19 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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UK: The fight for the humanities begins in earnest

There has been much warranted criticism of the alliance of academic moonlighters, venture capitalists and multi-millionaires behind the UK's new private university, the New College of the Humanities, set up by the philosopher AC Grayling and his fellow public schoolboys.

What is important, though, is to understand what this project represents; why it is so important; and the opportunity it gives people who care about the public provision of university education.

New College of the Humanities (NCH), in terms of both its structure as a 'partnership' of academics and money-makers (whether severally or jointly) and its direct appeal to the rich, puts it at the vanguard of the UK coalition government's attempt to privatise university education and make critical thinking safe for neo-liberalism.

The so-called stars of the academy who will teach at the university make a direct offer to potential customers, an offer of course publicly subsidised - just like the banks - and the latter buy entry to a version of the Oxbridge finishing school that in turn opens the door to the UK's old boys' (and sometimes girls') club.

What should be a critical education that enables people to think for themselves re-emerges as what for centuries before the 1963 Robbins report on widening university participation it always largely was, at best a self-indulgent leisure pursuit of the rich, at worst a commodity to be traded for influence and power.

But why does this matter so much?

Isn't writer Deborah Orr's recent dismissal in the Guardian newspaper pretty much right? "There's no great likelihood," she writes, "that Grayling's institution will have massive significance...People from rich families will be offered further choice in their higher education, in a small adjustment to already choice-laden lives. Big deal."

She's wrong, for two reasons.

First, the arts and humanities - already cut off from public funding - will inevitably come to be thought of as playthings of the rich, as something that's 'not for us'. Second, and even worse, this instantiation of what Prime Minister David Cameron might term the 'Big Society', a union of (educational) idealism and (financial) hardheadedness, offers the unelected, mandate-free coalition government the model they need for handing education, health and everything else to the market.

That Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer and others who think of themselves as 'leftish' fail to see this Trojan Horse for what it is, is testament to their idiocy, not to the new university's irrelevance.

That takes me to what this means for those of us who do have a real commitment to a decent education for all, to teaching people, rather than to class privilege and to passing on power to 'people like us'.

Grayling and co's unashamed disregard for higher education as a public good and as a means of making the world - rather than their own world - a better place, gives academics committed to the public good a wonderful opportunity.

It invites us radically to differentiate our vision of university education from theirs and the coalition's, and to find ways of showing the general public that we're serious about it.

We need a massive campaign to show people that the creators of NCH don't represent academics. Already the groundswell of anger is impressive, not least because it comes from so many colleagues who haven't been at the forefront of the campaign against the increase in tuition fees, who haven't been prominent in resisting the commodification of the universities, who don't regard themselves as militants or radicals.

Look at Oxford's extraordinary declaration of no confidence in Universities Minister David Willetts and its support for colleagues at London Metropolitan University! Maybe their gut response can be harnessed and directed into a campaign to extend critical public education, to make 'widening participation' a genuine reality, to use the humanities to inspire people with knowledge and to help them gain and exercise the confidence that brings.

Of course, some academics will object that this is to bring politics into education. And they're right: that's exactly what it is. But the time for self-indulgent squeamishness about the political function of education is past.

The people fronting NCH haven't the slightest compunction about politicising university education: if what they're pushing doesn't count as politicising it, then not even Mao's 'cultural revolution' counts. Make no mistake: the neo-liberals are genuine revolutionaries.

Yes, universities are an arena of politics. Yes, even the most disinterested academic work is political. For, as J S Mill insisted, the purpose of universities is to make "capable and cultivated human beings". And that's a political ideal, whatever else it also is.

This nasty, shoddy, plagiarised attempt to further the neo-liberals' dystopia gives the rest of us an opportunity to fight for that ideal.

* Bob Brecher is professor of moral philosophy at the University of Brighton.
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