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Archive for June 8th, 2011

Frothing at the mouth from bloggers, pundits and others – whether they know what they are talking about or not –  is always amusing, because it tends to lead to polemic at best, ranting at worst.

1.  By a website in writing, dated June 2011, The New College of Humanities (“New Chums” HT to Timothy Pitt-Payne QC) announced their intention to give birth to a “new concept in university-level education. It offers education in excellence and an outstanding academic environment in the heart of London. The College was founded by 14 of the world’s top academics.”

2.  “New Chums” will be financed by a £10 million investment.

(i) “SOME of Britain’s most celebrated academics have secured almost £10m in a private placement to launch a for-profit university that will charge £18,000 a year in tuition fees.”

(ii) “Cavendish Corporate Finance ran the private placing, which attracted investments from individuals and family funds. There are around 30 investors in the venture, including Grayling and most of the academics. The biggest investor is a family trust, which has a 35 per cent stake.” (City AM: New private university in £10m placing )

3. “New Chums” offers – quoted from their website:

  • preparation for a University of London degree, plus the Diploma of New College
  • a staff-student ratio better than 1:10
  • personal attention and one-to-one tutorials
  • richer course content and increased student-staff interaction
  • academic depth combined with practical career skills

Your choice of subjects includes Economics, Law, History, Literature and Philosophy. New College offers the highest-quality education, open to all through scholarships and bursaries.”

These are the basic facts.  Here are a few more ‘facts’:

[a]  The University of London has been providing external degrees – making education accessible to a very wide constituency and demographic – since 1858.   I have been involved in legal education since 1979.  For 12 years I had the pleasure of teaching many thousands of students from all walks of life and from 15 countries worldwide; teaching towards the University of London LLB degree under the auspices of The External Programme.   Our students, in fact, took many of the top London University places and prizes during this period.  The courses were run by Holborn Law Tutors (Now Holborn College), a private company.  We did make a profit – but the fees were not extravagant by today’s standards.

[b] “New Chums” will be providing tuition for the very well regarded London University degrees.  The high fees are a different issue – but there can be no doubting the quality of the degree which the students will receive if they satisfy the demanding examiners.  I express a personal view, from my own experience, that there is only one category of London University degree.  There is, I am still advised, no such thing as an ‘External” degree at London.  The fact that students study online, remotely, or at a private college does not alter the fact that they are awarded a London University degree.  I would also add, that in my opinion, London University degrees are hard and do not appear to have been affected by the ‘degree inflation’ endemic in other parts of our legal education system. It is difficult to get a First  or Upper Second on a London University degree by study outside the traditional University of London Colleges – and, I suspect, within the London colleges, also.

THE PUNDITS ROAR….

First up… David Allen Green, blogging at his excellent Jack of Kent blog:  AC Grayling’s Folly

Professor AC Grayling, a philosopher, has founded a College to teach the humanities to “gifted” undergraduates.

The college will be situated in Bloomsbury, just by the British Museum. It has already selected a “Professoriate” who will supposedly give over 100 lectures a year, notwithstanding almost all of them are academics at foreign universities.

In my view, almost everything about this College is an affront to the critical thinking and evidence-based approach that such an establishment should promote.

It is, in short, a sham.

I don’t agree with David Allen Green  (DAG) and dissect his propositions, seriatim:

1. First, it is not even a College in any meaningful sense.

DAG suggests that by teaching to a London University degree that “New Chums” is not a college.   This proposition is easy to deflect.  “New Chums” will be run on college lines, as many other universities and colleges are, public or private. This is clear from the website.  We have several private universities/colleges  in the UK:  Buckingham University and BPP University College, to name but two in the field of law. Both are extremely successful and well regarded by many.  DAG goes on to support his proposition that the college is not a college by virtue of the students paying £18,000 at “New Chums” when they could get the same degree for much less (£1000-£2000)  I fail to see how this logic makes “New Chums” any less of a college than others.  The teaching fee is, I admit, pacy.  I will address this issue below.

2. Who will these “gifted” students be taught by?

DAG notes that students may well not get much ‘face time’ from the ‘professoriate’ and puts the boot in with a subtle, undermining, side comment..“In law, the two listed professors are not even authorities in any of the seven core LLB courses.”

Given the fairly substantial funding (I return to this later) and the reputation of the ‘founders’, I have no doubt at all that “New Chums” will be able to attract first class teachers on a part-time or full-time basis from some of our top universities.  I had no difficulty at all attracting first rate academics and practitioners in 25 years of running the academic side at Holborn and then, in the 1990s, at BPP  Law School.  In fact, 35+ current members of the Bar who are now practising Silks (QCs) taught at Holborn and/or BPP when they were younger. I also enjoyed the pleasure of working with some superb academic lawyers from leading universities who taught part-time at my colleges.  Professor Ewan Mckendrick –  a major player in the field of Contract law, now of Oxford, to name but one.   I would argue that the second proposition, therefore, may be dispensed with.  “New Chums” will be able to attract good teaching staff.

