new college of the humanities: bound to fail
This New College of the Humanities news is something else. People, of course, are right to be upset about it – especially for a reason that I’ll get to below. But I think there’s also some real reason for hope… In short, from the point of view of someone actually deeply involved in the work that goes into running a first class humanities department, this plan looks absurd, impracticable, and more or less bound to crash and burn. A few points:
1. The money doesn’t work out correctly. I reckon – just adding this up in my head, very roughly – that if you figure out my economic value to the university in terms of the students that I’m directly responsible for in terms of advising etc, I bring in about £120,000 per annum. I get paid roughly a third of that – the rest goes to overhead and the like. And of course the humanities are, as of now, still “subsidized” by the university as a whole, at least where I am. If the faculty / student ratio is 10/1 at the NCH, and students pay / are charitably subsidized to $18,000, that means each teacher will bring in on average £180,000.
Now, a quick review of the listed teachers indicates that the numbers don’t really work out that well. I’m… not exactly in the Christopher Ricks-range of salary at this point, and the NCH’s overhead might be marginally lower or higher – it’s hard to say. But that’d give each of these superstars an average salary of approximately £60,000. Pretty good, sure, but not for the likes of them.
And especially not for the likes of them if, as implied on the website, these stars are actually going to be doing all of the teaching on these courses. (Really? Christopher Ricks is going to teach most or all of this?) And if they’re not going to be doing all of the teaching on the courses – if the NCH is going to hire a boatload of hourly-wagers and the like – I’d imagine the institution is going to end up with a whole lot of extremely fucked-off and probably (given the backgrounds they’re likely to draw in) litigious students on their hands. Given the ad pitch involved here, they’re going to have a hell of a time pulling the classic adjunct bait-and-switch. But I simply can’t imagine any other way they’re going to do it.
Obviously this is all back-of-the-envelope stuff that I’m doing here, but I simply don’t see how this is going to work. Let alone, given it’s for-profit status, send any cheques to its shareholders… But it’s all coated in the scent of ivy-coated Enron, really…
2. Horrifying to think that the superstars involved in setting this up might well be so distant from the actual drudgery involved in running an academic programme that they actually think that this “All-Star” Model will work. University departments are complex ecosystems. Some end up stars with big books and media exposure, some become worker-bees who keep the show running, lots end up somewhere in the middle. Some departments are disasters of hierarchy, others incredibly egalitarian in workload distribution. (Luckily mine falls into the latter group). But whatever they are, teachers end up taking on different roles at different times in their careers. And the mix is healthy – one learns very quickly, say, as a PhD student that becoming close with a junior lecturer mired in the drudgery of keeping their job and writing their first book can be valuable in a way that one’s relationship with Academic Star Advisor X isn’t.
Are these types really ready to second-mark boring first year scripts, handle admissions, write the shitload of letters of reference they’ve been paid for, handle “pastoral care,” set reading lists and the like? They’ve hired a few course conveners – it’s pretty horrifying to think what these people’s lives will be like as they take up as much of the slack as they can.
3. Even Boris Johnson, displaying the gravitas we’ve come to expect from him, gets it right: this will be – and more importantly look like – Reject’s College, Oxbridge. No one in their right mind would throw over a place at an elite university to attend this place… Those “namebrands” are namebrands for a reason – and one imagines that the sort of students that this place is targeting are just a bit brand conscious. However bright a student may or may not be, in attending NCH she or he would be opening themselves to a diploma marked with the stink of class privilege and lack of open competition. Whatever we feel about the current state (and as WBM might say “use” or “symbolic efficacy”) of meritocracy in universities, it remains a selling point to be able for potential employers and the like to know that you’ve competed against something even vaguely resembling the “best” or at least the “good” whatever their class background.
At any rate, to my mind this thing is a non-starter and I heartily look forward to watching it fail under its own ill-conceived architecture. The only thing that I’m still worried about is that, in a sort of reverse News Corp argument, publically-funded universities will start to claim that state regulation is distorting the market and that if the NCH is allowed to charge £18,000 / annum, we should be able to too…
UPDATE: Ooops, as has been pointed out to me, it looks like I – like many of the prospective students I imagine – didn’t read the fine print on the NCH website:
Our Professors will advise on curricula and quality, and will all give lectures at New College.The curricula will be delivered by our team of permanent academic staff, with each subject area headed by a Subject Convener and assisted by one or more Senior Lecturers. They will be supported by a fully qualified academic staff.