No dark sarcasm (three)

The previous two blogs, then, serve as a prelude to this final blog, which of course must look at the New College of the Humanities and the emergent surrounding discourse.

If I have argued in the previous two blogs that we should not abolish Oxbridge at all, but simply recognise that Oxbridge-centrism leads to misconceptions about higher education in the UK, then I am naturally dubious about an institution that is being mediated as creating ‘a rival to Oxbridge.’

In these days of free enterprise, anyone should be allowed to make money in the way that they see fit, provided, of course, that it is legal (and even then a lot of people still make money – and lots of it – illegally).

Many, if not all, UK universities are currently trying to come up with ways to make more money in the face of government cuts (although they might well be doing this even if there were not government cuts).

These schemes include the development of short courses, diplomas, and various other educational packages in various/many academic disciplines, which typically might create a market out of local potential part-time students, who will pay for a diploma and thus help to fund the university.

It is hard to be enthusiastic about creating more teaching for oneself in an age when one might already feel that one does quite enough already, thank you.

However, the reason that I mention this is that, in their own way, universities are not necessarily charging their students more to keep afloat (since undergraduate fees have been capped at £9,000 for domestic students), but they are coming up with ways of getting money from other, temporary students in order to create some economic stability.

And of course out of a sense of pedagogical altruism.

If this is what is happening widely already in higher education institutions, then, particularly in these market-driven times, it is perhaps only a small leap for higher education institutions to privatise themselves. That is, to free themselves from the burden of having to develop smaller money-making schemes that run constantly for the sake of charging students enough money that the institution can forego entirely its government subsidy, and instead just crack on on its own.

Charging £18,000 a year, this is precisely what the NCHum is doing. Sort of.

The NCHum is an interesting concept. Regardless of the ‘celebrity’ academics that will teach there, presenting obligatory modules on applied ethics, scientific literacy and logic and critical thinking seems a sound idea. Having one-with-one tutorials also, as mentioned in my first blog, has benefits for students. Preparing students for the world of work, another NCHum promise, is also fine. It is not as if other universities do not already try to do this.

There are some gray areas surrounding how the college will run, though, that do give pause for thought.

Firstly, the college will offer degrees from the University of London and it will provide students with access to University of London facilities, such as teaching spaces, libraries and so on.

Since the University of London has acquiesced to this, presumably they feel that this is sound business – a kind of outsourcing of various courses that otherwise it might have been unwieldy to put in place.

However, what this means with regard to which students can have access to which resources and at which times remains to be seen. Will the students at NCHum, as a result of their higher outlaying of money, get preferential treatment over other University of London students when the time inevitably comes that they are after the same resources?

Logistically speaking, I query the university’s claim that ‘all applicants’ will be interviewed. This will be a time-consuming process (and one that Jones in my first blog feels discriminates against those who have not had preparation for the interview, even if I – and Canfor-Dumas and Glancy – feel that this might not necessarily be the case). Given that this will likely be very time-consuming, I wonder if it is really true, then.

Furthermore, although this is a ‘soft’ point to make, it is unlikely that many of the ‘celebrity’ staff members will be doing the nitty gritty of one-with-one tutorials week-in, week-out, meaning that what access one has to the ‘great minds’ teaching at NCHum will be limited at best.

Besides, just because NCHum places 14 high-profile academics in a single, small institution does not mean that those academics are either great teachers, or that other institutions do not have as many, if not more, at least in terms of raw figures, prominent academics across their disciplines.

Indeed, by the time British academics have reached the post of professor, they are all pretty eminent and will undoubtedly have vast swathes of knowledge to pass on, even if their work has not led to TV shows and interviews because it is not ‘sexy.’

