Hot Water and Higher Education

There’s meant to be something somewhat seedy about the profit motive. Perhaps this is why, in the case of education, many of us recoil in horror as soon as the prospect is introduced. This is an irrational response, but it’s not entirely unreasonable. Education is something which makes politicians misty-eyed. It makes their voices quaver. Our leaders describe with great emotion the need for the next generation to do better, to have more, to go without less.

An addendum: all of this is intimately connected to government power. To bestow the imprimatur of the state is the greatest compliment and highest honour politicians can imagine. Everything which falls within the realm of the state is afforded a certain emotional aura. Education has attained a secular saintliness as a result of government sponsorship, which cannot be impugned or deprecated or traduced. Or even, as it turns out, imitated.

When A. C. Grayling, the philosopher, announced the creation of a privately-run, for-profit institution of higher education, which later became the New College of the Humanities, he was both set upon and praised, both a little too ostentatiously. Those who leapt down his throat did so with the full force of dogma and the false fluency of ideology.

He was, some said, an enemy of education. His ideas were ‘odious’. His work was a ‘sham’. And he deserved to be boycotted and insulted until he ceased and desisted.

Meanwhile, Grayling was, for the most part quietly, getting on with creating his university; the institution has now produced generations of graduates.

A lot of the initial coverage of his experiment suggested that it was intended to be a rival to Oxford and Cambridge, and Grayling’s new college was both attacked and (more tentatively) welcomed on those grounds. But the truth, as I discovered when I visited several years ago (as I have done a few times since), was both more modest and more sincere. The place is small and, despite an impressive rate of growth, looks likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

It is not being pitched in direct competition to our ancient public universities. Instead it acts as something of a private-sector supplement, taking aspects of the Oxbridge experience which are not offered at other institutions and making them available, for a fee.

Many of us have had unfortunate supervisions or, at the other place, dodgy tutorials, but we must all recognise the fundamental usefulness and even goodness of the system; otherwise, after all, we would not be here. We would have, in the (slightly amended) words of Alan Bennett’s all-too-frequently quoted play The History Boys, ‘go[ne] to Newcastle and be[en] happy’. But we did not, and here we all are.

It seems perverse to wish to deny this privilege to others. And it’s a little rich for so many journalists and academics, many of them Oxbridge alumni, to share an impulse which tends towards exclusivity.

Another aspect of the same feeling makes a little more sense. It’s built largely on an instinctive, reactive sense of disgust. It is the revulsion many feel when exposed to the slimier and more reptilian proponents of market capitalism, the sort of people one wouldn’t touch in case they were somehow contagious. And yes, one of them was, not all that long ago, inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States.

It is true, furthermore, that he did run a fraudulent higher education scheme, in his own name, no less, and that he did do a lot of people – needy, unfortunate people – out of a sizable amount of money. It does not reflect well on him; that much is certain. But it would be foolish, indeed naïve, to allow this single, unrepresentative case to sour one’s view of for-profit higher education.

After all, A. C. Grayling is no Donald Trump. The degree ceremonies at Grayling’s college are attended by its master, not overseen by a cardboard cut-out figure representing the gurning billionaire.

One cannot avoid considering the overall effect of such things – whether, for-profit education ‘drives up standards’, in that tedious formulation. And the honest answer has to be, well, there’s no way to tell – at least not yet. The New College of the Humanities is hardly huge, hardly market-distorting. It may not make things better, but a little healthy competition can hardly make things worse. It’s pretty clear that taking a few hundred of the most intellectually adventurous out of the public system is hardly going to cripple the sector.

When I visited, there was something exciting about the New College of the Humanities, something genuinely dynamic. Everybody seemed happy to be there. Everyone had made an active choice; they had not been corralled into taking a particular path in higher education by parental expectation or pressure from schools. This seemed profoundly liberating, and the freedom this allowed those who made that choice was palpable.

High profile hires have paid off. The institution exudes real passion and justified pride when promoting an innovative-sounding master’s degree in public history which has just been inaugurated.

The number of students attending British universities is at record highs. This represented a radical change and occurred not that long ago. It is now championed by the educational establishment. One would hope that the government and the press could be a little more receptive to change in other aspects of the same sector.

Denying opportunities to those willing to take them seems distinctly perverse. And part of rectifying this moral blind-spot is not allowing ourselves to be swayed by bogus analogies. The example of Trump University is entirely unrepresentative. The guy was taken to court. There was public outrage – proper outrage.

There must be some good in the private system, then, if it is defended against such vulgar fraudulence. Other countries license for-profit higher education not because they are in hock to some dogma, but rather because, at least on some level, the set-up can be seen to work. And that is worth pursuing – and even, perhaps, worth experiencing yourself.

A version of piece was latterly published by Varsity.

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