. The subject convenor is also an English historian.

It may be that a system of checks and balances has been concocted and its profile will become less parochial as it evolves. But it would have been a good idea to highlight this from the beginning, rather than giving the impression that the students would be primarily taught by a bunch of labourers controlled by absentee landlords.

A venture set up by a younger generation of academics, with Grayling et. al discreetly in the background acting as godfathers, might have received a warmer reception, and might have been demonstrably stable institutionally. But it is not a characteristic of many of the founders to shun the limelight.

And that, perhaps, is the final, and greatest, problem with the new venture. Professor Grayling is acting because he considers the battle within the national university system to be over. But for many in that system it has only just started, after a long and shameful delay.

It was the duty of his generation to fight that battle, but it did not. Had serious opposition been mounted 10 or 20 years back then there would have been a very much better chance of success.

But collectively, his generation let it happen, and fell back instead on gaming the system. A few took the opportunity to get as much celebrity as academics can in a culture which cares little for scholarship.

Such people should not now be delivering lectures about saving the humanities: they had their chance to do so, and they blew it. It is time they stood aside. A little more activity when they were in their prime and the humanities might not have needed saving; a little more humility now and the reception given to their proposal could have been radically more favourable.

Indeed, their response is still that of their generation: a world weary belief that nothing, really, can be done. Government policy can never be changed. No effective argument to defend the humanities can be made, and the only thing to be done is to cocoon them in a setting where no defence is needed. You have to adapt to power, not challenge it, for there really is no alternative, as Mrs Thatcher said all along.

It is a fatalistic, and gloomy outlook. And the greatest problem with NCH is that it is a monument to that belief.

-- Iain Pears

Note: it is a pity that the NCH website has already adopted the tendency of businesses to report only good news about themselves. "NCH in the news" does have a somewhat selective account of its media representation -- despite the widespread criticism, not a single link implying any negative reaction has been put up. This is not the best way of establishing your credentials as the defender of open debate.

23rd June: Credit where credit is due; the website now has a much fuller list of news comment, and includes a few of the unfavourable ones.

29th July -- no; they're gone again. Now only neutral or positive comments (or complaints by Professor Grayling at his ill-treatment) appear on the web page.


  1. I sit here as a non-university educated mother of a stateschool educated daughter, just about to leave Oxford,who will carry on to her Masters at Cambridge and the dreams of an accademic career in the Humanities,and despair of her future. I could not agree more with these comments and hope that she will not look back on the last three years as the best in her life,but am very much afaid that she will

  2. I disagree, you are making a lot of hasty generalizations.

    Graying is applying a business model to bring his idea, his vision, into actuality. how would you envision that he should have gone about?

    Ask for donations? Relied on donations ? I think that building the university on a platform of a for profit institution (perhaps under this platform he can cut a lot of other administrative and governmental procedures) was perhaps the most efficient (time/administrative) way to approach the idea.

    Just because it's a for profit institution does not make his motives less noble. I think judging him based on what has been expressed in the media, or what he expresses under the tutelage of the media, is premature.

    He is acting like a business person--philosophers and academics might not take him seriously, but investors are, they are willing not only to put their money into the institution, but to believe that what he "sells" is worth buying.

    To me is more respectable to approche this idea as a business; because there is so much more to loose, so much more to fight against than simply making it into, yet, another non for profit organization. There thousands of them they have very little meaning. Education is free, anyone can learn anything and everything online, at the library, but that does not make it less valuable when you pay for it.

    In the States public universities are not taken seriously, whereas private are. It has nothing to do with the professors, or the students, but people feel that something has more value if they pay for it, is that psychology that Graying is probably applying, I dont know him, nor his intentions, but if i wanted to start my own university and I wanted to be taken seriously I would make students pay to attend it, and I would be also very selective in the students I admitted.

    This is the world in which we live.

  3. The age of those involved does suggest one strategy. In the UK older professors have a hard time finding work and even in the US they get prodded in the direction of being put out to grass. So while they may not like the tutorial system they may view it as better than doing nothing. Realistically though a fair chunk of the 18K if they can find anyone to spend that much will go to paying less senior academics who do most of the donkey work.

  4. A thoughtful analysis, much of which I would concur with. One point of information I would take issue with, though:

    "[Teaching as an Oxford College fellow] is an unusually heavy load, and is not significantly better paid than jobs anywhere else in the Higher education sector."

    I think there is some inaccuracy here, especially in the second part of the statement.

    Concerning the load, it sounds a bit on the high side; my connections in Oxford in the sciences suggest 10 hrs/wk as the maximum for college supervisions. I could believe it is more for arts tutors, though.

    One also has to recall that Oxbridge teach very short (8 wk) terms, and have students in attendance less wks/yr than all the rest of the UK Universities. So the overall teaching load does not necessarily stack up as more than in other places. As a Russell Group science lecturer (with 24 total "teaching weeks" / yr) I do 9 or 10 hrs of tutorial teaching through at least half of the academic year, with lectures and lab classes most weeks to add on top of that.

    It is also not correct to say that there is no extra financial reward for this load if one works at Oxbridge. The Oxbridge salary comes in two parts, one from the Univ and one from the college, and one has to add them together; in addition, many colleges pay (quite generous) accommodation allowances if you do not take the free college accommdation. They also sometimes have other allowances too, or deliver additional 'benefits'. So it would be more accurate to say that Oxbridge lecturers who are college tutorial fellows may do more teaching than in some other places, but they are paid some extra money to support it. When I applied for a job at Oxford some years ago it was clear that were I to be appointed as a lecturer and college fellow my total pay would have increased by something like 20-25%. Of course, Oxford is an exceptionally expensive place to live, so one could argue that the salary reflects that.

