Undercover Economist

June 10, 2011 10:58 pm

On A.C. Grayling, odium and the Stasi

Tim Harford wonders whether the New College of Humanities will be a success

“Have you heard about this new private university that A.C. Grayling bloke is setting up?”

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“The one that’s 18 grand a year?”

“That’s the one.”

“Can’t say I’ll be queuing up to pay that myself.”

“Why would you? You’re thirty-nine. You’ve had an education at the University of Life.”

“The University of Life doesn’t come cheap either, mate. Seems a bit funny, though, to pay over £50,000 for a degree based on the promise that you might get to see Richard Dawkins give a lecture. I mean, you can see Richard Dawkins give a lecture at Waterstones if you’re willing to wait for his next book tour.”

“Terry Eagleton agrees with you. I read this thing he wrote in the Guardian. He said the whole idea was odious.”

“Odious?”

“That was the word. He said that Grayling peddles Just So stories and Dawkins touts a simple-minded version of history, and neither of them are likely to turn up very often. So it’s going to be rubbish. Also, he says it’s going to be an ultra-Oxbridge, the beginnings of an educational apartheid, where rich students stroll into plush jobs thanks to their degrees from the New College of the Humanities.”

“Interesting. I suppose one of those things might be true.”

“Either of them might be true, mate. Either of them. Probably not both at once, though.”

“Smart bloke, though, that Terry Eagleton. I read his book Literary Theory once. Good stuff.”

“Yes. He says education shouldn’t be a commodity. His students shouldn’t be asked to choose between the mediocre £10 insights on Wuthering Heights and the sparkling £50 version. True words. How much did Literary Theory cost you?”

“It was £7.99 if I recall. It was a few years back, though. Paperback.”

“Paperback? And of course those Eton types would have been able to afford the hardback for twice the price. Odious.”

“At least the article in the Guardian was free. If you had an internet connection. Otherwise you had to pay. A bit of a two-tier system, come to think of it.”

“Another pint?”

“Thanks. The last round cost me almost as much as a copy of Eagleton’s Literary Theory – and it was over a lot more quickly, too.”

“So what do you reckon is going to happen to this private university?”

“I don’t know. If they’re charging twice as much as anyone else for a substandard product I expect they’ll be as profitable as a taxidermist specialising in stuffed puppies.”

“Who cares? It’s not as if it’s the Millennium Dome – I mean, we’re not paying for it, are we?”

“Probably not. Unless A.C. Grayling is backed by a loan from a nationalised bank, which is not a possibility I’d like to rule out.”

“But if it’s going to go belly up and it’s not taxpayer funded, what’s the problem?”

“I don’t know, really. Maybe the problem is that it will end up being really successful, pioneering all kinds of high-quality educational techniques, freeing up space at other universities and attracting talented academics to London from around the world, but only rich kids will enjoy the benefits.”

“I can see how it would be worrying. It would be a bit like West Germany in the days of the Berlin Wall – very inconvenient for the more community-minded citizens of the East if money-grubbing pushy types keep trying to go west.”

“I don’t think Terry Eagleton is planning to gun down would-be NCH students with a Kalashnikov, to be honest.”

“No, fair play. I’m sure not. At 54 grand for a degree I don’t think he’ll need to, either. It’s probably going to be a disaster.”

“It probably is. I suppose there is the chance that they might experiment with all kinds of new ideas, though, and discover something useful about providing a good education. And those good ideas might even be copied by the rest of the university system.”

“Don’t make me laugh. It’s not likely, is it?”

“No. It’s not likely. And it’s certainly not a chance we should take. Odious is the word.”

“Yes. Mind you, the country is full of odious things. There’s Razzle, and Frappuccino, and celebrity biographies. Look at us. A free country, and this is how we choose to spend our money.”

“Yes. A disturbingly free country. Odiously so.”

tim@timharford.com

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