Thursday, June 16, 2011

New College for the Humanities

While I was away the news came out that Anthony Grayling is setting up a private college as part of the University of London system which is intended a) to offer a world class education to students unable to get in to Oxford or Cambridge, and b) to make money. The news has sparked a lot of opposition in Britain and some support in the United States (see here if you haven't already). I thought I had left it too late to weigh in, and perhaps I have, but there is an article about it in today's Independent in which Richard Garner* asks:
how can it be defensible to oppose something that seeks to promote quality in education, and that is publicly committed to accessibility (the aim is over 30 per cent of students on financial support)?
The answer is surely obvious even to him. Something that seeks to promote quality but does not succeed can easily be opposed. And something that is publicly committed to accessibility can be opposed if it is not privately, or in all honesty, so committed.

This kind of thing is hard to take seriously too:
I have brought together a distinguished group of academics whose experience, expertise and advice, together with their commitment to visit the college and lecture to its students, are guarantees of the college's seriousness of purpose.
Seriousness is guaranteed by a commitment by distinguished academics to visit the college? True, they will lecture while there, but it looks as though they will be giving several guest lectures each, not teaching whole courses.

Too much has been written about the proposal for me to have read it all, but I'll say a couple of things anyway, just in case they shed some light for someone. Defenders of the new college seem perplexed by the opposition, which they see as motivated by sheer prejudice. How can we know it will be bad until it gets off the ground? And how can another option for students be a bad thing? The first question reveals a consequentialist outlook, the second a kind of market liberalism. If opposition to the proposed college is not mere prejudice, then it looks as though it must be something like opposition to that kind of (i.e. consequentialist, 'marketist') thinking. And I think that's what most of the opposition is, i.e. opposition to the idea that there should be a market for higher education at all. Such a market, after all, favors the rich (or their children), and is unlikely to work as markets are supposed to because of the lack of information available to 'consumers'.

When I went to college in Britain in the 1980s it was free to anyone able to get in. In fact, we got paid to go. Not much, but enough to pay for rent and food. Of course there are problems with such a system. Many people disliked paying taxes to support students, and the rich were still at an advantage because they could afford to pay for the kind of education that helps you get in to the best colleges. My private high school offered an entire term devoted to nothing but preparing students for the entrance exams at Oxford and Cambridge. Most students don't get that kind of help. But Grayling's proposed college does nothing that I can see to avoid problems like this.

(A note on British private schools. Some are called public, I think because they are open to anyone who can pass the entrance exam (if any) and afford the fees. Some are called private, or independent, because, well, that's what they are. So it isn't the whole truth, although it's often said, that "in Britain private schools are called public schools"--only the fanciest ones are.)

The result in my day was that, while the rich were certainly over-represented, there was real diversity at places like Oxford and Cambridge. My group of friends included both unbelievably wealthy people who went to famous boarding schools and working class people whose parents worked in factories or were unemployed. Most people were the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, etc., but there were enough people from other classes to be noticeable. The rich are the most noticeable, though, because that's who people expect to see at Oxford and Cambridge and because they can afford to go out partying loudly while everyone else is in the library or just too broke to go to the pub. So people tend to think that the rich are already getting an unfairly large piece of the higher educational pie (for both good reasons and bad), and a new college that is twice the price of Oxford and Cambridge, offering some financial support to less than a third of its students, seems to be giving the rich even more.        

Won't more places at the top for the rich mean more places for everyone else elsewhere? Maybe so. But is elsewhere-than-the-top a fair place for the non-rich to have to go? And will every other college offering humanities courses stay open, or will some close, or stop offering humanities courses?

It's hard to think about all this without mentioning the importance of socio-economic class in Britain. Things used to be simple. Thanks to an exam taken around age 11, working class people (mostly) went to high schools that prepared them for a life of manual work, while middle class people (or whoever passed the exam, but it was mostly the non-working-class) went to schools that prepared them for middle-class jobs and/or university. University was for the intellectual elite, but it was free and so you could 'escape' the working class that way, even though cultural factors (peer influence, etc.) meant that not that many actually did. So the "eleven plus" exam was scrapped (in most places) and there was only one type of free high school for anyone to go to. And university remained free.

But private (and "public") high schools remained, giving middle-class and rich kids an advantage, and most people still did not go to university. So more universities were created and more people encouraged to attend them. This made it too expensive for the government to be able to allow students to go for free, so the student grant was ended and fees were introduced. It looks as though an attempt to break down class divisions ended up reinforcing them, at least to some extent, because less well off people are reluctant to take out loans to pay for college, and now you do have to pay for it. This is a trend not only in higher education but in social mobility and social divisions that Grayling's college is now (regarded by many people as) part of. This, then, is one reason why people object: the project is seen as naturally at odds with a just society (even if it turns out somehow to make things better).

So much for a market in higher education favoring the rich. Another problem is with information. The Independent says here that the top ten Philosophy departments in the UK are:
1. Oxford
2. London School of Economics (LSE)
3. Cambridge
4. Durham
5. University College London
6. Bristol
7. King's College London
8. St Andrews
9. York
10. Newcastle
Compare the Philosophical Gourmet, where Durham does not make the top 15 and Newcastle is not listed at all:
  1. Oxford
  2. St. Andrews/Stirling
  3. Cambridge
  4. University College, London
  5. King's College, London
  6. Birkbeck College, London
  7. Sheffield
  8. LSE
  9. Nottingham, Reading, Warwick (all equal) 
How are students to know which departments (other than Oxford) are best? (And what about Essex, East Anglia, and Southampton, which are surely superb places for those with the right interets?)

Finally, what about the US system? Isn't Grayling's move a step toward that model, and isn't it a good one? Higher education does seem to work pretty well in the US, and Grayling's college does take the UK closer to the US system. But the UK is not the US. Class distinctions are not a problem in the same way. I think they are a problem in both countries, but not in the same way. The problem in the US is (in part) a lack of awareness about class and a false sense of how easy it is to move up or down the ladder. In the UK (some) people are painfully aware of the importance of class. This means that it hurts when something that appears to benefit the rich disproportionately happens, regardless of whether it ends up so helping them or not. The closest US equivalent would be something that seemed bound to help white people but not (nearly so much) African American people. Regardless of the outcome, it would be an insensitive move.

Another difference is that in the US people feel loyalty toward their colleges and give money to them. In the UK such loyalty is pretty much an alien concept. People are no more likely to give to their old college or university than they are to their old high school, or their local hospital, or post office. All these things are valued, but they aren't thought of as part of people's identity. So attempts to fund UK higher ed. in the same way as US higher ed. are likely to be less than completely successful.

All that said, I like what I've heard about the curriculum at the New College of the Humanities (quite a bit of philosophy for everybody, a US-style broad range of subjects, Oxbridge-style tutorials). Maybe other universities will find a way to copy what's best about it. 

A lot of the above is simplified, and there is a lot more to say, but I think that's enough for now.

*Or is it AC Grayling? It's written as if by Grayling, and in comments Mike Otsuka responds as if Grayling wrote it. But Garner's name is the one that appears at the end.

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