Dons defend plan for £18,000-a-year college

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The Independent Online

Leading academics have defended their plans to build a privately funded university to rival Oxford and Cambridge from accusations of elitism.

Only straight A students will be able to apply to £18,000 a year New College of the Humanities in central London to take degrees– accredited by the University of London – in a range of subjects such as law, economics and philosophy.

The college, which will open next academic year and will be run for profit, has been established with £10m from City financiers, a multi-millionaire Swiss couple and the 14 professors themselves.

Professor AC Grayling, the philosopher and atheist, will be the college's first Master and other academics, who will all teach, include Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and Sir Christopher Ricks, former Oxford professor of poetry.

Prof Grayling said the institution was created as a reaction to cuts to funding for humanities subjects and would “offer a new model of higher education for the humanities in the UK”.

He said it was “coincidence” the university’s fees – which are exempt from Government regulations because they are privately funded - were exactly twice as high as the maximum that can be charged by state-funded institutions.

He said the university had already received a couple of applications and said £18,000 “was the cost of running the course”.

“The point is at the end of the day there is not enough capacity to satisfy demand, there are 10,000 British kids studying in the US,” he said, adding the university had set up a charitable trust which could help up to 30 per cent of students to receive discounted education.

Asked how the college would marry its philanthropic aim with the profit motive he said: “People who have a [business] interest in the college will get some return on their money, that’s just business [but] we could end up being the only university in the country to offer totally free education to the poorest students.”

Prof Grayling added current fee levels at state universities would have to rise.

“The £9,000 fee is unsustainable, that ceiling will be shattered in a few years,” he said.

“If you talk to people at Oxford about what they are charging they would say the economic rate [of running a course] is more in the region of £30,000 a year.”

But Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said the move by the academics would only serve a small section of students and hasten the downfall of state institutions.

"When private institutions charge such high fees, an extra £9,000 on top of the already trebled fees, they will exclude all but the very richest students, even with financial support available for a small amount,” he said. “This institution has been created as an reaction to the Government's swingeing cuts to higher education funding that have seen all teaching funding removed from many humanities subjects. As an education in humanities from some of the leading thinkers in the world will be restricted to the richest and those academics will be removed from the public system. If the Government does not hit the brakes on this rushed reform and reverse the cuts to funding the UK's currently world-leading public universities will be irreparably damaged."

Students at the new university will expect Oxbridge-style one-to-one tutorials with academics, more than 12 contact hours a week and a 10 to 1 student to teacher ratio.

Students will take three "intellectual skills" modules in science literacy, logic and critical thinking and applied ethics.

Prof Grayling, added: “Our priorities at the college will be excellent teaching quality, excellent ratios of teachers to students, and a strongly supportive and responsive learning environment,” he said. “Our students will be challenged to develop as skilled, informed and reflective thinkers, and will receive an education to match that aspiration.”

The new institution is expected to become the forerunner of a new wave of privately-funded universities.