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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

English Teacher

£22000 - £36000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary English Teacher...

General Cover Teacher - Grimsby

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Qualified Teachers needed for Supply in t...

English Teacher Urgently Required - Secure Unit - Nottingham

£100 - £161 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Are you a fully qualified ...

Cover Supervisor

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Welsh Spe...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on