Britain has a shortage of university places causing anxiety for students who fear missing out on a college education. So when A.C. Grayling a philosophy professor and well known author tried to discuss his plans for a new university in central London his remarks were greeted with – a smoke bomb and flares, forcing him to abandon the event. No wonder the British press is all abuzz about the New College of the Humanities (NCHUM), a new university which will open its doors in October 2012. It is an ambitious project not least because in Grayling’s own words, he is trying “to make use of an American style model.”
When I hear non Americans refer to an “American model” I have learned to be very afraid. Nine times out of ten an “American model” means the accumulation of money. To his credit Professor A.C. Grayling has done a little more by adopting a diversified curriculum with majors and minors like the American system. This is quite different from the British system where it is normal to specialize immediately. Having said that, he has adopted practices from the British system as well so the most American characteristic about his model is the price tag. And it is this aspect of his NCHUM project that provoked the smoke bomb and subsequent threats to try and disrupt the university’s opening. The tuition fees for NCHUM are a wopping £18,000 (about $30,000.) This is twice what Oxford, Cambridge and other universities are allowed to charge by the government (although the Welsh Assembly is attempting to maintain fees at £3,000.)
Universities in Britain have been traditionally public not private and many people in Britain loathe the idea of a university free from government purse strings which can charge tuition fees as it sees fit. Fees have already increased dramatically from the mere £1000 it cost a generation ago to attend college. And now many people fear this experiment in high priced private education is the slippery slope to the abandonment of the principle of higher education affordability guaranteed by the government.
Professor Grayling has justified the £18,000 tuition fee as a reflection of actual college costs and much of this appears to be based on the need to secure the best faculty. In this he is merely reflecting what British academia has been saying for years. They need to pay their scholars and researchers better or they will lose them to universities in the US that do. So once again the US way of doing things is in the middle of a British educational issue. It’s unfortunate because by not adopting American practices more fully Professor Grayling has not only lost control of the debate over his own institution but he has presented a damaging view of US colleges as solely concerned with famous professors and money. Opinions on US higher education can be pretty polarized with writers that either despise or admire the money we pour into higher education. Either way, what does not seem to have spread beyond our borders is a general understanding of what American students and their parents expect for that money. Without it the most important aspects of the American higher education model are missing.
Students, particularly at small colleges, expect face time with professors. It is assumed that faculty members are approachable. Two members of Grayling’s “professoriate” (as the faculty members are referred to) teach full time at Princeton University in the United States. They will apparently offer a one hour lecture at NCHUM for the entire year! No mystery there. Princeton students, parents and administration expect their professors to work a full course load with office hours. Even Henry Kissinger, who lectured at Georgetown University after stepping down as Secretary of State, had students to advise. By contrast, the workload and duties of professors at Oxford and Cambridge (with which Grayling hopes NCHUM will compete someday) and other universities are relatively light. And make no mistake, although students in Britain focus their attention on tuition costs, when you speak to them you will hear many comment that with rising fees they want more attention from professors and better service from the back office functions at their universities.
American students expect student care and attention in non academic areas to be accessible, efficient and organized. NCHUM has a student life section of the website but if I were a prospective student I would be wary. NCHUM will open its doors in a little over a year and is already considering applications from students aged 17 on up, yet there does not appear to be a student support staff in place. There is a registrar but her job description and experience appear to be academic administration – tests and timetables rather than counseling, housing and student life. In fact, reading their online biographies I could not identify anyone on the faculty, staff or the board with expertise in university student services. Such a person would have known to post pictures of the dorm rooms in order to show off clean, well maintained facilities. Instead of merely announcing to students that they would need to sign up with a local clinic for healthcare there would have been a list with a location map. A student services expert might have ensured that the students had a common room where they can get together and chat — an especially important feature for out of town and international students.
International undergraduate students have been crucial to British higher education and NCHUM will most likely join the market for foreign students as well. Until recently, the international office in UK universities was a euphemisn for the recruitment of international students whose fees (several times that of British students) help to subsidize rising costs. Many are now more into student care but most of them do not approach the standard of US international officers. The true American college model includes people working with international students who do more than recruit and assist with visas. They are concerned with their cultural adjustment and wellbeing. If that is part of NCHUM’s model, it is not evident.
And what about disabilities? NCHUM wants intellectually gifted students. Many highly intelligent people have dyslexia or aspergers or other disabilities. Is there anyone at NCHUM knowledgeable about disabilities support? I hope so, because it is sorely needed. Despite the rhetoric on their websites, the actual experience of students with learning disabilities in UK universities varies widely and can be quite dismal. Here was an opportunity to make a mark and some allies by partnering with UK institutions that value and support their students with disabilities.
A.C. Grayling is of course not alone in his venture. The CEO, staff and board members all have considerable expertise but it is in finance, communications and recruitment (money again). What American college would not have an expert in university student care as part of the management team, particularly in a start up? After all, one day NCHUM will want to have alumni relations, but in order to be involved as alumni people need to feel that they were looked after as students. That too is part of the American model.
The College Day USA fair sponsored by the Fulbright Commission in London has been growing in popularity and press coverage helped along by the word of mouth recommendations by British students at US colleges and by rising UK costs. British students and their parents whom I have met over the years have been thrilled with their American college experience regardless of the size or location of their institution. And that appreciation is only partly about academics. Just as important is faculty contact with students, facilities and the overall student support system. “They obviously care about the students” was one comment. Americans expect the student to be the center rather than the object of the system. That is what they believe their tuition fees are really paying for. Without those things the US college model is just another business. When I read about poor A.C. Grayling retreating from the haze after his aborted speech, I felt I understood him very well. He initiated this new university because he has spent years gazing enviously at his better resourced and supported counterparts in the United States. I have news for him. The British student has been doing exactly the same thing.