It was, of course, inevitable. For years now, UK governments have massively underfunded higher education. We sit in the bottom quarter of OECD countries for public funding for universities. But the launch today of the private ‘New College of Humanities’ in London is still shocking. The £18,000 a year fees are still horrifying. We knew this was precisely what the Tories were hoping would happen, that this was the inevitable end of the road down which Labour sent us. But it is still surprising how quickly we have arrived.

That, and the involvement of many public academics that many on the left respect. AC Grayling, Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin – names that many have found to be still small voices of calm in the midst of Daily Mail and Fox News insanity. In his email today to Sean Rillo Raczka the Chair of the Birkbeck student union, Grayling effectively tells us in his defence of the college that it is a sad necessity. He explains that it is the final remaining way to defend the humanities from the barbaric cuts imposed by this government. He wants more public funding, he says, but it simply isn’t there.

Well, in his countless articles for The Guardian over the years, I can’t find any in which he argues for more university funding. I don’t remember him joining the UCU and student protests against these cuts. I don’t remember this leading public intellectual leading a debate demanding proper public funding for intellectualism. Many academics fought tooth and nail – risked their careers and their livelihoods to defend our universities. Where were you, Professor Grayling?

Grayling talks in his email of hard facts. It is because of these hard facts that many of us have been fighting for university funding for years now. And so today’s rollcall of collaborators serve as a reminder of the failure of passive liberalism – of what happens when leading thinkers simply accept the cards laid out by the government. We have always known that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it’*. But today, Britain’s leading public philosopher has done worse than only interpret. He has accepted the role of executioner.

And let’s be clear: this is what Anthony Grayling has done. Labour and the Tories may have issued the decree – they may have so run down funding for our universities that it became inevitable that some private institutions would be established. In fact, 2 were already – one under Labour: Buckingham; one under Cameron: BPP University. But these were not serious institutions in the public mind. They did not lend weight to the credibility of privatisation. They were snuck through the back door, with few knowing of their existence. They posed little serious challenge to our public universities.

No, it took major figures to do that, and that is why the list of names announced today as professors of this New College are not so much the leading academics of our age, but the most famous. They are not necessarily the best teachers or the best researchers. They are the best known names, the most media savvy. And so while Buckingham and BPP were obnoxious, they were quiet. What AC Grayling has launched today is not so much a college, as a public assault on public education. That, and a challenge to Oxford, Cambridge, and others to follow his lead. As he says in his email:

“Those of us who have set up the New College are … bringing to bear the US model”

We always knew that this was the end of the road down which Labour, Tories and Lib Dems have been leading us. But we had time. There was still fight in us yet. This did not have to happen now, and if not now, then possibly never. Grayling, Dawkins and the other collaborators have today taken us a lot further down that road. They have made our fight all the harder. They must have that on their consciences. But it is still a fight we can win.


* With notable exceptions – Bertrand Russell was president of CND, and then founded a more direct action focussed peace group, with whom he was often arrested. Jeremy Bentham founded UCL so all could afford to learn. Some philosophers have done their best to change the world.


THINGS YOU CAN DO NOW – Join a new Facebook group to oppose the New College, ring them on 0800 955 0212 to complain, or just to clog up their lines, or you can email Peter Singer – perhaps the most likely to go back on his agreement to teach at this institution – here: I’m sure there will be protests etc soon, we’ll try to keep you in touch. UPDATE – there is a meeting at SOAS tomorrow at 5:30 to organise campaigning against this.


UPDATE: we’ve set up an e-action so you can email Richard Dawkins and ask him not to take part. Please do.