In the last two days Grayling has fought back at critics of NCH in the Guardian and the Independent, building arguments to which he has asked for a response. I’ve looked at these, and as a product of higher education in philosophy I have tried to provide some responses for him. The points attributed to him here are taken from the two articles linked above.
Grayling’s arguments in favour of NCH:
- NCH is not diverting public funds from education, but rather proposes channelling money into education
Nobody is claiming that NCH will divert public funds, but that is not the only kind of wealth at issue here. As Grayling himself points out, society as a whole benefits from higher education even though only a minority experience it. NCH will divert some intellectual wealth by taking on faculty who would otherwise be available to other institutions, as well as some students with high academic potential.
I’m sure it’s clear to everyone that NCH will channel money into education (even if it is Peter Hall’s). However, how it does that, and how much, will not be regulated and might not be fair or good, or in the interest of access, and nobody will be able to do anything about that. Other colleges and universities, while not perfect, at least all have to operate according to one set of rules.
- NCH is adding university places to those already available
This is occurring at a time when 10,000 publicly funded places are being cut. The places NCH is adding will not be accessible to a large proportion of the would-be student body, even those who can just about manage the £9k a year charged by the best publicly funded universities. So it is adding places, but effectively only improving access for a small (well-off) proportion of applicants.
- NCH’s aims are to promote quality in education and be publicly committed to accessibility (with 30% of places funded or part-funded in future)
I don’t doubt the statement – one to one tutorials are undoubtedly good for students, and the faculty at NCH will surely be high calibre. However, it is hard to marry a stated commitment to accessibility with the overall act of largely creating places only accessible to the money-rich, rather than the intellect-rich. 30% of NCH places will equate to 330 or so when the college is at full capacity – so roughly 3% of the total being cut in publicly funded institutions.
There are myriad ways to improve access to education for large numbers of students, for example through internet and correspondence learning, which keeps costs down. There is also a broader problem of accessibility in the entire higher education system that Grayling is ignoring – more on this below (point 5).
Grayling’s defence against objections stated by his ex-colleagues at Birkbeck, amongst others:
- NCH is not at the vanguard of marketising education
Grayling argues that publicly funded universities have been doing this for years by increasing quotas of foreign students and charging them inflated fees, with unpleasant results: if this does not displace home students, he says, it at least increases the number of bodies in classes.
By arguing that publicly funded universities are already garnering private funds, and in a more damaging way than NCH will, Grayling is asking us to forgive a lesser sin. It is equivalent to arguing that one should be let off for serial shoplifting because there are others stealing more by tax evasion, or even claiming that GBH doesn’t count because it’s not as bad as attempted murder. If things are going badly in a system, it is a strange response in moral terms to join in, albeit in a way you find less bad than the worst offenders.
Moving from principle to practicality, slightly larger seminar groups are a minor inconvenience for many students in comparison with an extra £9k per year in fees on top of the usual amount. Whilst one to one tutorials are undoubtedly good for learners, there are many other teaching methods that are less costly in monetary terms and still provide excellent education.
Lastly, even if universities are taking overseas students in order to increase funds to spend on education, this does not change the fees – and therefore the perceived accessibility of a particular university – for home students.
- Objection to private education is a prejudice, not a thought
Oh, a juicy one. Private education is already contributing massively to the problem of accessibility and fairness in admissions. Many private schools are dubbed ‘A level factories’ for a reason, and many a teaching academic will have encountered those triple-A students who can barely string a sentence together, let alone an independent thought, once they have to rely on their own faculties. As a teaching postgraduate, I met ex-private school students who begged me to teach them how to think for themselves, rather than how to pass an exam. Many such individuals can make it into high-ranking academic institutions after two years of interview training and fact-cramming. However their skills sometimes (not always) reflect their parent’s ability to make a financial investment: they are wealthy, but not in intellect. If higher education is going to be elitist, it should be elitist about academic ability, not ability to pay. It is mind-wealth that should count, not money-wealth, but the latter can create the illusion of the former, while others rich in independent thinking faculties can find that nothing truly brings out this potential in the system they encounter up to age 18.
- Objectors choose not to believe that Grayling is “emphatically in favour of higher education as a great public good that should be fully and properly funded through taxation.”
He goes on, “It is a great public good in which society as a whole should invest properly, because even though a minority of people go to university, all of society benefits from their doing so.” I don’t think objectors choose not to believe he thinks this. They may have believed it before, but many feel forced to change their beliefs based on Grayling actions, despite his words.
However, the point is really that Grayling claims he still believes this. Of all people, Grayling must be well aware of the is/ought distinction. How things are rarely matches how they ought to be, but the ought gives us something to aspire to, something to aim for. The higher education system is faulty; access is already skewed. For those with clout, like Grayling and his celebrity academics at NCH, there are numerous principled (and less principled) ways to respond to this. To observe a dog-eat-dog world and choose to join it, rather than reject such a development and aim higher, is not amongst the more principled responses. It’s a bit like saying, we all ought to be kind and thoughtful, but actually we’re not, so let’s just get on with being rude, shall we?