So, what are we to make of London’s new private ‘college of higher education’, New College of the Humanities, awarding University of London degrees and charging fees of £18,ooo p.a. for one-on-one access to an all-star lineup of well-known academics (including A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer, Steven Pinker and Ronald Dworkin)?
(If this is the first you’ve heard of this venture, then you can get more info from The Guardian, BBC News, Nina Power’s blog, Infinite ThØught [for an angrier and more partial account, with more investigative probing and info on upcoming protests and boycotts], or Brian Leiter’s Leiter Reports [for a sympathetic account, especially in his responses to comments].)
A. C. Grayling, ‘master’ of the college, proclaims New College ‘the most exciting innovation in Higher Education in a generation’ (here). Certainly there are aspects of the college’s programme which are innovative (at least from a British perspective), namely the emphasis on a broader spread of subjects, with core courses on ‘science literacy’, logic, applied ethics, finance and business. While Badiou has rightly taught us to be wary of the ubiquity of ‘applied ethics’ – especially in such a liberal and corporate context – and finance and business are bound to be taught in a less than critical, if not thoroughly pious, manner, a familiarity with the latter can’t help but be of use in our age of homo economicus. A basic grounding in the natural sciences and formal logic too is useful to anyone. (I only wish I was better equipped in these areas, as no doubt do many of us working in the humanities who’ve found the specialised character of our education a hindrance to accessing bodies of knowledge outside the remit of our particular disciplines.)
However, while this programme has its appeal, we have to see New College for what it is: another step on the road to privatisation, deregulation and corporatisation, i.e. neoliberalisation, of higher education in the UK. One might have thought it hardly possible for British universities to take yet another step down the road of neoliberalisation – Haven’t we reached some point of absurd, self-caricaturing extremity in this regard already? – but apparently this is a process without end. (Or at least, by the time the end is reached, there’ll be nobody left able to conceptualise anything any different such as to be able to recognise the move to total neoliberalisation as having been a process at all.)
While New College claims (here) to be ‘open to anyone who has talent and ability’, ‘from any background’, what this translates to (if The Guardian is to be believed) is the college’s offering ‘some scholarships, with assisted places being granted to one in five of the first 200 students’ (my emphasis). Now to my ears, this hardly sounds like an openness to all. Obviously the college is aiming to be highly selective along ‘meritocratic’ lines (and this brings with it its open problems for those of us concerned with inequalities in the availability of higher education and with the role of education, but we’ll save that for another time…), but its claim not to be selective along socio-economic lines – oh go on then, let’s just say class shall we – is going to need much greater substantiation if it’s going to avoid appearing highly spurious. While there’s much talk of scholarships and the funding possibilities of the New College Trust, the statistics available at present indicate that the majority of students will have to be able to pay the prohibitively high fees charged by the college – a situation which promises to create a student body constituted primarily by the socio-economic elite.
In addition to these concerns regarding the class constitution of the student body of New College, there are concerns regarding the relationship between this private institution and the University of London, which, despite the neoliberalisation of higher education which has been going on for the last thirty years at least, is still a public university. While the very notion of a public university has been so eroded in Britain as to leave little but a hollow resonance of the idea in its realisation, New College contributes to what is perhaps one of the key pernicious developments of the political era into which we’re entering under the present coalition government; namely, the move from covert to explicit privatisation, and with it the attempted elimination of the collective memory of ‘the public sphere’ as a space of communal property, a concept which becomes harder and harder for us to articulate as it rapidly fades from the public political imaginary. That a private institution should be able to make use of the public facilities and degree-awarding powers of the University of London is a sign of the changing tides, and one which is sure to inspire copycat institutions parasitic on other British public universities.
Another point, which is made forcefully by Nina Power, is the lack of demographic diversity of the New College ‘professoriate’. Few but white and male faces will greet you upon consulting the college’s faculty list. Some responsibility for this might be put down to the generation of academics from which the college has sought to recruit – famous and well-respected, hence ageing, academics, relics from an earlier time when academia was, even more than today, the sole reserve of white, upper- and upper middle-class men (a time to which we seem, through governmental reform, wilfully to be returning, like some Ballardian archaeo-psychic regression). However, this can hardly be seen as an excuse, and the sidelining of non-male and non-white researchers is not going to be eased by more self-marketed ‘elite institutions’ reinforcing these trends. The humanities especially, with its claim to critical social awareness, ought to sensitive to these sorts of issues. Certainly an insensitivity to class, gender and race issues smells a little too much of an older conception of the humanities, lingering from an age before the need or the desire had been felt for critical theory; a conception of the humanities as ‘liberalising’ and ‘humanising’, as ‘civilising’ even. These sorts of conceptions have bubbled to the surface all too often of late in response to the call to Justify yourself! that has been aimed at the arts and humanities in the face of massive funding cuts. This isn’t the humanities we need. We need critical humanities or none at all.
‘The humanities’, Grayling informs us in his statement of intent for New College, ‘provide personal enrichment, intellectual training, breadth of vision, and the well-informed, sharply questioning cast of mind needed for success in this complex and competitive world.’ This all sounds lovely, but the problem is this: What value is there in this success, success in this world, according to the standards of the present ideological consensus? Do we want an education in the humanities to be a training ground for the future global elite, preparing them to engage in the sort of tough, complex decision-making that is required of you if you take it upon yourself to make decisions on behalf of vast numbers of people all over the world, a tiny percentage of whom you have some tenuous claim to ‘represent’? Or do we want a critical humanities that helps equip people – not an elite but just people, anyone interested and engaged enough not to take their situation at face value – with ways of thinking that can help them not to respond so readily to the interpellation of the established social formation?
I’m at risk here – and probably I’ve already crossed the line – of idealising the humanities, of endulging a naive and even politically suspect utopianism regarding the humanities and education in general. According to this utopian view, all we need is education. Education for all. I take it as axiomatic that we do indeed require such a universal and egalitarian access to education, but of course this isn’t the whole story. Education isn’t even the whole story when it comes to ‘social mobility’ and the latter itself is little more than a poor ersatz for a real egalitarianism. Nevertheless, if there’s worth in the humanities, it lies in their critical edge, their capacity to expose us to ideas and ways of thinking which challenge us and in this way empower us to challenge others, other powers, other orders and structures.
Can the humanities exist in this form in an institution like New College? I suspect not. What are we left with then? More privatisation, more corporatisation, more neoliberalisation, ever more explicit, ever more intense. The humanities – ‘personal intellectual enrichment’ for the ruling classes. The academic founders of New College may have been hoping to save the integrity of the humanities by playing the neoliberal reformers at their own game, but in the end all they’ve done is drill a few more holes in the sinking ship of public higher education in the UK.
No happy moral to this one then. Please comment with uplifting sentiment if you can muster any.