New College: a degree from A Good University

Depending on who you talk to, the planned New College of the Humanities is the saviour of British education or its death knell.

To some, setting up a private college is a long-overdue move to put Britain back into competition with the diverse (and pricey) halls of academia across the Atlantic.

To others, it’s a step backwards, a return to a time when higher education was limited to the sons (not daughters) of the wealthy and entitled.

As a graduate, I, like most of the most disgruntled commentators on the subject, won’t be able to study at New College. Though my graduate status isn’t the biggest obstacle; I’m not sure where in my pockets I’d find the £18,000 fees.

But while I can understand the rage about the price, I can’t get too excited about the “controversial” news that the College will teach “exactly the same syllabuses as the University of London” at double the price. Because it’s only the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

If I were a student at the University of London, I’d consider myself unbelievably lucky to be able to study on a course deemed exemplary by a bunch of Britain’s brightest intellectuals – but not pay what they considered it to be worth.

Students are chuffed when a bottle of wine is on BOGOF at the supermarket. I’d say a half-price degree would merit at least a cheer.

But more importantly, I think the critics have resoundingly missed the point. It doesn’t really matter what the New Collge students learn. They could spend their days finger-painting and meditating, safe in the knowledge that the hefty fee thair devoted parents forked out for will net them A Degree From A Good University.

A university degree is – and has been for a long time – about the piece of paper at the end and also what logo is on that piece of paper.

Whatever the content of the course at Cambridge was, compared with the content of the course at the University of Nowheresville – even if the content was exactly the same – Cambridge is always going to look more impressive than Nowheresville on a CV.

Students, the savvy ones anyway, choose their universities based on prestige.

I’m sure there were plenty of universities around Britain with politics courses tailored to what I wanted to study, but one of my key considerations was how well my choice of campus would be regarded.

Place trumped course, because I knew few employees would be interested in the specifics of what I studied. I knew they’d care far more whether it was a Red Brick or a former poly.

New College could end up with a terrible reputation. If it does, the critics can pat themselves on the back and go away smug in the knowledge that education is not for sale even though a few fools spent a lot of money trying to buy it.

But if it does grow to rival Oxbridge or the Ivy League, applicants will want to go there because of that, not because of what they could learn when they get there. How many Oxbridge applicants study the module guides (except as interview fodder)? Most of them see Oxbridge, not any particular course, as the holy grail.

To answer Shakespeare, when it comes to higher education, there’s an awful lot in a name.

Education should be the point of university, but it’s never going to be, so long as league tables are published and universities focus on publicity and self-promotion at the expense of teaching.

Attacking New College for playing the system at its own game is not going to change that.


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