On Saturdays in our house, we buy The Independent and The Guardian. Our kitchen table is then piled high with supplements for the rest of the week, growing as we add to it with copies of the i, which is what we read on weekdays. Quite often it happens that you’ll come into the kitchen and whoever else is in there greets you with “have you read this?”, pointing to a particular place in the entire tree-worth of newspaper. Over the last few days, we’ve been talking about an article by Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian Magazine called “Let the bright ones in” about the New College of the Humanities, a private university founded a couple of years ago by British philosopher A. C. Grayling (I can’t find the article online, but will include a link when and if I do). Reading it reminded me of another article, also in the Guardian, a few weeks ago about the University of Buckingham by Zoe Williams. That one got me pretty hacked off, and this one got me so hacked off I decided to write about it.
Firstly, let’s talk about money. The NCH charges £18,000 a year for a three-year undergraduate course – and students of that university are not yet eligible for loans from the Student Loan Company, because the university has not yet been accredited. Gentleman writes in her article that although a third of NCH students get some form of support, ‘two thirds are not only paying double the fee they would pay elsewhere, but they must also pay it instantly, rather than delay until they are earning a good salary.’ The University of Buckingham charges around £10,000 a year for their undergraduate courses which are 2 years long, only £6,000 of which can be covered by student loans. In the Gentleman article, she writes that ‘generally, when I raise the subject of money, I’m made to feel this is not a nice subject for discussion, that it’s embarrassing to mention’, and implies that Grayling, the NCH’s Master, is annoyed with the media’s preoccupation with the £18,000 price tag.
Frankly, this seems a bizarre attitude. Of course people are going to be preoccupied with the fees for NCH, they’re double the yearly fees of places like Cambridge or Oxford or the London School of Economics. A fee of that sum is obviously far too expensive for most people (and their families) looking to go to university, and this is borne out in the demographic of NCH’s student body – according to Gentleman, only 20-25% of NCH students come from state schools. Grayling (and apparently several of his colleagues) argues that £18,000 ‘is neither hugely expensive nor particularly unaffordable, given that most public schools in this country charge £30,000 just for tuition.’ Ah. Now we’re beginning to see who NCH is aimed at – those immensely privileged few for whom £18,000 a year for 3 years is not hugely expensive. Those who are able to spend £30,000 a year on public schools. Right. What was also striking was Gentleman’s assertion that ‘the students are untroubled by the college’s financial structure.’ Of course they are. For one thing, I can’t imagine all that many of them are directly paying their fees out of their own pocket (which is not a criticism, as most students don’t, at least initially); and for another, if their families can afford £18,000 a year then it seems unlikely that these students are from backgrounds where financial restrictions have been particularly prevalent.
But the financial side of this whole issue of private universities wasn’t what really got my goat. I don’t despise rich people, or people who went to private school, and if people are able to pay such astronomically high fees then all power to them I guess. I just don’t like the pretence that the financial requirements of places like NCH shouldn’t be seen as prohibitive, or as obstacles to those in less fortunate circumstances. What really got me about both the NCH article and the earlier article about the University of Buckingham, was the attitude towards students from other universities – universities like mine, and like those my friends go to and have been to. For example, when talking about why she chose to attend the University of Buckingham, 19-year-old Olivia comments that ‘her friends were “going to Nottingham and Sheffield, and those are very party-orientated. I wouldn’t have gone to university if I couldn’t have come here, because everywhere else it all seems to be about getting drunk.” Well, that’s a singularly blinkered dismissal of over 120 institutions with one fell swoop. In my experience, both at my own university (University of Leicester) and of the variety of places that my friends and family have attended, it’s people that are party-orientated, not the universities they go to. There are definitely “party-orientated” people here at Leicester. But I choose not to be one of them, and so do most of my friends. I agree with Olivia that the university experience shouldn’t ‘be all about getting drunk.’ But that’s OK, because it isn’t. I doubt you’ll find a university department anywhere who makes allowances for ‘party-orientated’ people.
