Is Grayling's New College a New Oxbridge?
I have only just discovered that A C Grayling has plans to launch a new private university. I have to confess to some sympathy with this: if there is to be a sustained assault on the humanities, then maybe someone has to get off their ass and take the teaching into their own hands; and if there are to be more and more central demands from central government (many of them tick-box, but still hugely time-consuming), then maybe one simply has to set up a new show outside of all that silliness.
But it's when I see this New College headlined as a "New Oxbridge" that I reach for my gun (that might be hacks' fault, of course, not A C Grayling's).
What this looks like is a US style liberal arts college, which can be a very good thing, but is a very different animal indeed from Oxbridge.
So what's the difference between New College and Oxbridge (and almost every other top -rank UK university for that matter).
First: it will offer no science degrees (there will be some science teaching as a background course). One of the best characteristics of a place like Cambridge is that it teaches sciences alongside arts and humanities -- which both fields benefit from (their staff and students, in college and common room). The university, in other words, is (and should be) an active and pro-active bulwark against the division of the Two Cultures. It is good for physicists to have classicists around, and vice versa.
Second: so far as I can see, the New College will be for undergraduates only (like most US liberal arts' colleges). No Masters or doctoral students.
One of the crucial things about Oxbridge etc is that they teach and employ people at every stage of their academic careers, from undergraduates through graduates, and post-docs, lectureers to professors. And indeed the fostering of the next generation of academics, and the constructive intellectual relationships between undergraduates and those the next stage up on the academic ladder, are an important part of what a really good university is about (the Harvard model, rather than the liberal arts model). In fact there is something a bit parasitic about the New College plans (much in the way that a private hospital is parasitic on the NHS). Teaching smart young undergraduate students is only one part of the job; it's also about training the next generation of teachers who will teach the next generation of undergraduates (like training the next generation of doctors and nurses).
As for other aspects of the plans, it's too early to tell yet about the financial base and the fee support that will be available to those who cant find £18,000 a year for the fees (so far there are plans for financial assistance to only 20% of the intake). But there must already be some question over the star studded list of profs who are blazoned through the reports this morning. Let me be honest, some of them I count as my friends -- and I hope they stay that way. But I really dont imagine that those with full time jobs in the USA will be giving those jobs up; they will make it to New College at most for a few weeks a year. And a good number of the others are well into retirement (including one who is almost 80). Sure, we don't always make the most productive use of academics in their 70s (when good scholars can sometimes be producing their best work), but again it is a different ballgame from appointing people to an academic career.
We shall have to wait to see what Grayling and co. do about the younger staff. But meanwhile can I say that if anyone comes to Newnham College Cambridge to read Classics, I shall be teaching them (except for occasional terms of research leave) throughout their three or four years as an undergraduate... in small groups, sometimes one-to-one, in college, round the kitchen table, off in Paris...
My final doubt though is whether it is too soon for these guys to be jacking in the mainstream university system. Directing their considerable energies to the new independent enterprise will mean that they have much less energy to direct to what is happening across the state funded (or 'unfunded') humanities in general. I find myself comparing them to the old SDP. One can understand why the "Gang of Three" left the old Labour Party. But in retrospect it might have been better if they had stayed in and fought. In fact, ironically, they might have kept it a good deal more left-wing than it has become.