The New College of the Humanities: The Third Way for Academia?

The New College of the Humanities, a recently launched liberal arts university in Bloomsbury, London, has attracted much attention for its high tuition fees and highly acclaimed professors.

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    The New College of the Humanities opened this Autumn.
    (Image source: www.nchum.org)

    The New College of the Humanities, a recently launched liberal arts university in Bloomsbury, London, has attracted much attention for its high tuition fees and highly acclaimed professors. It opened in autumn of this year to a group of only 60 students, who have just completed their first semester. The College’s Master A.C. Grayling– the former Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College (University of London) and a Supernumerary Fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford– initiated the project and masterminded its development, making both the financial and academic contacts necessary for such an establishment. Many questions have been raised about the initiative–not in the least concerning its hefty tuition fees, but rather regarding its potential to pave a middle-way between British and American academia.

    The College is known as much as anything for its £18,000 of annual tuition, a figure that is exactly double the level currently capped by the British government. Given the school’s independent status however, it is of course free to ignore this ceiling. Despite the notoriety of its financial demands, the NCH (as it is often abbreviated) is most famous for the scores of renown academics that it has managed to attract. Surely this will in part have been due to  Professor Grayling’s formidable academic connections, but given the College’s precept that ‘really good academics should be paid more’, its likely the impressive crowd were lured by the prospect of higher renumeration.

    The New College of the Humanities is based in Bloomsbury (Image source: stevecadman on Flickr)

    The crowd of inaugural professors include Grayling’s atheist comrade-in-arms Richard Dawkins, the Scottish historian and Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson, leading theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss (who is to be ordained Professor of Science), and Henry VIII expert Suzannah Lipscomb, just to name a few. By grouping so many prestigious names in one place, each a leader in his or her respective field, one of the College’s (perhaps) unintended consequences has been to solidify the nascent concept of the “celebrity academic”. Yet some have apprehended that the College is relying too heavily on its top names, urging it to build an academic structure that will outlast individual reputations.

    Historian Suzannah Lipscomb is among the College’s new Professors.
    (Image source: twitter.com)

    Fortunately, this is exactly what the course make up appears to be doing. There are currently six single honours courses available, from which students choose one course to build their academic path around. In offering single subject courses in the likes of English, Economics, History, and Philosophy, the College more closely resembles the University of Cambridge‘s academic structure than it does that of Oxford, as the latter mostly pairs such subjects into joint courses.

    One field that is a welcome exception to this is that of international relations, which is paired with politics. This is a refreshing prospect, given the concerns that many British students have raised about how their courses are organized. Once an isolated specialty considered a fragile sub-branch of political science and practised almost uniquely by American universities, in recent years the subject has leapt towards the centre ground of British academia. Offering it jointly with politics is symbolic of NCH’s attempt to strike a balance between British and American academic approaches, and it’s likely this will have a positive effect on incoming applications from political enthusiasts in the UK. In its first year the international intake has been limited to students coming out of the EU, though its likely this policy will change once the College expands.

    There are two aspects that distinguish NCH from other UK institutions. The first is its advent of a compulsory “professional programme”, pioneered by its co-founder and convenor Matthew Batstone. Designed to offer “preparation for professional life“, the programme comprises a series of courses on marketing, strategy, finance, and technology– skills deemed to be “central to modern society“. The inclusion of such an agenda is a welcome departure from the restrictions usually encountered when choosing university courses, where dissimilar subjects are often made impossible to combine. At NCH, one could for example persue an English degree without having to worry about falling behind in skills often termed more “relevant” to the modern world.

    Scottish Historian and Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson will also be teaching at NCH. (Image source: +ecumenix on Flickr)

    Batstone also stresses that NCH acts as an alternative to, rather than a surrogate for, the Oxbridge experience. Indeed, the professional programme is not the only compulsory element of the College’s diploma. Students are also required to complete three core modules comprising “science literacy”, “applied ethics and logic”, and “critical thinking”, and must also take four modules from other courses in order to broaden their scope of learning. Mr. Batstone concedes that this formula of combining compulsory courses with additional electives (on top of one’s ordinary degree) one “informed more by the example of American liberal art colleges“ than any British tradition. When such an approach–hoping to balance breadth in choice with strength in depth–is accompanied by the kind of seminar system offered at Oxbridge, it can hope combine the best of both British and American academia, and in short “marry liberal arts breadth with tutorial depth“.

    Despite its daunting price tag, or perhaps because of it, the New College of the Humanities seems not only to be offering something new, but something entirely original. It may be well prove the solution to the differences in the British and American systems that we’ve all been waiting for.