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American-Style College Comes to Britain

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 7, 2011 08:09 AM

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A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, Christopher Ricks, Peter Singer -- together, they constitute an all-star team of professors from across the liberal arts. This week they’ve announced that they’ll be teaching for the same college: the New College in the Humanities, a higher-education startup in London. It will be headed by Grayling, a philosopher and logician, and backed by a group of venture capitalists and businessmen. The college promises to bring American-style liberal-arts education to Britain, at American prices: the tuition is £18,000 a year, or about $30,000. That's $20,000 cheaper than Harvard, but twice as expensive as Oxford and Cambridge.


A. C. Grayling.

New College seems to be aiming for something halfway between a research university and a liberal arts college. Details are still a little murky, but it looks as though the star-studded professors (none of whom have given up their posts at their current universities) will be giving lectures, supported by "subject conveners" who are, essentially, distinguished-but-ordinary professors. That structure is reminiscent of an American research university. The student body, however, will be very small -- according to The Guardian, only 200 students will be admitted the first year -- and a lot of the instruction will be built around a one-on-one tutorial system.

This is a cautiously innovative model. As Tyler Cowen points out, the plan seems to be to "rent illustrious names rather than paying the whole set of fixed costs." And the course offerings are subtly different, with required courses in Logical and Critical Thinking, Science Literacy, Applied Ethics, and Professional Skills. The college will offer financial aid, but the incoming students will certainly be wealthy: writing at RichardDawkins.net, Grayling argues that a good education just is expensive. "If you look at what UK universities charge overseas students," he writes, "and at fees at US Ivy League universities, you get an idea of the true cost of a high quality higher education." This is a sensitive subject, as public subsidies for higher education in Britain are being slashed left and right.

Here in the U.S., of course, everyone is freaking our about our broken higher-ed system. We have an expensive, privatized high-end, and an underfunded, public low-end. Britain, meanwhile, has always aimed for the middle. Much of the commentary on the College is, inevitably, going to focus on how it's funded. But Grayling seems less interested in the business aspects, and more interested in the intellectual ones. The goal, he explains, is "bridging the CP Snow gap" -- the gap, that is, between the two cultures of science and the humanities. Modern universities, he argues, are on their way to creating "a society that knows nothing of history , cares nothing about literature, and never asks great questions about life, society and value"; at the same time, they have failed "to bring extended examples of serious, disciplined, evidence-and-reason-based scientific styles of thinking into the humanities curriculum." The New College of the Humanities, he explains, aims to do both.

So there are two things to watch here. First: will the College's innovations in high-end education work, socially and fiscally? Second, can its intellectual program succeed? Most commentators seem dubious on both counts, but there's no need to rush to judgment: higher education needs more experimentation, not less.

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