I have never taken the view that the presence of ‘stellar professors’ is essential to the success of a law (or other degree) school if the teaching staff know what they are doing and have the right skills and qualifications (and enthusiasm).  I suspect that the ‘stellar professors’ will make a good contribution but are unlikely to be right at the heart of day to day teaching and liaison with their students.

3. And what does it mean to be “gifted”?

DAG puts the proposition that being ‘gifted’ may merely involve the ability to pay the substantial fees.  I suspect that “New Chums” will exercise fairly stringent admissions criteria to ensure the quality of cohort.  I would be surprised if they take all who can simply pay. That would not make ‘business sense’ given their philosophical foundation for the ‘model’.  This latter, does not connote support for their philosophy.

DAG then puts the point:  “Almost all the contentions made on the College’s website are misconceived, or do not seem to be substantiated”

My response to this is that they may be ‘misconceived’  in his world view, a view which he is entitled to hold and put forward, but they are all capable of being substantiated. I can’t find much to quarrel with on the “New Chums” website in terms of what they promise and can deliver.  It seems to be fairly well laid out and clear. DAG is correct when he asserts that the students will have to come from a privileged background.  The fees of £18,000 per annum are high.

Let me put this proposition:  A bright student, from a privileged background, can’t get into Oxbridge or other top Russell Group University.  Given the difficulties faced by students from less highly regarded universities in getting a training contract or pupillage, they may well be attracted by getting a first class legal education from “New Chums” and getting a highly regarded London university degree – even if they have to pay through the nose to get it – at no cost to the taxpayer. If they can afford it – and that is a different moralo-ethical issue – why would they go to a less well regarded university where the degree won’t have the currency or regard with employers or Chambers as a University of London degree?

I don’t, for the reasons above, agree that this is AC Grayling’s folly.  I would prefer to see a new college giving very high quality tuition to a wider constituency at a lower price – but I have no real difficulty in saying that this is a venture which is likely to succeed – at no cost to the taxpayer –  but one which will raise many hackles from those, including myself, who prefer education to be provided by the state.  Unfortunately, the state can no longer afford to provide cheap education but that fact should not, of itself, prevent private investors coming into the market.

Professor Grayling, his ‘professoriate’ and their investors may make a complete hash of it. They may not.  I suspect that £10 million will not be enough.  The burn rate will be ‘stellar’.  Finally, I doubt, given my own experience in legal education over thirty years, that a law school can be profitable on anything under 250-300 students at £18,000. I understand that the plan is for the cohort to be rather lower in numbers.   This may not be a wise decision given the very real economics of running law schools  We shall soon see. I suspect the financial and legal press will be watching closely.

OTHER PUNDITRY…

AC Grayling’s private university accused of copying syllabuses

This was amusing to read.  The point has been missed.  “New Chums” are not plagiarising.  They are merely publishing the University of London syllabuses they are teaching to.  Other colleges which teach to University of London degrees do exactly the same.

Give AC Grayling’s new college a chance

Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian:  Critics want to tar and feather the New College for the Humanities’ academics, but this experiment may work

Sarah Churchwell’s article is worth a look.

We will be discussing this issue on #WithoutPrejudice this week.  I suspect that it will be a spirited discussion.  The moral issue of private education, the high fees, the perceived ‘elitism’ of “New Chums” is, of course, a very different matter to the raw fact of existence and execution of the project.

David Allen Green asserted:  “In my view, almost everything about this College is an affront to the critical thinking and evidence-based approach that such an establishment should promote. “

As we don’t have any ‘evidence based’ detail upon which, as yet, to assess the approach “New Chums” are going to take in terms of their teaching and encouragement of students to take responsibility for their own learning, or access to any of their teaching materials, I find it difficult to support this proposition and, therefore, for the present, dismiss it as credible criticism. I am unsure, from the text of David Allen Green’s blog post what he means by ‘evidence based’ approach in this context, so I cannot comment on the latter.

I don’t think the case has been proved that this is AC Grayling’s folly – yet.  I am open to persuasion and argument as always.  I have never developed a taste for coming down mountains with tablets of stone.  I am looking forward to developing this topic in discussion with David Allen Green on the morrow in our fortnightly Without Prejudice podcast.  It should be fun – as indeed, should all debate.

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You may also like to read Sarah Churchwell’s blog post…

Thoughts on the New College for the Humanities

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