With the future of higher education in disarray as students and universities alike oppose government plans to raise tuition fees to £9000, a group of the UK’s foremost academics has unveiled plans to open a new ‘super university’ for the humanities.
The institution, to be named the New College of the Humanities, has been set up by leading academics including famous biologist Richard Dawkins and historian Sir David Cannadine. The well-respected philosopher AC Grayling will be the college’s first Master. They, along with other highly successful and well-respected professors, many of whom hold fellowships from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, will teach students themselves, with an emphasis on individual learning and discovery. Only eight courses will be offered at the college, which claims an excellent staff: student ratio will be one of its strongest points. The courses available will fall into the subject areas of law, economics, philosophy, English literature and history.
In addition, students will undertake a New College diploma made up of three “intellectual skills” modules: ‘science literacy’, ‘applied ethics’, and ‘logical and critical thinking’. The academics intend to create a “new model of higher education for the humanities in the UK” and hope it may eventually even rival the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
The price set for tuition at the new college, whose degrees will be ratified by the University of London, has raised some eyebrows, coming in at a whopping £18,000. Many have criticised this move on the part of the private college as they say it will compound the class divide created by the new, higher tuition fees; contributing to a system where the very best teaching available can be bought by the richest few, while poorer students will be forced to stick with cheaper degrees from less respected institutions. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, argued that “it won’t be the brightest but those with the deepest pockets who are afforded the chance”.
The academics responded by pointing out that a generous support scheme would be available for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, with scholarships and exhibition schemes in place “to ensure that finance should not be a barrier to any talented UK student”. However, with only 20% of the first year’s students expected to receive financial support, it seems likely that a privileged majority will form the bulk of the college’s undergraduate cohort.
It is also unclear how a fair and transparent system of applications will be ensured, as the private college will not participate in the usual UCAS admissions system, but will conduct its own intake process, considering each student’s application “individually, personally and on its merits”.
Meanwhile, protesters have argued that the opening of this humanities ‘Super University’ is the first indication of the damage done to arts subjects by the government’s new tuition fees scheme. With students unwilling to embark on £40,000 of debt for a course that is not directly vocational, and universities preparing to axe under-subscribed courses, there are serious concerns that arts and humanities subjects could quickly disappear from higher education, with only the most privileged students able to afford to study them privately at institutions like the New College.
So will the New College of the Humanities present, a new and hugely exciting higher education opportunity for the UK? Most certainly. A fair and unbiased addition to the fiasco that is our university system? Perhaps not.