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)

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