Professor A C Grayling: Whatever happened to the most hated man in academia?

Having survived eggs and even smoke bombs, AC Grayling is as passionate as ever about his university. He tells Richard Garner about donors, scholarships and getting what you pay for in an education

Education Editor

Just two years ago he was - to many people’s way of thinking -  one of the most hated men in the world of academia.

Now, though, an undaunted Professor AC Grayling is seeing the controversial New College of the Humanities, the independent university he founded which charges students a hefty £18,000 a year in fees, begin its second year of operation.

The fees provoked outrage, announced as they were against a background of sometimes violent protests over the decision to raise tuition costs at state-funded universities to £9,000 a year. But since then a change has taken place in the climate of opinion over higher education.

Not only have the protests disappeared, but time has shown the rise in fees has not been the deterrent to applications that people believed it would be. The number of prospective students rose this year almost to the level of three years ago – before the rush to beat the new fees regime. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are holding up even better.

In recent weeks, talk has started to emerge about raising fees yet again. Professor Andrew Hamilton, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, has spoken of the possibility of increasing them to more realistically cover the cost of providing a student education. At Oxford, this is estimated to be £16,000 a year.

In an interview with The Independent, Professor Grayling said he believes that – within about a decade – the fees that he is charging will no longer be exceptional, and may even be less than those being levied by established elite universities.

“The £9,000-a-year cap on fees is like a supermarket offer – £9.99 doesn’t look like £10 – but it isn’t enough and universities are suffering because they are not being resourced adequately,” he said.

He cited Professor Hamilton’s speech as evidence that the current fee cap was “unsustainable”. “Independent schools like Eton and Harrow charge £30,000 a year before you’ve learned to write an essay or play a game of rugby,” he said. “It is not an arbitrary figure, because it reflects the cost of what they are providing. High-quality education is costly – so why should it be any different at a leading university?”

But far from plotting the path to even higher fees like some of his counterparts at Russell Group universities, he is currently engaged in talks with secret backers to provide more free scholarship places at his New College of the Humanities. “My dream is eventually to be able to offer places on a needs-blind basis, so that we have enough endowments to be able to afford to pay the fees of those who cannot afford to pay,” he said.

This year’s intake has seen a slight rise in the number of students on scholarships, with 12 out of the 65 of those offered places receiving free tuition. Others are also receiving a partial subsidy to help them meet the cost. Professor Grayling said this had been as a result of “five-figure donations” from private individuals.

He believes that many other universities in the UK will be obliged to follow in the footsteps of Ivy League universities in the United States, raising funds to help disadvantaged students through endowments from private donors. “In the case of the US, they raise a lot of money from alumni and – obviously – as a new university that will take 10, 20 or 30 years for us to build up,” he said.

“We can’t rely on that but we are already talking to several people about endowments. These will be reasonably substantial but we’re not in the seven-figure market yet.”

Recruitment to the New College is still short of the 180 to 200 figure originally talked of at its launch. This year’s intake of 65 students is only a slight increase on its first year, when it took in 55.

Although there were around 500 applications for places this year, many were weeded out during the interview process, deemed as being unlikely to benefit from the stricter learning regime the college operates. Professor Grayling said any increase would take place “slowly, so we can still make the same offer to students”.

New College offers one-to-one tutorials on a weekly basis and, in addition to their degree courses – in economics, English, history, law, philosophy or politics and international relations – there are four modules in another degree subject, with applied ethics, logic and critical thinking and science literacy all being compulsory core modules.

“We will always be a small college,” he added. “Even when we’re full we’re going to be like to the size of a college at Oxford – rather than the university. Everybody in a year cohort should know each other.”

Expansion at a faster rate, he pointed out, would force the university to acquire a new building in addition to the one it now occupies in Bedford Square in London’s Bloomsbury, and require extra staffing – both of which would be costly. Such an expansion may arrive, though, especially if the college is allowed to offer visas to students. It currently has to rely on applications from the UK and European Union to fill its places, but Professor Grayling plans to lodge a bid to clear this hurdle which, he hopes, will lead to an influx of students from the United States, Australia, India and New Zealand. “It won’t be China,” he added. Their students are less interested in degree courses in the humanities, he claimed.

One of this year’s new recruits who has taken advantage of a scholarship is 19-year-old Tahmid Chowdury, who lives with his parents on a council estate in Hackney and went the Central Foundation Boys’ School, a comprehensive in Islington. He is studying law with English at the university.

“There are about nine or 10 students in my year – everyone knows everybody else,” he said. Asked about claims that the university was merely a refuge for “rich kids who failed to get into Oxbridge”, he said he did not know whether any of his fellow students were on scholarships or paid full fees. “No one talks about it,” he said. “I genuinely can’t tell the difference. You don’t notice that at all.”

He described the work as “challenging” – students have to submit eight essays a term – but added that he was planning to combine his studies with standing as a Liberal Democrat in next year’s council elections.

Tahmid is just the kind of student Professor Grayling says he would like to attract to New College. How far he gets down that road remains to be seen – but for now, the philosopher seems happy that the smoke bombs have stopped falling.

It’s Academic: Grayling’s history

* Professor Anthony Clifford Grayling was born in Luanshya, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in April 1949.

* After moving to Britain as a teenager, he spent three years studying at Sussex University  and went on to complete a BA  in philosophy as an external student at the University of London. 

* Later, he attended Magdalen College, Oxford, where he obtained his doctorate in 1981.

* He lectured in philosophy at  St Anne’s College, Oxford,  before taking up a post as Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck – which he left only when he founded the New College of the Humanities.

* He is the author of about 30 books on philosophy and is a former vice-president of the British Humanist Association.

* Professor Grayling is married and has three of his own children – one son and two daughters – and a stepson.

* He has described himself as  “a man of the left” and is a director and contributor to Prospect magazine.

* Among the books he has published are The Future of  Moral Values (1985), The Meaning of Things (2001), The Good  Book (2011) and The God Argument (2013)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Room Leader - Nursery

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'