Trends in Ed: “New” College in Britain

| June 10, 2011

For those of you who confine your consumption of educational news to the western shore of the Atlantic Ocean, you may not be aware of the controversy that has blossomed this week in England over A.C. Grayling’s plans to open a private “New College of the Humanities,” with a prospective fee set at 18,000 pounds per year (roughly $30,000, and twice the maximum fee universities are allowed to charge).  Grayling, a prominent philosopher and atheist, has assembled a star lineup of lecturers, including Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, and Steven Pinker, although it’s obvious that busy men such as they won’t have time to do more than dip in occasionally.

In the days since his announcement, Grayling’s plan has been called “odious,” he has been attacked with a smoke bomb, and all in all generally derided as a “bad man.”  His sin?  Elitism, of course. Grayling’s announcement has come at a time when the British are rethinking their approach to higher education.  Their system has traditionally relied on greater government supervision to ensure equality of access, but there is growing pressure to reduce public spending and increase choice.

A stunt like this is not in itself, perhaps, particularly meaningful (unless you’re desperate to learn at Dawkin’s feet), but I think the response in Britain has been quite revealing.  As the journalist Simon Jenkins observed: “What Grayling has done is caricature the British university. He has cartooned it as no longer an academic community but a high-end luxury consumable for the middle classes.” What Grayling’s proposal makes uncomfortably clear to the leftists who work for and are supported by the university is how much Higher Education is, at its heart, an elitist institution.

It’s no surprise that Eagleton, author of the recent “Why Marx Was Right,” is apoplectic.  More interesting to me is how much more serious and transparent class warfare looks in Britain than in America.  We come across as much more repressed and polite…