Interview: A.C. Grayling

TABATHA LEGGETT talks to maverick philosopher A.C. GRAYLING.

A C Grayling funding cuts government cuts higher education humanities London New College philosophy Tabatha Leggett university

The launch of A.C. Grayling’s new university – an Oxbridge style academy charging £18 000 a year – has put him at the centre of a passionate media debate.

The New College of the Humanities (NCH), which presents itself as a reaction to the government’s cuts to funding for arts subjects, will be a for-profit enterprise boasting a fantasy dinner party line up of celebrity academics.

I meet him as the vitriolic and frequently personal media furore is dying down, to see how he’s bearing up.

“A lot of the criticism, and indeed – a lot of the really painful, personal criticism – has come from my own family, my fellow academics,” he explains biting into a Fiorentina pizza in a small Italian restaurant in central London.

He certainly seems shaken by the relentless attention, so much so that it takes two hours to actually reach him, after a frantic march around London in an attempt to find him/ anyone who knows him/ anyone who might have met him once.

“I’m frightfully sorry,” he apologises, “I completely forgot. As you can imagine, the last couple of weeks have been awfully hectic, and completely overwhelming.”

Still, he must have expecting something of the backlash; after all, he is setting up a for-profit private education institution at the very time the public voice is finally clamouring for education reform.

Recently, a journalist interviewing Grayling in his house sneaked upstairs to count the bottles of hairspray in his bathroom. “I was very upset,” Grayling says. “It was a tremendous violation of privacy.”

Grayling feels more betrayed by The Guardian than anyone else. “My old newspaper, which I’ve loved for years and wrote for, actually led the charge against me, largely because they are the house journal of the academic community. I felt they channeled a lot of the negative response for it.

I knew we’d face some criticism, but I also thought that because I agree with the campaign against cuts, people would know I was on that side of the argument.”

Is he? According to more critical commentators, Grayling’s decision to opt out of the debate over how to allocate public funds to higher education amounts to treachery.

The government’s higher education policy combines cutting funding (in particular to humanities subjects) with a removal of the cap on fees. The ‘side of the argument’ Grayling is referring to is concerned with the former and, although a lot of Grayling’s answers seem rehearsed, his stance is clear: “Our economy is fed by people who study humanities – they teach people to be thoughtful and see things with a broader perspective.” So he wants to do his bit to provide it.

Yet, while the NCH claims to be using the extra money to fund bursaries for 20% of places, make no mistake – he will be making money from it.

The issue people have with privately funded education is similar to the concern over healthcare – quality of service is always more important than profitability, which becomes the only salient criterion in a market. Grayling is quick to dismiss it as a knee-jerk or a sentimental reaction, but while some of the money will be reinvested into the company, the dispensing of philosophy (and ‘financial literacy’ tuition, a product of its funding structure) will be subject to the logic of the market – it must be instrumental to an increasing return of shareholders who pay for the £10 million start up costs.

If this is what raises the efficiency of businesses, will it also raise the standard of education? Presumably. Grayling explains that an ideal world would not operate in this way.

“I wanted to set up a charity, but when I looked into it, I realised that trying to raise that amount of money would take years.

“Almost all the universities in the country are already part privatized, despite this being kept undercover.”

But this is a bigger issue than just whether the NCH will end up as a philosophy factory. Even as Grayling maintains he is just making up the deficit in humanities tuition by providing a centre for elite learning, he displays almost deliberate ignorance of the context of his mission, or its likely repercussions.

“We see ourselves as representing a challenge. Other universities have to compete with us,” he acknowledges.

I have no doubt that he genuinely believes that the philosophy behind NCH is valuable. And, in a sense, what he is saying is absolutely right: a broader education system cannot be criticized solely for being broad. But, the implication is that if the NCH is successful, more universities will follow suit and privatise. Grayling doesn’t see this as a problem.

“What we (NCH) are charging is how much it costs to give good tuition. Look at what Cambridge is charging overseas students. LSE’s highest fee for a postgrad course is £26 000 a year.”

As the debate moves on to how we should be allocating public funding to balance quality with access, Grayling’s move is a huge statement against the popular call for wider access. As the liberal movement considers what higher education should mean in a world of open-source information, Grayling’s solution is an exclusive Oxbridge style cloister charging £18 000 a year.

His responses to these accusations feel distinctly weak.

“We are not leading the way. It’s been happening for ages. But, I do hope the campaign against the cuts will work, and that it will reverse it.”

It may be that a large part of Grayling’s problem is that his publicity campaign was poorly judged. Making such a big deal about Richard Dawkins et al was foolish. He attempts to explain.

“Nobody’s going to get rich out of education. NCH’s Dons had to be people who could support it without it being a big deal for them. I managed to get together a group of people to do it, and that’s what’s been criticized.

“Everyone is horrified by the idea of private education and private money. But, I have always maintained that the key aspect of this has to be accessibility. It’s really important that people should get an education.

“At the beginning of this venture, it’ll be just over 20%, but we aim to have 30% of people on financial assistance eventually.” Grayling doesn’t seem to understand that this simply isn’t enough.

Tony Blair’s push for an ill-judged policy of indiscriminate expansion mean that it is not possible for a limited number of students to receive a university education on merit. As such, we find ourselves in a messy situation where students at average universities will face fees of £9 000 a year.

But NCH want to charge double this. This presents a huge problem. If the teaching is poor, this is an obvious con. And if the teaching is superior, it will be providing a better education to those who can afford it. Grayling is undoubtedly widening the gap between state and private education. This is hugely contentious.

So, how can he guarantee that the teaching at NCH will be twice as good as the teaching anywhere else? Quite simply, he can’t.

Grayling claims that everyone he asked to become a Don of NCH accepted. “These big names are all friends of mine,” he told me.

But, how much teaching will they actually do? “They will all give lectures: some all year round, some for just half a year, some for five weeks, and some for a couple of weeks in the summer. They are not the teaching staff. We have permanent full time academics who deliver the curriculum.”

But isn’t it all a bit… gimmicky? Grayling compares NCH’s Dons to guest academics who are invited to give specific papers at universities. And here we find a fundamental flaw: NCH is simply not comparable to Oxbridge. At Oxford and Cambridge, the big names lecture, and supervise students. NCH, on the other hand, could potentially have a distinctly average teaching body.

And Grayling’s failure to offer serious answers to the serious questions he is being asked, makes characterisations of a blow-dried money-grabber who is trying to recreate his Oxford glory days have more weight than he would like.

And he does care about his reputation. The most interesting part of our interview is Grayling’s reaction when I ask him about the Fellowship of the British Academy: a collection of about 900 scholars who have achieved distinction in the humanities and social sciences. His association with the NCH has almost certainly destroyed his shot at an invitation. And this, more than any of the backlash to NCH, visibly upsets him.

It makes me think that somewhere, beneath the media depiction, Grayling is a man who really does think of this as a project that defends the integrity of the humanities. Sadly, he’s been left with more egg on his face than a Fiorentina pizza.

Photograph by Abi Lander