Terry Eagleton has argued that the education at NCHum will be not necessarily be as open-minded as all that:

“The new college, staffed as it is by such notable liberals, will of course be open to all viewpoints. Well, sort of. One takes it there will not be a theology department. It is reasonable to suppose that Tariq Ali will not be appointed professor of politics. The teaching of history, if the work of Dawkins and Grayling is anything to judge by, will be of a distinctly Whiggish kind. Grayling peddles a Just So version of English history, breathtaking in its crudity and complacency, in which freedom has been on the rise for centuries and has only recently run into trouble. Dawkins touts a simple-minded, off-the-peg version of Enlightenment in which people in the west have all been getting nicer and nicer, and would have ended up as civilised as an Oxford high table were it not for a nasty bunch of religious fundamentalists. Who would pay £18,000 a year to listen to this outdated Victorian rationalism when they could buy themselves a second-hand copy of John Stuart Mill?”

However, even though I reproduce this paragraph in full, it is not as if many universities do not have departments that are characterised by a loosely unified outlook on the world. Perhaps in an outmoded fashion, but I am thinking of ‘Marxist’ campuses from the 1970s and 1980s, or even today, when many universities might spit, for example, on Milton Friedman so much as hear what he has to say were he to turn up to (let alone be invited for) a guest lecture.

In the same way that I have criticised unthinking Oxbridge-centrism in the previous two posts, there seems to be a vague logic of NCHum-centrism underlying Grayling’s talk of the New College (although he does of course have a new college to try to sell).

A Telegraph article says the following:

“The college claims to offer a ‘new model of higher education for the humanities in the UK’ and will prepare undergraduates for degrees in Law, Economics and humanities subjects including History, Philosophy and English literature.”

Law, economics, history, philosophy and English literature. This is not a list that inspires thoughts of a ‘new model’ of education. It is not, for example, as if NCHum is offering an innovative course in the logic of the digital world – a course that might take in elements from sociology, media, geography, economics, politics, philosophy and history all at the same time (and which might make a good course).

In other words, Grayling seems to be bigging up something as innovative that many universities would call ‘business as usual.’ Indeed, in a witty article in the Standard, some former colleagues at UCL feel that Grayling is not only not offering original courses, but that he has even purloined modules from them.

Furthermore, with 14 celebrity staff members and a small handful of others named on the website, it strikes me that there may not be much choice in modules at NCHum. I’ll return to this below, but even if students get excellent one-with-one tuition on a weekly basis, it strikes me that – at least in these early stages and before the university has had a chance to grow – the model of education here is pretty much a top-down one, as opposed to the bottom-up quest of inspiring to learn that many other universities try to offer.

This may seem a frivolous, or indeed a poor, point to make: “get some discipline in them, that’s what these youngsters need.” But then again, this also suggests that the NCHum already/so far has something loosely approaching a one-size-fits-all ethos that does not necessarily tally at all with, in Grayling’s own words, what it means to be human today.

I note, by the way, that NCHum is not offering film. This is a pity, because with some film expertise, be it in criticism or production, they might well have been able to produce a video for their site that does not cut Grayling off mid-sentence at the end of his introduction to the college.

In the same Telegraph article, Grayling is quoted as saying: “Our ambition is to prepare gifted young people for high-level careers and rich and satisfying lives.”

The use of the word ‘rich’ is almost certainly intended in the sense of ‘diverse’ and ‘full’ – but it also betrays the central ethos behind the institution – and which is my only real beef with it – and that is its commercial-mindedness.

Grayling and his colleagues, being smart people, will no doubt be aware that we are living in times in which ecology plays a major part in our thinking. He will also be aware that while there is plenty of seeming evidence to suggest that we must pay urgent concern to our environment and become better citizens, this discourse is also the product of various processes, including the spread of ideas via the media. Grayling’s colleague, Richard Dawkins, calls them ‘memes.’

It is not that our planet is not in trouble; but Grayling’s appeal to ‘humanity’ bespeaks a sense of opportunism, in terms of how he wields the term, that is timely. It is a canny riding of the meme wave. How can I be so cynical, you might ask?

I am inclined towards this cynical interpretation of his words (that is, I don’t believe him), because this is also a university that is preparing ‘rich’ people, to use Grayling’s other term.

Rich people can be responsibly rich. Just because historically it has been the relentless pursuit of riches that has led to, among other things, colonialism, widespread global poverty, slavery, and war (although this is not how Grayling’s other colleague, Niall Ferguson, reads history), this does not mean that it will not always be so. In fact, to give Ferguson his due, it is hard for us to know whether the world would be any more or less civilised without the ascent of money. But at the very least there is a tension between pursuing humanity and pursuing riches.

