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Why is there a prejudice against private universities?

Since he announced his intention to found the New College of the Humanities, AC Grayling has faced ferocious criticism from those who say it will be elitist and a threat to the principle of publicly funded higher education. Here, he defends his controversial project

There have been vociferous objections to the endeavour by me and a group of colleagues to set up a private, university-level college to teach the humanities.

To make the best case against our project, the objectors need to challenge the strongest points we can make in its favour. Although I understand some of the sentiment underlying the objections, I am genuinely interested to explore what those contrary arguments are. For as might be expected, I believe there is much misdirection in treating our project as the enemy in what is happening to higher education.

One reason for believing this is that I emphatically think higher education is a great public good that should indeed be publicly funded, and funded properly; and at the same time that what we are doing at the New College of the Humanities (NCH) not only does not challenge that, but is consistent with it, there being no good reason why there cannot be other educational initiatives besides mainstream public provision.

The NCH project is a small independent one that will add student places and faculty jobs, not take them away from anywhere else: and likewise, far from diverting a single penny of public money from education, it proposes to channel money into it.

Critics think that what NCH is doing represents a thin end of the wedge for privatising higher education, and that bringing in resources from outside the public purse is going to diminish resources from inside it. Displacing public provision in this way would be wrong. But to think that NCH represents a wedge for this is both a mistaken and a misplaced charge. The reason touches on a major aspect of the real problem in higher education.

The fact is that many UK universities, chronically underfunded over decades, have for some time been increasing their overseas student intake to benefit from the full fees they can charge. Our universities are publicly funded institutions, yet they are replacing home student places with full-fee overseas places: this is part-privatisation, already in place and increasing all the time. And the figures show the true cost of high-quality university education: LSE has 68 per cent of its student body from overseas, the top fees in the region of £22,000; fee levels for overseas students at Oxford and Cambridge top out at a similar amount; St Andrews has an "international programme" charging $30,000 per year for four years for a first degree.

A colleague from Leicester University this week told me that the university authorities there have instructed all departments to raise their targets for recruitment of overseas students in order to increase income.

If these overseas students are not displacing British ones, they are adding to the crowd in the seminar room. The anomaly is that no British students willing to pay the full fee at a British university, on even terms with an overseas student, is allowed to compete for that place.

So NCH, in a small way adding student places and faculty jobs and resourcing it entirely from outside the public purse, while the public purse is supporting an existing and increasing actual privatisation of universities, is being criticised for supposedly encouraging the latter.

Yet the part-privatisation of public universities has been going on for years, at public expense and in an incoherent and damaging way, because all the main political parties have agreed in obliging the universities to adopt these expedients. It is this that should attract opposition in the interests of preserving a high-quality higher education sector that is publicly funded, fully and properly.

I do not wish to see the public universities go down the part or whole privatisation route. We have no intention of being a stalking-horse for privatisation of the cream of our university sector. Some objectors to NCH flatter it by seeing it as leading the way to this; as the foregoing shows, in this respect it is not leading anything: it is way behind events. But at the same time I fail to see why there cannot be other educational initiatives alongside public provision. Here there seems to be a prejudice rather than a thought: that if education is not publicly funded it is suspect, as if funding for education has to pass through the Exchequer first in order not to be inevitably and invariably corrosive of the educational purpose.

Such a view amounts to saying that it is not possible for there to be a responsible and ethical way to pursue genuinely held aims of educational excellence unless the endeavour is either state-funded or charitable. And yet, how can it be defensible to oppose something that seeks to promote quality in education, and that is publicly committed to accessibility (the aim is over 30 per cent of students on financial support). Are these not good things? They are NCH's aims.

I have brought together a distinguished group of academics whose experience, expertise and advice, together with their commitment to visit the college and lecture to its students, are guarantees of the college's seriousness of purpose. The full-time academic staff will be responsible for delivering the curriculum, which is significantly more demanding in content than the standard university course, adding breadth to depth and, alongside both, a commitment to preparation for post-graduation life.

This model brings together the best in the educational traditions of both sides of the Atlantic, the one-to-one tutorial combined with the breadth of liberal arts. Many British students now go the US and to Europe (and some even to Australia and the Gulf) in search of a college education suited to their interests and intentions; NCH offers it here, contributing to retaining our talent, and much less expensively for the students. And talent it will be: minimum entrance requirements are the standard three A grades at A Level or 38 points in the International Baccalaureate.

Criticism has mixed matters of principle and practicality. The latter can only be answered by results. The foregoing addresses the former; to the points raised I am deeply interested in seeing the response.

Will celebrity lecturers attract enough rich students?

I have to confess I cannot get the response of London Mayor Boris Johnson to Professor Grayling's proposal out of my mind: that there should be a university for Oxbridge rejects.

The simple point he makes is this: if you can get an education at Oxford or Cambridge for £9,000 a year under the new fees regime, why would you want to double that for a place at an as yet untried and untested institution?

That having been said, it has to be admitted that there are plenty of bright Oxbridge rejects around every year. (Cambridge alone had to turn away around 9,000 youngsters with an A* and two A grades last year).

Undoubtedly, too, arts and humanities provision will be squeezed in state-supported universities from next year (as if it has not been already!) as funding for teaching the subjects is withdrawn.

Professor Grayling mounts an ingenious argument on these pages that his proposal is doing far less harm to the provision of affordable university places than the state-subsidised universities themselves, who have become ever more reliant on recruiting overseas students to make ends meet – thus taking places away from home-grown youngsters.

The pity is, though, that initially it will only be those rejects rich enough to afford a place at the £18,000-a-year college who will be able to benefit from it. (Under present rules, students at a private college such as the New College for the Humanities will only be entitled to a maximum loan of £6,000 a year – thus forcing them to find £12,000 from elsewhere).

The argument has to be taken further than just leaving it at that, though. Presumably the income from the £18,000-a-year students will go towards subsidising the fees for the eventual 30 per cent of the students at the college who will receive bursaries or scholarships to help pay their costs. Therefore it could be said that the very existence of NCH will have some impact in providing more places in the arts and humanities for youngsters from disadvantaged groups.

It's just a shame that so many of the super-rich have to be accommodated before you start to provide these much needed places for the less well-off. It is a cruel and imperfect world, though.

Of course, in the real world, it is not just Oxford and Cambridge that the NCH is competing against for students (indeed Professor Grayling has said himself he does not see the project as a rival or an alternative to those two fine institutions). There are many other sought-after universities in the UK so it remains to be seen whether the NCH – with its coterie of celebrity lecturers such as Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins – can carve out a niche for itself among the most elite echelons of university provision and thus attract the rich students who will then in their turn pay for the subsidised places of the poorer ones. We shall have to watch this space with interest.

Richard Garner