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AC Grayling’s new university promises celebrity academics, first-class teaching and exorbitant fees. Can it break Oxford’s and Cambridge’s grip?
Grayling has raised £10m from investors to fund his new university (Tom Pilston)
We are in the heart of student Bloomsbury, behind the Grade I-listed facade of AC Grayling’s spanking new and highly controversial university. As he flings open another door in the Georgian townhouse, the nutty professor lets out a squawk. “This will be the master’s office. Mine! Where you come if you’re in trouble,” he calls. Here in Bedford Square — a library book’s throw from the British Museum, and nestling where the Bloomsbury set once chattered —Grayling is about to change the face of higher education in Britain. He lets out a whoop and bounds like a kid in Hamleys down the giant spiral staircase, his grey candyfloss bouffant puffing as he goes.
He runs into a drawing room, painted rich cream, lavishly framed with 18th-century cornice work, grand marble fireplaces and gold chandeliers, and imagines the scene when his students arrive. The lecture halls, where they’ll listen to the evolutionist Richard Dawkins and look on as Niall Ferguson rewrites history; the common rooms beneath the wedge-shaped attic where they will grapple with moral philosophy; the library where they will pore over the classics. The building’s fine Palladian features lend it a gravitas reminiscent of the ancient halls of Oxford. “I like the way it is elegant but modest,” Grayling decides. “Somewhere that invites you in to have a conversation.” He calls to his assistant: “What do the parents think?” She pauses. “They’ve been asking if it will be finished in time.”
NCH’s fees amount to £18,000 a year, twice the maximum charge levied by Oxford, Cambridge and other universities
This week Grayling will welcome around 60 students into his private university, the New College of the Humanities (NCH). Intended to tempt the elite from Oxbridge, it boasts a television-friendly professoriate, among them the Harvard professor of psychology, Steven Pinker; the former Oxford poetry professor Sir Christopher Ricks; the historian Sir David Cannadine; the philosopher Simon Blackburn; and the physicist Lawrence M Krauss (who served on Barack Obama’s science policy committee).
These names, of course, don’t come cheap. NCH’s fees amount to a whopping £18,000 a year, twice the maximum charge levied by Oxford, Cambridge and other universities for British students. No wonder its critics are spitting about its “elitism”.
Since he announced the project in June 2011, the atheist philosopher — famously, the author of a “secular” Bible — has been accused of shameless selling out, sucking up to celebrities and abandoning public education to cash in on tuition fees rising to up to £9,000 a year. Supporters, on the other hand, believe the new college will revitalise the humanities. What’s the truth? For seven months I’ve shadowed Grayling behind the scenes to find out what NCH is really about.
When I first meet Grayling in a temporary college building in Russell Square, he is promising a roomful of sixth-formers that “we’re going to pimp your ride”. Their parents, well turned out in chinos and cashmere, smile politely, and inwardly shudder; it’s NCH’s first open day. Mildly dishevelled, in a crinkled suit, with wild grey hair and round wire-rim glasses that make him look like John Lennon in retirement, he begins: “People are not units and foot soldiers in the economic battle.”
The war Grayling is fighting is about the future of the humanities. He believes in the Aristotelian ideal that “we should educate ourselves in order to make noble use of our leisure time”, while providing skills for life. “The obsolescence-proof thing you can take with you to the future,” he promises his students-to-be, “is an ability to think broadly.”
Grayling was brought up in what is now Zambia, studied at Sussex then Oxford before taking up a professoriate there. Inspired by America’s liberal arts colleges and the work of David Daiches, who gave Sussex University its unique Sixties groove, he tried to persuade Oxford to expand students’ minds by cross-pollinating their studies. The idea was rejected — it was as though Grayling had handed them an acid tab.
“Academics are conservative with a small ‘c’,” Grayling grumbles. “I realised if I couldn’t change things from the inside, I was going to have to do it myself.” In 2005, he cadged £100,000 from the venture capitalist Roy Brown and the financier Peter Hall (a Conservative party donor), and the project was born.
Grayling’s blue-green eyes sparkle as he tempts his audience to picture life at NCH. He talks of students examining their degree subjects through a prism of disciplines, enthused by fresh thinking, supported by small classes, debating ideas one-to-one with tutors, lectured by the greatest thinkers of our time. Dawkins! Pinker! Ferguson! The faces in the room grin enthusiastically. As we hover over sandwiches, 18-year-old Rowan, the smartest-dressed sixth-former I’ve seen, tells me: “I like the fact that names — people I’ve read and like — will be teaching here.”
The celebrity academics are ardent advocates for the college. “NCH is an incredibly exciting new educational opportunity — a college of the humanities where students are literate in the sciences,” says Professor Krauss. “It’s amazing to me that more universities don’t know how essential that is.”
Niall Ferguson, this year’s BBC Reith lecturer, says: “It’s crazy that only Cambridge and Oxford offer the tutorial-based teaching I benefited from. NCH will meet a real demand for additional Oxbridge-style provision.”
Richard Dawkins agrees: “I am very much in love with the one-to-one tutorial system, having benefited from it as an undergraduate at Oxford.” He’s been helping with recruitment, but by the end of December 2011, NCH had made just 28 offers. So Grayling and his team started a campaign to drum up business, travelling to 182 schools across Britain (27% of which were state) and visiting ex-patriate colleges in France, Belgium, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and UAE.
In April, the Grayling roadshow arrived at Pimlico Academy, a revamped, ultra-modern state school in central London that looks as though it came flat-packed from Ikea. This year 94% of its pupils will go to university and three have landed places at Oxbridge. In a box-fresh classroom, 20 kids in sweatshirts slump in plastic chairs, eyeing Grayling curiously.
“The only important question every human must ask himself,” Grayling begins, “is, as Plato suggested, ‘What sort of person should I be?’ ” He is a brilliant orator. The kids start to straighten up. “Humanities invite us to join a conversation that’s been going for hundreds of years,” Grayling cries. “Education is like intellectual money in the bank — it helps you live a richer life.”