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new college of the humanities: bound to fail

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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.
So… you’ll hear a lecture or two from some of these famous types… but the actual teaching will, it seems, be done by someone else. I think much of the above still applies so I’ll leave it. The profit model still seems to me unlikely to work, even if the above now renders it too complex for me to speculate on..

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

Posted in academia

15 Responses

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  1. I think we’ll be enjoying a fair amount of schadenfreude from these twerps. They mistake book sales and broadsheet rants for can-do-no-wrong invincibility. Expect them to bleat about ‘lefty mafias’ or whatever while Paxman raises his eyebrow around 2016 or so.

    I’m also looking forward to the collapse of ‘free schools’ run by idiots like Toby Young (a failure at all his ‘projects’ really). Unless the government closes down every other option (too much hard work for Etonians I reckon), they’ll survive as the hobby-horse of billionaire religious nutters, if at all.

    We already have Oxbridge for ‘slow’ rich kids – I thought they were in Bristol and Durham?


    June 6, 2011 at 1:38 pm

  2. Naomi Goulder is currently a Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol. She was a general editor with AC Grayling of the Thoemmes Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy. She has a PhD from the University of London.

    I don’t want to be rude about Dr Goulder, but one of the main selling points of this ‘New College’ was that none of the teaching will be done by PhD students. Goulder is clearly a very recent postdoc, though. I wodner whether many others in her position in terms of academic career would get a look in. ‘Senior Lecturers’ indeed. Oh but wait – what’s that? her PhD supervisor was AC Graling! clearly anyone supervised by him is going to be worth the money. or something.

    That’s not to belittle her, by the way, but rather the idea that this 18 grand will get you much that’s different from a degree from a post-92 uni. If anything, a post-92 would have proper curricula that weren’t tied to the research interests of people who come and go depending on their other visiting professorships.

    Am really unhappy that Ricks agreed to this.


    June 6, 2011 at 3:13 pm

  3. oh and just to note – sorry for the extra comment – rather than being a ‘rejects’ college Oxford’ it’s likely to have a student body that’s overwhelmingly upper-middle class and at or near retirement age.


    June 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm

  4. shake –

    “the idea that this 18 grand will get you much that’s different from a degree from a post-92 uni.”

    Yep – that along with some flybys from famous type which, you know, if you live in London you could see lecture publically anyway…

    “overwhelmingly upper-middle class and at or near retirement age”

    Yep again. You know, in the USA, there’s a programme that hosts lectures by “top Ivy League academics” held at hotel conference centres for oldsters who want to “learn from the best.” It could well turn out like that… but pretty sure that’s not what they’re thinking.


    June 6, 2011 at 3:21 pm

  5. oh dear – trawling around the ‘net looking at stuff about this, I found the following bit, which might just be the worst case of PhD naivete I’ve ever seen:

    “If the New College of the Humanities paid you a rate to teach their courses which reflected their business model, in all honesty — would you consider it? If their fees are 7.26 x the standard current rate, I reckon that they SHOULD pay graduate students £203 per hour. IF they paid according to how other UL colleges do this, teaching two seminars a week plus lecture attendance (say, 4hrs pw), this would be a basic salary of something like £28,400. Obnoxious as we might find it, from the PhD student perspective, this is a life, a feasible way of researching and paying the rent.”

    From here:


    June 6, 2011 at 3:25 pm

  6. Tempted to go to a nearby meetup about this in a couple of hours but honestly… I actually think we should just let the NCH play out… It will prove our point for us…

    (There are much more pernicious forms that the university privatization could – and likely will – take…)


    June 6, 2011 at 3:28 pm

  7. You know, in the USA, there’s a programme that hosts lectures by “top Ivy League academics” held at hotel conference centres for oldsters who want to “learn from the best.” It could well turn out like that… but pretty sure that’s not what they’re thinking.

    Yeh, I’m sure it’s not, but they clearly haven’t done much market research if they think that having Christopher Ricks lecturing is going to persuade an 18 year old to choose them over, I dunno, KCL or UCL.

    the grad student discussion thing is a bit sad, but I don’t think it’s as sad as how the wages of academic administrators (people like Dr Goulder) will compare with those of the guest ‘star’ lecturers who Grayling has already admitted will be paid far more than if they were teaching anywhere else in the country. That’s what’s really galling, I reckon.


    June 6, 2011 at 3:36 pm

  8. also probably worth going into more detail on something you touch on. If the ‘stars’ aren’t marking, leading seminars, or marking, then a) what exactly are they being paid or, and b) students are ging to be incredibly upset with the level of contact they get with the names they’ve applied to ‘study under’. At least Amis did a few seminars at Manchester.

    I’m with you, too, on protesting – there’s no need when it will clearly all fall apart.


    June 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm

  9. I agree it’ll probably fall on its arse financially – I mean, which rich ex-Eton type Oxbridge rejects are going to choose a brand new uni that’s unclearly allied to UoL rather than going abroad? None, if they have brains (debatable, obv).

    But I think the general organising/meeting on this is a good idea. While it’s falling on its arse it might well be using our publicly-funded resources in the meantime, and paying for them with money that is unlikely to be passed down the foodchain to ordinary UoL students in terms of better services or teaching…


    June 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    • Zetkin,

      Well I agree with that. I have a feeling (though? not sure I need a though) that this is probably as much a case of cash strapped Senate House finding a way to stay in business as anything else. Remember – the library’s constantly under threat of closure especially after we pulled funding…


      June 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm

      • …which of course doesn’t make any of this right. I just have a feeling the UoL hierarchy is on board with this for a reason… and that reason has a lot to do with defunding / empty rooms in the big building.


        June 6, 2011 at 3:56 pm

  10. True, though I guess I don’t trust certain other right-wing managements with expansion masterplans not to get in on the act too.

    Plus, in general, I think the whole thing needs the left to keep an eye on it, financially viable or not. We’re going to want to expand the worker organising around Bloomsbury to NCH, as I imagine the support staff won’t be on the expanded salaries Grayling is promising academics (famous ones at least) for a start.

    And there’s always the threat that if it fails financially, but manages to establish working relations with UoL, some other private organisation will pop up to take its place. It’s kinda opening a door, no?


    June 6, 2011 at 3:59 pm

  11. Yeah it is opening a door – and you’re almost definitely more right than me about this. I guess I have a very, very strong feeling that it’s going to be more an object-lesson in the perils of privatization than anything else.

    Now if the University of Phoenix opens up here, then we’ve got something to talk about.

    But I am almost definitely wrong about the organizing. Let me see if I can tuck down to the meeting.


    June 6, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  12. It is naive to assume that, for example, Christopher Ricks will handle the greater part of the English syllabus, limited though it is. He is settled in Boston and is comitted to two major editorial projects which will leave him little time for tutorials and seminars in Bedford Square. He’ll fly in and deliver the odd lecture and the rest of the teaching will be bought in.


    June 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

  13. Dectora,

    Yeah, well that’s sort of the point that I was initially making.


    June 9, 2011 at 10:46 am

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