New College of the Humanities – caveat emptor?

News that philosopher A.C. Grayling is launching a new private university for “gifted” students in London is, on present evidence, adding to the flames of the privatisation debate in England. The essence of the furore lies in the fact that Grayling is proposing to charge £18,000 a year to students to study for University of London degrees that they could obtain for considerably less elsewhere. The lure: small class sizes, an emphasis on a “responsive” learning environment, and a panoply of academic star professors, including Stephen Pinker, Sir David Cannadine, Richard Dawkins, and, in law, Ronald Dworkin, and Adrian Zuckerman. In addition to their degree subjects, students will also take three “intellectual skills” modules in science literacy, logic and critical thinking, and applied ethics. For this they will receive a Diploma of New College in addition to their BA or LLB – whether this promise of an extra workload for an additional award will be an incentive, or quite the reverse remains to be seen!

Critics have tended to focus on two issues so far. First, just how much teaching these luminaries will do is, of course, a moot point, and Dawkins’ observation in the Guardian that “Professor Grayling invited me to join the professoriate and give some lectures” does seem to suggest that he may not be rolling up to offer weekly tutorials in traditional Oxbridge fashion. I’m not exactly expecting Dworkin to be brushing up first years contract law either. But a second charge being levelled at New College, that it has been guilty of plagiarism in “ripping off” London University International Programme syllabi, does seem misconceived. The International Programme is of course the UoL’s old External Programme with a shiny new name. It has been around a long time, and has acquired some pretty impressive alumni over that time. These UoL courses are taught by colleges all around the world, and none of them have a formalised link with the University of London as such (though I know from my own experience as an external examiner on the External Law Programme – as it then was – that the University has in recent years put a lot of effort into outreach and developing support for the colleges offering its awards). Some of these external colleges are very good at what they do… and others are not. And that is a concern, it can be a bit of a lottery.

There is no formal quality assessment by the University of London of the teaching or learning resources provided by the external colleges, nor unless New College opens its doors to QAA, will it have to submit to the quality assessment regime expected of UK public universities. Some might say that’s no bad thing, but it begs the question as to what New College itself will do to assure prospective students that it will provide the elite education promised.
There is one remaining external check on standards: degree papers will be externally assessed. That separation between teaching and assessment may be good news for the professoriate, who are thereby exempted from the annoyance of the annual marking ritual, but it may be less good news for the students of New College. It can make it a very demanding way to study for a degree, and, certainly as regards the LLB, graduation rates and the proportion of good honours degrees, both tend to be lower than on the UoL’s internal programmes. This reflects a range of factors – student entry qualifications (the International Programme minimum standard is significantly lower than the grades needed to get into an internal programme), often a relative absence of formative assessment and preparation for university learning, variable access to learning resources, and variable teaching quality. An external degree requires teachers with a broad understanding of their subject, who are effective at teaching to a syllabus that is not of their own design. The separation of teaching and assessment can also encourage teachers and students to adopt a risk-averse, assessment-driven approach that can emphasise coverage over deep learning. Educationally, none of these are insurmountable, but I’m not sure its where I would want to start in developing a system of elite education. And if nothing else serves to damn the project, Boris Johnson’s endorsement in today’s Torygraph that New College “is a simply brilliant idea” for taking-on “the cream of the [Oxbridge] rejects” mightjust do the trick.

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