British pvt college plan fuels education debate

Plans in Britain to open a private college modelled on US institutions and fronted by high-profile academics to rival public universities have fuelled a debate about the future of higher education.

Prominent philosophy professor A. C. Grayling sent shockwaves through the academic establishment this month when he unveiled plans to launch the New College of the Humanities in London, which will open next year.

Its founders say the college will offer a broad syllabus and intensive teaching that top British universities, even the best known such as Oxford and Cambridge, are struggling to provide.

The new college has enlisted a host of leading academics and will charge $29,000  (Dh106,521) a year, double the amount permitted in the state sector.

Grayling leads the star line-up -- he is a familiar face in Britain because of his controversial views and recently published "The Good Book: A Secular Bible", intended to offer atheists an alternative to the Bible.

With its emphasis on undergraduate teaching and a broad syllabus, the college has drawn comparisons with liberal arts colleges in the United States, such as Williams and Middlebury.

But far from welcoming the new addition to Britain's hard-pressed higher education sector, academics and the left-wing newspapers have reacted with fury.

Terry Eagleton, a prominent literary critic and English professor, denounced the venture as "the thin edge of an ugly wedge."

"If a system of US-type private liberal arts colleges like this one gains ground in Britain, the result will be to relegate an already impoverished state university system to second-class status," he wrote in the left-leaning Guardian daily.

Much of the anger has been directed at the fee level at the college, which has been unveiled just months after universities in England -- almost all of which are state-funded -- were given permission to charge £9,000 a year.

The new fees in the state sector were meant to plug a black hole caused by the removal of a huge chunk of government funding as part of austerity measures.

Several days after unveiling the plan on June 5, Grayling, a mild-mannered, bespectacled 62-year-old, was heckled as he gave a talk at a London book shop which ended with a protester setting off a red smoke flare.

Some people have however spoken up in support of the venture, which is being backed by millions of pounds from private investors.

"If we seriously expect to provide robust and sustainable courses that will be a match for the very best that British schools can currently offer, something radical -- such as founding a new university, for example -- has to be done," wrote Clarissa Farr, head of a private London girls' school and a member of the new college's advisory board, in The Times daily.

On its website, the New College of the Humanities says it offers one-to-one tutorials that "are becoming a rarity even at Oxford and Cambridge," as well as a broader syllabus than most university courses currently offer.

Students will take a degree from one of five subject areas -- law, economics, history, English literature and philosophy -- and will in addition have to study extra subjects, including critical thinking and applied ethics.

Other high-profile academics at the institution include Richard Dawkins, like Grayling a celebrity atheist, and historian Niall Ferguson, an expert in financial and economic history and a regular commentator on television and radio.

But Grayling has his work cut out to persuade doubters.

Martin Frost, a lecturer in geography at Birkbeck College, the university Grayling is quitting to head the new college, blasted the venture as a "rip-off".

"Sooner or later people are going to realise what is being offered. It's not a good product," he told AFP.

Frost, one of more than 30 Birkbeck academics who signed a letter voicing their opposition, believes a major factor working against New College's chances of success is the fact that it does not have degree-awarding powers.

Although the institution describes itself as a "university college", it has not been awarded powers by the government to award degrees, a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which deals with higher education, confirmed to AFP.

Instead, it will prepare students to take University of London degrees in the university's international programme, which allows people not based at or registered with its colleges to register for the university's awards.

 

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