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Coffee House

A. C. Grayling interview: being hated, the need for private universities and celebrity academics

28 January 2014

4:10 PM

28 January 2014

4:10 PM

Professor Anthony Clifford Grayling is on top of the world. Well, Bloomsbury. Sitting in his office overlooking Bedford Square, the Master of the New College of Humanities can barely contain his self-satisfaction. ‘We have been more successful than anybody could have guessed,’ he informs me.

Two years ago, ‘one of the most hated men in academia’ was the target of eggs, smoke bombs and insults when he announced a new £18,000-a-year private university. His aim was to marry the tutorial teaching model with a challenging liberal arts course — with the help of some celebrity friends. Academics, foes and friends all rounded against Grayling and willed his experiment to fail.

Although the hatred has dissipated, the NCH’s master acknowledges both himself and his college provoke anger. ‘There are plenty of people that are cross about it but I hope there are worthier objects of dislike than my old self.’

Still, it cannot have been easy to see so many of his academic friends turn on him. He’s quick to attack literary critic Terry Eagleton, who described the NCH as ‘odious’. ‘Mr Eagleton was caught out teaching at one of the most expensive universities in the United States and getting a very fat fee for it. Hypocrisy takes a new name there,’ Grayling says smugly. ‘But other more serious colleagues and friends of mine in higher education, who have the same sort of outlook as I do politically, I did find a little disappointing.’

With his trademark grey hair, donnish quarters at the top of the college and oval glasses, A. C. Grayling does not have the air of an education revolutionary. Neither does the New College of Humanities, an institution that, despite the naysayers, opened in 2012.

The pupils filtering in and out bear the trademarks of normal university students —messenger bags, large textbooks, scruffy trainers and raggy scarves. No apparent ‘Tim Nice But Dim’ figures.

[Alt-Text]


Unlike most college masters, Grayling knows all of his pupils personally and frequently has students round to tea. He sees this as key for the ‘serendipity of exchange of ideas, debate, discussion, which are just as important as the formal part of education.’

NCH students taking tea.

NCH students taking tea.

Who is the typical New College of Humanities student? ‘They’ve got to be bright, they’ve got to be enthusiastic and they have to be committed,’ he says. They are mostly British, because ‘their command of English has to be excellent’. The college is unlikely to take in large numbers of Chinese students, for example. Grayling suspects when ‘the net is broadened’ it will be people from North America, Australia and India.

They must also be very intelligent. ‘We ask them to do so much, they’ve got to be bright, they’ve got to be enthusiastic and they have to be committed,’ he reels off. Grayling is confident enough in his own selection abilities that every student is interviewed and hand picked, regardless of exam results. ‘Exams don’t suit everybody and university is a very different place from school’.

But, do they need to be rich? Although the majority of entrants come from independent schools, Grayling is quick to stress the NCH offers a wide range of scholarships and exhibitions. ‘We make a great deal of effort to get out to state schools, maintained schools and say they mustn’t be put off by the fact that we’re independent’, he says. Eventually, Grayling hopes the NCH’s finances will allow a ‘needs-blind’ policy when considering applicants.

Does he see the NCH a mechanism to assist with social mobility? Although a believer in the ‘social engineering aspect of education’, the Master feels the ‘leveling of the playing field’ is something that should be done at the primary and secondary level. ‘It is not the duty of universities to be trying to correct historical social injustices, it should be the business of institutions to foster excellence.’

One of the accusations thrown at the New College of Humanities is that it is elitist. ‘There is nothing wrong with elitism,’ Grayling explains. ‘The thing that there’s something wrong with is exclusivity.’ Not that his college falls into this category. ‘We are not a refuge. We’re not an emergency room in a hospital, we’re an educational institution trying to do what it does well’. For his staff to do a ‘very good job’, the intake has to be limited.

During the government’s time in office, the NCH is the only ‘quality institution’ that has opened —‘ something Grayling describes as ‘very surprising’. He would very much like to see the government dole out similar freedoms to those wanting to setup universities. ‘Let’s see the government being as active as Mr. Gove has been in trying to see much more in the way of opportunity in higher education’, he says.

Front Cover- NCH building

The New College of Humanities in Bedford Square

But he is in no rush to take on the bigger universities. ‘It is terribly important [for us] to grow carefully. So if one grows too fast you might topple over and if you grow too slowly you miss out on opportunities.’ Despite his reservations, the college has doubled in size last year and Grayling he is still hopeful the NCH will be home to over a thousand students within a decade.

Grayling has clearly thrown himself fully into his experiment, but he is not yet a full time Master. He’s still the notorious atheist academic writer. ‘I’m busy doing another book. I did two last year and that’s a very key part of what I do. I think anybody teaching must also be active in their research and in their thinking.’

And we are back to where the NCH fuss started — celebrity academics. By recruiting names such as Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson, many felt Grayling was charging a premium to be taught by celebrity names. Does he see any down sides to academics, like himself, moulding themselves into public figures, whose recognition with the wider world undoubtedly sells the NCH to prospective pupils? ‘Anybody with the interest and the capacity who can take what they do in their research and in their teaching and offer it as part of the public conversation,’ Grayling says.

And with that curt response, our time is up. As Grayling says goodbye, he points upwards at a small cupola outside his office. ‘Simply looking upwards makes the spirit soar, doesn’t it?’


The next Spectator debate: ‘A liberal arts education is a waste of time and money.’ Anthony Seldon, Julia Hobsbawm, Harry Cole and Doug Richard will go head-to-head on 4 March. Click here to book tickets.

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