Jamie, an NCH student, goes even further: ‘we’re expected to do between three and four hours personal study a day. We write a minimum of an essay a week. It is a full on education. We are being educated actively…The ethos of the place means that you can’t sit around getting trolleyed mid-week, putting pizza on the ceiling. If you do that, you just won’t be able to keep up. You’re not meant to screw around at university. You’re meant to educate yourself in a very serious way.’ Well gosh Jamie, thanks for pointing that out. All the rest of us out here paying a mere £9,000 a year hadn’t realised university was supposed to be serious. These kind of comments lead me to wonder what NCH students and staff think the rest of the university-going population actually do. Between three and four hours personal study a day? Yep, sounds about right – quite often more. Falling behind if you insist on getting hammered multiple times a week? Yep, definitely still the case over here. I have 15,000 words worth of essays to write this term. My house-mate, who’s in her final year of her undergrad degree (History and American Studies), has got 5 deadlines to meet before 13th December, totalling 10,000 words, plus work on her dissertation. And I’m willing to bet that all of those weekly essays that Jamie’s writing don’t actually count towards his degree, so I’d argue that the pressure on him is substantially less. The idea that you have to work harder at places like NCH and Buckingham is a fallacy.
I’d also like to pick up on a comment made by a Buckingham administrator: “Those universities where the courses are three years, what do the students have, one lecture a week? And then they party the rest of the time. Students here aren’t like that at all. I have some living next door. People always say: ‘Aren’t you plagued by the noise?’ But they’re fine. It’s like they have jobs.” They’re right in the sense that we have relatively few contact hours – the average third year humanities student has around six hours of lectures or seminars a week. But do you know what I was doing in my third year during the time I wasn’t in those lectures or seminars? I was preparing for those seminars, often reading hundreds of pages a week per class; I was planning and writing essays and presentations; I was (God forbid) going to my part-time job; I was involved in student music societies; I was researching, writing and weeping over my sodding dissertation. Partying? 0.5% of my time. I’m also interested by this administrator’s slightly surprised-sounding assertion that students would be nightmare neighbours – except for Buckingham students obviously, who are just so studious compared to the rest of us noise-polluting leeches on society. I live in an area of Leicester which is probably 50% student housing – the rest are mostly young families or professionals. I can safely say we are excellent neighbours, and I am just as likely to be woken up by a couple of older blokes wandering back from the pub past my window than students heading on a night out.
In her article, Gentleman quotes a member of NCH staff who used to work at Rugby school, who claims that she ‘decided to join Grayling because she felt many of her ex-pupils found university a let-down after boarding school. [She said] Some people are very happy with the conveyor belt, mass-produced large numbers – nothing personal.’ A student is also quoted as having commented to NCH lecturer Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb that at their previous university they could “walk past my lecturer in the street, and he wouldn’t have any idea who I was.” It’s the mediocrity in the usual university experience that’s implied by the NCH staff member that really bugs me. Why does the fact that there’s a lot of us in one department mean that we’re on a “conveyor belt” and receive “nothing personal”? Do you know what you do if you want your tutor to know you from Adam? You seek them out. You go to their office hours and talk to them about the work you’re doing for their class, ask them advice about essays, talk to them about how you can be doing better. You prepare properly for seminars and make intelligent contributions. You put yourself out there. Your lecturer is not your primary school teacher – they aren’t obliged to know your name. If you’re a history student like me, your lecturer is there to introduce you to some of the broad themes and ideas of a topic, and to work through interesting debates in group seminars, and to help you if you ask for their help. The rest, friends, is what you make of it.
Despite what it might look like, I don’t think the NCH and Buckingham should be blasted from the map. Just as I don’t think the University of Buckingham would work for me, I imagine that the University of Leicester wouldn’t work for lots of Buckingham students. But these ideas about what it’s like at universities other than these ‘independent’ institutions are problematic because they feed into the image of universities as a doss, and students as a load of feckless, entitled yoofs.