‘Private university’ gets short shrift from media

Jun 6, 2011
Ben Riley-Smith

First reaction: Disdain from press commentators for Grayling plan – but some students treat it positively

The news that 14 left-leaning academics, including AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins, are opening a private university college that will charge £18,000 per year has been met with universal scorn from commentators in the national press today. The only encouraging noises have come from students.
Sam Leith, columnist for the Evening Standard, led the charge. "I struggle to get it," he said. "Setting up an £18,000-a-year private university is an odd way for a faculty of (as Grayling boasts) 'almost all pinko' dons to punish the Government for offering insufficient support to higher education."
Leith dismissed the headline-grabbing faculty – which also includes Niall Ferguson, Steven Pinker and Christopher Ricks – as little more than a publicity stunt. "What they mostly have in common is a) celebrity and b) having other jobs," he said.
"Grayling says the quality of teaching will be guaranteed by salaries of 25 per cent above the average paid elsewhere. But one-and-a-quarter times the salary of an ordinary history professor wouldn't get most of those guys out of bed."
For Cristina Odone of the Telegraph, it was not the idea of for-profit colleges that was fundamentally flawed, but New College's curriculum. "The liberal arts, in a consumerist age, get short shrift," she said. "Grayling's point that they are crucial to our culture is right.
"But his new university will fail because it will not encourage students to pursue a range of subjects and allow their curiosity a free rein; for Grayling, a secular liberal, the 'Humanities' arena is very carefully circumscribed to include only those subjects he deems worthy of study." The bible, she points out, "won't get a look in."
Mary Beard, the Cambridge University don and Times columnist who is renowned for her open approach to educational innovation, was in a similarly hostile mood: "It's when I see this New College headlined as a 'New Oxbridge' that I reach for my gun.
"There is something a bit parasitic about the New College plans (much in the way that a private hospital is parasitic on the NHS). Teaching smart young undergraduate students is only one part of the job; it's also about training the next generation of teachers who will teach the next generation of undergraduates."
Only among students could The First Post find support for Grayling's new university.
"I'll wait to see a deeper explanation of how financial support is going to work before I write them off completely as a typical right-wing monstrosity," commented Jessica Wing under Mary Beard's article.
Wing, currently taking her English exams, elaborated further on her blog: "They're quite transparent about the fact that they've a trust fund ready for rich parents willing to pay their children's way - but maybe that's a good thing. Their plans are to use some of this money for the financial aid of poorer students, who, they project, will make up 20 per cent of the university's intake."
Similar support from students could be found under the Guardian's news story. "I'm at Oxbridge and, honestly, I agree with Grayling, Dawkins, et al," commented one user under the pseudonym 'Carl4Sparta'. "The quality of teaching here is getting steadily worse, because it's just not sustainable."
Another, named 'rjak75', made a similar point: "The reality is that government cuts to humanities funding will mean that there will be insufficient places at state-funded universities for bright students who want to study humanities. Although most students will have to pay to attend the university, this is a choice (and is no different or worse than the choice to attend a private secondary school)."

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