    Anyway, it does not disagree with your overall point - with which I would agree - that the Oxbridge tutorial system comes at a cost. It is just that some of this extra cost does actually consist of add-on pay to the staff that give the tutorials. So if Grayling says he will pay "above par salaries" to support this, then in that limited sense he is indeed emulating Oxbridge.

  5. Dr Aust: point taken -- though the 8-week term is now pretty much a convention rather than a reality; there is a all-but compulsary week before term, and another after as well. The allowances, of course, depend on the college -- only half a dozen can afford to make a signficant difference any more, and even these are being whittled away. There are two salaires, but these are calulated so that, together, they closely match the rates for other research universities. Certainly it is hardly penury: but the workload could be lighter without tutorials...

  6. I want to address the Anonymous poster that said public universities are not taken seriously in the United States. First, virtually all my peers and friends throughout life have went to universities like Kent State, Penn State and even where I teach/research/am getting my PhD at SIUC. They have all done fine in their life with respect to jobs and career choices.

    Secondly, the point is lost on their functional benefit. These schools are taken seriously, especially by college students that are first-generation university students from low-income families. In my intro class, I had students that were less than enthusiastic about reading Plato and I've taught a third-year course that had wonderful students. Public universities in the United States face their own challenges, but I'd ask that people being generally informed about something before blasting away at institutions they have no experience dealing with.

  7. One of the misunderstandings many have made in this debate, including one of the Anonymouses above, is that "private" equals "profit-making." Almost all US private universities are non-profit. They are not at all happy about the expanding empire of the for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix, which concentrates on business and computers and which operates almost entirely online. The private universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Amherst, and so on, operate as non-profit charities. Also, it is not at all true that public universities are seen as worse than private ones in the US. Some of the best universities there (Michigan, California, etc.) are public.

    One of the many, many depressing things about this debate is the way it has roused posters on, for example, Comment is Free at the Guardian to trash American universities (classes equivalent to A-level work; multiple choice tests, and so on). Why can't people shut up when they don't know what they're talking about?

    IP, your points, on the other hand, are very well taken. Thank you.

  8. The problem of appropriate comparisons between the US and UK University (which Carbondale Chasmite alludes to above) bedevils a lot of the writing on the topic. This includes writing from people in the system (esp in the UK) who should know better.

    Most people working in the Russell Group (mostly large, mostly big-city, research-intensive) Univs in the UK who have actually thought about it would take the 'appropriate' comparators in the US system as being the big state schools, like Michigan or U of I. The trouble is that, because the public in the UK recognises "Ivy League" as a synonym for 'top of the global pile', people like Univ Vice-Chancellors and Ministers in the UK persist in making daft comparisons between the UK Univs and the Ivy league, and it rubs off on everybody else.

    I would argue that the only UK Univs that are comparable to the Ivy League schools in any way are Oxford and Cambridge, which are (uniquely for British Univs) privately wealthy in terms of endowments. And even Oxbridge are not wealthy on the scale of the Ivy League.

    The other parallel between Oxbridge and the Ivy league is the way that they are seen, with some justification, as 'finishing schools' for those who will go on to rule the country.

  9. To extend the thoughts in the second-last comment: trashing U.S, universities is unfortunately characteristic of European (and that includes British) academics. Not everyone does it, obviously, but it is a trend. As a graduate from downunder now completing a PhD at an Ivy League school, I can honestly say that the attacks are without foundation. More importantly, I have never encountered a U.S. academic who would even think of dismissing European/British scholarship.

    Other than that, a great post as usual Iain!

  10. "To extend the thoughts in the second-last coment: trashing U.S, universities is unfortunately characteristic of European (and that includes British) academics."

    I see no trashing of US universities and SLACS here. On the contrary. Nor, when there are attacks, do critics normally dismiss US scholarship.

  11. I would just like to comment on this particular claim by Anonymous: "In the States public universities are not taken seriously, whereas private are. It has nothing to do with the professors, or the students, but people feel that something has more value if they pay for it..."

    That is entirely unfounded, I am afraid. The bulk of research in the US is actually done in public universities, and some of them are even considered to be on a par with the Ivy Leagues in terms of prestige.

    They also have the task to educate a huge population, a task they do with relative success (but with very wide error bars nonetheless) on a relatively affordable price. However, big public schools in the US are actually quite expensive by European standards, especially if you are an out-of-state student. Furthermore, the tuition costs are skyrocketing in some states due to the increasing budget cuts. In some states like California, the state budget cuts are so steep that the UC system will basically not receive state funding in any significant way anymore, and will be completely dependent on tuition money and overhead from federal grants. In what sense they will continue to be "public universities" in that reality is a completely open question, and some are fearing a strong push for privatization.

  12. The post is astute in noting that much of the reason for the success of Oxbridge is that the colleges are colleges--- in effect, partnerships of the fellows, who, like partners in a business, are their own bosses, do lots of work, and share the benefits. Being for-profit versus non-profit is much less important than governance.

    Tutorials could be cost-effective, I think, if the tutors have no other duties and do not need to do any prep for the tutorial sessions. Just reacting is much easier mentally than lecturing and grading, and perhaps more useful to the students.

    Mr. Grayling would be well-advised to look at the story of Ave Maria Law School in Michigan. This was a non-profit private law school set up by a retired pizza-chain mogul. A devout Roman Catholic, he saw that there was a market niche for a conservative Roman Catholic law school. He attracted a good faculty who believed in that mission altruistically and good students who were willing to sacrifice prestige for it too---all conservative Roman Catholics, of course. But then he wrecked it by an inability to tolerate dissent and by running it as his own toy (which he could do because his donations were still necessary and because of the governance structure). The good faculty left, and good students stopped applying.

  13. To all of the above - would you then recommend students not to apply to the New College of the Humanities?