Maybe Grayling is indeed hoping to prepare a group of super-enlightened students whose ‘high level careers’ in fact help to bring about the redistribution of wealth and opportunities. But the hierarchy implicit in ‘high level careers’ does not bode well.

I criticised Owen Jones in part one of this blog for seeming to love Oxbridge, while at the same time hating it. His logic seemed to be that you have not proven yourself excellent if you have not been to Oxbridge, perhaps even that only Oxbridge people can be excellent.

And yet, this logic of exceptionalism is something to be guarded against, or wary about: maybe enlightened people are paradoxically exceptional by not succumbing to the logic of exceptionalism. They are perfectly, adequately, perhaps even exceptionally intelligent, but they simply do not want to go to Oxbridge; they perhaps do not want to be bankers or lawyers or management consultants; maybe they want to be park wardens, gardeners, electricians – who knows? Or maybe they simply do not want to go give up on many of the things that they believe in (‘happiness’) in order to do well in the world (or, perhaps more accurately, to be seen to do well in the world).

Once one does well – or is seen to do well – it must be difficult not to believe that one is not doing well. If other people can see that I am doing well – and tell me as much, then I must be doing well, or so the logic goes. It’s not that these people are not doing well, nor that they should believe necessarily that they are not doing well. But I am saying this to propose that I can understand why people ending up believing in their own exceptional nature – be you AC Grayling or one of his students.

The twin forces of luck and fate – luck in that you were in the right place at the right time; fate in that you were the kind of person whose chances of being in the right place at the right time were maximised from birth – get quickly forgotten. It was all the exceptional person’s doing – or so it is to be believed. History is full of great men (sic.).

However, exceptionalism does not tally that easily with humanism – which, at least for me, implies a sense of democracy and the kind of concepts that the French put in their constitution. A ‘new Oxbridge’ based on the logic of exceptionalism takes us away from the logic of humanist togetherness…

The pledge to help students to understand humanity, then, seems to work only for certain humans. This much is affirmed by the price tag of the university, which, as mentioned, is £18,000 per year.

Indeed, while part of me would want to teach at the NCHum, and while part of me would also want to study there, it is the price tag that is the real kicker.

Not because I cannot afford it (although I cannot). But because this college privatises education.

Privatisation is the retreat from the public. More particularly, it is a retreat from the common – the common wealth, the common good. The private wealth, the private good – well, we have had logicians and economists who have argued that these things are in fact the path to the common wealth and the common good.

And it is people (like Milton Friedman) whose private-based policies have led to the increasing rates of disparity in economic wealth that the world has seen accelerate over the last three decades plus.

Privatisation is to embrace solipsism. It is to deny that we are in this world together, and it is to fall for the notion that one is, or must be, exceptional. Exceptions tend not to believe that their exceptional status is illusory; they also tend to forget that it is only thanks to the tacit permission of others that their exceptional status can come into existence in the first place.

Possibly greater levels of privatisation will lead to a common good – because the majority will be able to take no more and will remind those that have that they only do so because of the people who have not (and because the people who have not – sometimes out even of kindness – let them).

With regard to NCHum, then, we might look at a BBC article, which quotes UCU general secretary Sally Hunt as saying the following:

“While many would love the opportunity to be taught by the likes of AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins, at £18,000 a go it seems it won’t be the very brightest but those with the deepest pockets who are afforded the chance. The launch of this college highlights the government’s failure to protect art and humanities and is further proof that its university funding plans will entrench inequality within higher education.”

In other words, the privatisation of higher education, which the creation of the NCHum seems to signal, might well, even in spite of scholarships on offer (i.e. in spite of ‘exceptions’), lead to the acceleration of the creation of a two-tier education system that has as its pre-existing counterparts the private and public sectors of secondary and primary education.

