How dare you set up a new university!?

The intolerant response to AC Grayling’s New College is driven by hostility towards educational experimentation.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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It is ‘odious’, ‘repugnant’, ‘parasitic’, ‘hypocritical’, a ‘travesty’, a ‘money-grubbing’ scheme, and ‘it would be better all-round if its doors never opened’. Wow. What is it? A whorehouse? A Satanic church? A junk-food chain that specialises in feeding fat straight into children’s veins via a drip? In fact it’s a proposed new London-based university, called the New College of the Humanities, which says it will teach students the best of literature, culture and history for a fee of £18,000 a year. And yet judging from the unhinged coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had proposed opening a Ratko Mladic fanclub in Islington.

The response to Professor AC Grayling’s educational experiment, for which he has recruited other ‘star’ professors such as Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson, has been extraordinarily intolerant. No sooner had the press release about the new university been emailed than Grayling and Co. were being accused of selling out working-class students and the ideal of ‘education for all’ by opening an institution that only the wealthy (and those lucky enough to secure a scholarship) will be able to afford. As one journalist summarised, the initiative has met with ‘universal scorn from commentators in the national press’. Journalists have described the university as a ‘disgrace’, ‘nauseous’ and ‘disgustingly elitist’. The Twittersphere, always keen to ape the pronouncements of its heroes on the op-ed pages, heaped 140-character fury upon Grayling’s vain/pathetic/evil/doomed initiative.

Not to be outdone, members of the University of London Union and other radical student groups called an ’emergency meeting’ last night. Not an emergency meeting to discuss the corrosion of liberty and free speech in the West or the future of the Arab uprisings – as radical students might have done in the past – but an emergency meeting to discuss how to crush this new uni. ULU’s vice president called for it to be blacklisted, insisting that the University of London refuse to recognise or work with this ‘repugnant’ institution. There was a serious debate about how to shut it down before it had even opened. One left-wing group said we must ‘stop Grayling’s sham university’ because it’s the ‘thin end of the wedge [of privatisation]’. Without so much as a whiff of self-awareness or irony, it went on to describe New College as ‘an attack on free education’. Yes, that’s right – this educational institution must be smashed in order to defend ‘free education’. Perhaps we should also burn its books in the name of defending book-reading.

The response to this institution has been so speedily intemperate, so morally disproportionate to what is actually being proposed, that it can only possibly be fuelled by the anxieties of the responders themselves rather than by the alleged horrors of what they are responding to (a new college for upper middle-class humanities readers – big deal). Whatever you think of Grayling or Dawkins (regular readers of spiked will know that I am not a fan), there is nothing in their outline for opening a new higher education institution that warrants the label ‘repugnant’ or ‘nausea-inducing’. They are not proposing to teach classes in Nazi Studies or Class Hatred 101. No, it is the profound insecurities and sense of paralysis within mainstream higher education itself, rather than anything Grayling and his God-bashing buddies have talked about, which has nurtured the outburst of scornful and even hateful commentary about New College.

What the reaction really reveals is the insecurity that is keenly felt both by those who work and study in the traditional world of higher education and those in the media who support such HE as a Good Thing. Faced with government cuts to various departments and the introduction of a new system of tuition fees for students, but unable to challenge these trends effectively by outlining why the humanities are important or why free education is a morally good idea, HE practitioners and supporters instead lash out against a small group of people who propose doing things differently, who propose launching an experiment in how to deliver an apparently excellent humanities education to fee-paying students.

The claim that Grayling’s £18,000-a-year college is the ‘thin end of the wedge of privatisation’, and that it must be stopped in order to defend the ideal of free education, actually demonstrates the extent to which old HE supporters have lost the argument, or are now incapable of making the argument, for education as a public good. Lacking the intellectual clarity or moral cojones to defend excellence in education and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (rather for the sake of the market or improving the job prospects of students), instead they turn their guns towards New College, depicting it as an alien force invading their otherwise apparently pristine world of public-sector education. Yet at a time when there is already a great deal of privatisation, not to mention denigration of educational standards, in HE, there is something quaint, and more than a little tragic, in this sideshow assault on a proposed new private college. It reveals, not any evildoing on the part of Grayling and Co., but rather moral discombobulation and intellectual paralysis within mainstream HE.

That they see this embryonic small college founded by 14 professors as such a profound threat really reveals their own weaknesses. A more confident system of public higher education – confident of its cause and its content and its mission – would barely notice that a small private college was due to open in London, far less attack it as odious and disgusting and ripe for being shut down. We now have a situation where uncertainty about what to do with the world of HE, serious institutional desperation, has nurtured a very problematic antagonism towards experimentation, so that anyone who goes off and does their own thing can be swiftly demonised. Behind the faux radical defence of ‘free education’ over ‘private education’, in fact the Grayling-bashers are expressing profound hostility towards anyone who opts to work outside ‘the system’ and to experiment with how knowledge is preserved and passed on. The issue is not whether New College is public or private but whether it delivers what it promises, and we won’t know that until it opens. If it is allowed to open, that is.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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