England’s For-Profit University Experiment

When David Cameron became the leader of England’s governing coalition he initiated a sweeping program of fiscal austerity designed to handle that county’s end of the global recession. He announced the initiative in June of last year, and by October he’d laid out measures to increase taxes and cut social programs.

In December the government turned toward higher education, with legislation that tripled the tuition cap to 9,000 pounds, and dropped funding for humanities study. England’s near universal education coverage meant the new caps and reduced funding affected almost every college student in the country. Their implementation caused a violent student riot in London that culminated in an attack on the car carrying the Prince of Wales and his wife.

But if the young Conservative Prime Minister was taking a page from America’s comparatively laissez-faire education standards, he’s now joined by AC Grayling, formerly of the University of London, one of England’s most celebrated philosophy professors, and a public advocate for a secular ethicist politics. Grayling announced at the beginning of June that he was opening a for-profit school called the New College for the Humanities:

Inspired in part by the business model of American Ivy League universities [sic] where $40,000 (£24,000) annual fees are not unusual, New College will cost double the maximum tuition fee allowed in government-funded universities. It is set up to deliver a profit to its shareholders who include the professors and a team of wealthy businessmen who have bankrolled the plan.

There is a starry lineup of professorial talent: Richard Dawkins will teach evolutionary biology and science literacy; Niall Ferguson will lecture on economics and economic history; and Steven Pinker will teach philosophy and psychology.

Sally Hunt of the University and Colleges said the college was emblematic of the government’s “failure to protect arts and humanities and is further proof that its university funding plans will entrench inequality within higher education.” As for Grayling himself, she accused him of providing not for those who deserved it but rather for “those with the deepest pockets.” Similarly, the influential literary theorist Terry Eagleton, professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, wrote the project off with disgust: “Grayling and his friends are taking advantage of a crumbling university system to rake off money from the rich. As such, they are betraying all those academics who have been fighting the cuts for the sake of their students.”

Critics were also angry about the celebrity aspect of the faculty. Eagleton and others were incredulous that the highest-caliber professors wouldn’t be knocking off lectures in between book tours. And Grayling was quick to clarify that those professors are investors and not core faculty members. But mostly he’s confused and upset about how a bunch of “pink around the gills” university professors could have inspired such anger from the academic left. “Of course it is upsetting. I don’t like it at all. Having been, in some respects, for some constituencies, Mr. Nice Guy for some time, it is hard work and upsetting to be Mr. Bad Guy.”

Student protests cut short a talk Grayling was giving about the New School last week in a Central London book store when someone lit off a smoke bomb. The professor believes he’s attracting residual anger meant for David Cameron; his project is too miniscule to inspire so much ire. He insists he’s only conducting “a very small experiment.”

This is certainly the position his small band of allies has taken. That group is made up of cynical editorialists who believe England’s education system has been so badly mangled they’re willing to entertain any idea about fixing it. Taken at their word, they make a ragtag team of would-be supporters for a new education system, cautiously side-stepping the public, led by a pink around the gills secular ethicist. “We’ve really got to keep the public universities,” Grayling says. “We’ve got to fight to get them back and funding back into them; they’ve got to survive. But why is it at the exclusion of any other experiments?”

Justin Spees

Justin Spees is an intern at the Washington Monthly.