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Gated intellectual community for the rich

Philosopher A.C. Grayling’s justification for setting up a super-elite academy charging students £18,000 a year is a wretched example of a thinker who can no longer tell up from down.

Grayling, who is based at London’s Birkbeck College as well as being a fellow of St Anne's College Oxford, has recruited celebrity biologist Richard Dawkins, historians Niall Ferguson and Linda Colley, psychologist Richard Pinker, and geneticist Steve Jones to teach at his new institution.

In a strange example of Orwellian double-speak, Grayling said that the decision to launch the New College for the Humanities “highlights the government’s failure to protect art and humanities and is further proof that its university funding will entrench inequality within higher education”.

Well, there is no doubt that humanities courses are being slashed at universities around the country and that this is increasing inequality. At London Metropolitan university, for example, 557 courses are being cut to around 160. As Cliff Snaith, University and College Union's London Met branch says, this “this is an elitist agenda to cut working class higher education”.

It also has a disproportionate effect on cultural subjects for black and ethnic minority students. And it’s also quite true that in addition to cuts in humanities courses, the quality of education is taking a steep dive, with huge increases in the student-teacher ratio.

If Grayling and his academic bedfellows feel so depressed about cuts to humanities courses, they could always offer to teach them for free, or start an appeal to launch a not-for-profit rival institution. Instead, non-believers like Grayling and Dawkins have found themselves a new god in Mammon.

Grayling and his ilk also intend to milk the public purse for all it is worth. As students and lecturers at Birkbeck College have said, the move to create the elite college enjoys the collusion of the University of London, a publicly-maintained and funded institution.

The furious response to the NCH project may yet derail it. Literary critic Terry Eagleton, leading academics, student and university union leaders are angrily denouncing the plan.

Some have even compared Grayling’s launch to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries which destroyed seats of learning and libraries.

Rod Edmond from the University of Kent refers to Trahison des Clercs (Treason of the Clerics) written in 1927 in which Julien Bender attacked French and German intellectuals for supporting nationalist ideologies. The Common People group has begun an on-line campaign to persuade Dawkins to “politely decline the invitation to take up his post”.

As a private institution, New College will charge double the current £9,000 per year statutorily-capped student fees. For a whopping £54,000 three-year course students are being promised a better than 10-1 student-teacher ratio and 12-13 hours contact with teachers each week.

Grayling and his backers, who include Charles Watson, chair of the City PR firm Financial Dynamics, have raised up to £10 million to fund the college. CEO Jeremy Gibbs’ job titles gives a flavour of things – he is also deputy chairman at Scientific Digital Imaging PLC and Director at Cambridge Venture Management.

But the move signifies more. Grayling has jumped ship from the largely state-sponsored model of education that has prevailed since the Red Brick universities were set up in the post World War II era along-side the National Health Service and the welfare state.

The marketisation of education, first under New Labour and now under the ConDem Coalition, included more and more reliance on the private sector plus the introduction of tuition fees. What Grayling and his supporters are saying is – the private-public partnership model has failed. They propose unashamedly a “gated intellectual community for the rich”, as one lecturer from Kingston University put it.

Grayling’s move from liberal humanist to open elitist is a loud and clear warning. The welfare state model is well and truly shattered, first by globalisation and now by spending cuts. This is the source of a deep crisis in humanist-liberal thought that Grayling and Dawkins manifest.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
7 June 2011

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Your Say

Tim says:

I wasn't aware of this particular initiative. It is an amazing shift from my days of courses which were MSC TOPS grants fully funded with expenses and payment of rent and mortgage! That's what they call progress I suppose.

Alpesh says:

What's shocking is that the University of London is supporting this venture.

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