You must be joking, I thought. £18,000 for a degree at maverick philosopher, Christopher Grayling's, new for-profit university? Why? when, for only £9,000 you can get a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, and in Scotland a degree from one of the best universities in the world, Edinburgh, for nothing. Many of the courses at the “New College of the Humanities” appear to have been taken off the peg from other institutions, and as for the “star” academics, like Professor Naill Ferguson or Richard Dawkins, some of them will only be lecturing a couple of times a year.
But then I stopped laughing, and thought about it for a while. Only a very few students can get into Oxford or Cambridge because of the high entrance qualifications. Edinburgh is twelve times over-subscribed and anyway, you have to be Scottish to get a degree here free – one of the best bargains in history. And anyway, when it comes to education, common sense goes out the window. Parents are prepared to pay ten thousand a year to send a child to one of Edinburgh's private schools, when the education they get there is no better than in the city's excellent state schools, and when there is strong evidence that students from state schools do better at university. They pay out of a misguided belief that “you get what you pay for”.
So apply the same logic to higher education, and you can just about begin to see that some wealthy parents might buy their mediocre offspring a prestigious degree, taught by celebrity academics. Moreover, for foreign students, £18,000 a year isn't all that steep. At Edinburgh most undergraduate courses cost over £15,000 already and medical students pay up to £33,000 a year. At a reception for international parents at Edinburgh's Playfair Library recently, I commiserated with an American soft-ware engineer having to fork out forty grand for his kids. “Heck no!”, he replied,”Couldn't believe how much less it costs than in the 'States. And look at the place. It's like buying a piece of history”.
International student recruitment has been the big growth area and universities like Edinburgh derive up to a third of their fee revenue from overseas. Grayling College will be able to bid for a slice of this lucrative action. But they also expect to get a lot of UK students too if the numbers are to stack up. The wealthy individuals and private equity firms that are backing him aren't philanthropists, and the New College is very much a for-profit operation, in which the academics will all have share options. They hope to attract students who want something better than the underfunded humanities degrees – philosophy, history, social science etc.. - that are going to be on offer in their cash-strapped state rivals. The English government has more or less retreated from funding tuition in the humanities - only science and technology can expect to get much money in future from the state.
As this column has long argued, this policy is but a further step on the road to full privatisation of higher education in England. Now that every tu'penny-ha'penny ex polytechnic is going to try to charge £9,000 a year – the current ceiling on English tuition fees – the Russell Group of elite institutions like Oxbridge, LSE, UCL, are already planning their campaign to move on to variable fees. Their argument is that it makes no logical sense to charge the same for a medical degree as for media studies because the earning power of a medical degree is vastly greater. It is also much more expensive to teach medicine because of all the hardware.
This is what Lord Browne, author of the infamous report into higher education funding in England that led to riots in parliament square, initially recommended. Just as it was only a matter of time before the cap on tuition fees (introduced, remember, by Labour in defiance of election manifesto promises) was raised to £9,000, it is only a matter of time until variable fees come along. Then, Oxbridge will argue that, since they give the best tuition, and their graduates earn so much more than the College of Bog Standard, they should be able to charge a higher fee even for the same course. Within a decade, elite universities in England will be charging fees that will make Grayling's look modest.
And don't think that this will only be English universities. Scottish universities like St Andrews are keen to follow the “for-profit” route and the Scottish government seems minded to let them, if my soundings are correct. What they may do is offer a premium number of free “quota” places for Scottish undergrads, while charging through the roof for anyone who is prepared to pay private. St Andrews has famous Royal Associations - Prince William met Kate Middleton there – so you can imagine that every Gypsy Wedding parent with a fat wedge will be wanting to buy their way into the Fife Poly. The deal is that Elite University PLC will allow in bright students from poor backgrounds through the so-called “needs blind” method of entry. This is how Ivy League Universities like Yale and Princeton justify their mega-fees, because they allow the brightest of the plebs in for nothing, in order to enhance their academic ratings. It isn't blind and it isn't needed.
So make no mistake, Grayling is going down a path that many other more prestigious universities want to follow. And, for the avoidance of doubt, let me say I am utterly opposed to this. And I hope the Scottish government will think long and hard about allowing it here. Our universities are public institutions that have been built up over generations through the investment of tax-payers' money. They should not be allowed to asset-strip their reputations by charging “off-quota” students the kind of mega-fees that apply in Ivy League colleges in America – the model some Scottish vice chancellors favour. Since Scottish unis lack the mega endowments of US Ivy League colleges – Princeton has $27bn – they will try to use “quota” funds to get their for-profit colleges up and running. Then once they have built up their new business, it'shello University of Kerrching.