Thursday, 9 June 2011

Grayling's NCH - a symptom of decay, or a solution to it?

Outrage at Grayling’s New College of the Humanities is making education headlines this week, but while the wasps are buzzing furiously around this most putrid piece of rotten fruit, it is only the result of decay spreading throughout the whole HE barrow.

Grayling called his project a response to the cuts in humanities teaching at UK universities. It may not be the best response, in moral or social terms, but it is sign of the state of things that he has felt compelled to conduct this, as he calls it, ‘very small experiment.’ He claims NCH is not designed purely to rake in a profit, but to try to maintain some quality humanities teaching in the UK – lest our gifted would-be humanities students fly off to the USA or elsewhere.

Setting aside for now how likely or not it is that a UK student would countenance leaving to pay American university fees, there is a genuine issue driving this worry of his. As an astute audience member pointed out at the Grayling-goading event at Foyles this week, universities such as London Met, which are accessible to students without the usual complement of ‘A’ grades, finances and jobless lifestyle, are cutting back all humanities courses. (Notably, Grayling has just resigned from Birkbeck, another reputable college that welcomes undergraduates holding down jobs and lacking top-notch A levels.)

Humanities access is reducing everywhere, and Grayling’s stated concern is that the UK will lose its status as a place demonstrating the highest quality humanities education. It is not just about teaching, either; research happens in these departments and is lost with them, such as with the disappearance of American Studies at KCL. Grayling’s NCH will not support postgraduate or professional academic research.

The threat to continued humanities development in the UK is compounded by the very sudden change from degrees currently costing around £9k to those costing £25k and upwards from next academic year. Students and parents have not prepared for this by saving up for the last 18 years as they would have in the USA. They are surrounded by people who received the equivalent education at no charge or £3k a year, and are dismayed.

In this period of adjustment to £9k a year degrees, I am sure many students will feel they have to opt for more vocational courses, or at least ones more obviously directed at particular job markets. Some recent graduates even see having a humanities degree as a hindrance when it comes to future employment; what is three years of musing over art history in comparison with three years’ work experience in relevant fields?

Back in 1998, I chose to study Philosophy for the sheer newness of the subject, the mental training I would gain, its relevance to other areas of interest for me, but mostly for the sheer love of learning and stretching my mind. I did not consider this a luxury, as I would now if I were debating what to spend £27k on over three years.

The humanities will lose out on some great minds this way, and we could fall into a self-perpetuating deterioration extremely quickly. By the time the next generation of would-be humanities thinkers has saved up enough money to go and study the subjects of their choice, there will be far less new talent in the field than I encountered as a humanities undergraduate.

It is not clear (yet) how the NCH can better meet the challenge of maintaining quality in the humanities than other good UK colleges and universities. Even if it were clear that it would achieve this, the principle of access is at stake. Instead of turning a profit perhaps Grayling would like to invest in making all the course materials and lectures and NCH available online for those with a passion for learning but finding themselves short of £18k a year.

1 comment:

  1. So true, and before long higher education becomes purely a means to a commercial end. We'll have company sponsored degrees soon, and be poorer for it.

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