An article from the London Review of Books, already mentioned in one of the previous posts, quotes Jonathan Cole, the former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, as writing that

“in addition to fee inflation, a major contributor to the increased cost of higher education in America stems from the perverse assumption that students are ‘customers’, that the customer is always right, and what he or she demands must be purchased. Money is well-spent on psychological counselling, but the number of offices that focus on student activities, athletics and athletic facilities, summer job placement and outsourced dining services, to say nothing of the dormitory rooms and suites that only the Four Seasons can match, leads to an expansion of administrators and increased cost of administration.”

This is from an article that I read before the announcement of NCHum, and which was arguing that British higher education should not look to the American Ivy League as its model.

In the face of the creation of the NCHum, the students better get their dollar’s worth. But more important is the fact that if one institution will go private, then perhaps others will follow, and only those institutions that can afford all of the above ‘services’ for their ‘customers’ will stand a chance of surviving, which puts in peril the hopes of many students who may find themselves unable to go, or at least put off from going, to university for financial reasons.

The NCHum is seemingly a private institution backed by some London investors. Do these investors get much say in the curriculum? While Grayling says that he wants his students to develop critical thinking, might these backers in fact want the institution to develop a certain kind of brain that will be good for [a certain type of] business as the students graduate into jobs at these self-same firms that sponsor the institution?

A friend who used to work at Lehman Brothers once told me that their HR team did not bother to look at candidates for jobs who have a PhD or equivalent. The reason he gave to me was that, unless the PhD was in maths or economics, the chances are that the candidate would think too independently. Lehmans, allegedly, preferred to hire younger graduates whose minds they could mould according to the Lehman ethos.

Then again, rather than standing as anecdotal evidence for the fact that banks only want a certain ‘type of brain,’ this might explain why Lehmans went bust…

Finally, Howard Hotson in his LRB piece explains that “the American company that owns BPP University College – which David Willetts granted university status only last year – recently lost its appeal in the US Supreme Court after being found guilty of defrauding its shareholders and is under investigation by the US Higher Learning Commission for deceiving students about the career value of its degrees.”

Earlier I explained how there is a system of peer review, external examination and various other mechanisms that mean that universities in the UK have to work together, even if they are also in competition for limited resources.

The privatisation of education (which can also lead – as happens in big pharma and the like – to the production of only a certain type of knowledge, which is based on a particular agenda and ideology – and which does not, in spite of pretenses – have any or much ‘objective’ truth status [what is truth?]) means that institutions can (presumably – although I want to be corrected if I am wrong on this score) ignore the edicts of colleagues from other institutions. They can, as BPP did do, defraud shareholders and, more pertinently, deceive students about the value of their degree.

In the current climate, it is hard to be sure which degrees are ‘value for money,’ not least because so much of that value must rely on the perceptions of the students themselves.

Evidently, the company that owns BPP has also been caught out – so there are mechanisms in place to stop this from happening – in the USA, at least. However, this does only point to the possibility that a lack of transparency via privatisation might inevitably lead to some form of corruption – with higher education being the ultimate loser.

Maybe all I must conclude is that I wish NCHum luck. In the prisoner’s dilemma that is the current state of higher education, you pushed the button to get the bigger reward first, which in some circles is the logical thing to do.

In a world in which we are together, though, and in which the emergence of humanity is tied to the origins of virtue, as much as it is to the (deeply misunderstood?) selfish gene, then humanity is our common wealth – not some of it, but all of it.

If I expressed fear that the real problem with higher education is not Oxbridge but that people who are already rich typically end even richer, then perhaps Oxbridge, and even the NCHum, offer nothing to the rich kids that can afford to study there that life would not offer them anyway (more riches). In this sense, if NCHum takes in rich kids to churn out adults that will get richer, what have they really taught anyone?

Taking in students more democratically – now so hard to do in the age of top-up fees – and encouraging students from all manner of diverse backgrounds to become better humans, more together both in themselves and in the world, to encourage them to learn not just new things, but new ways of learning, new ways of thinking, the likes of which we have not even begun to conceive – this might well be priceless and real value for money.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in Film education, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to No dark sarcasm (three)

  1. This was a fascinating series of posts, I just wanted to flag-up my appreciation.

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