A. C. Grayling: takeover is ‘Cape Canaveral’ moment for NCH
The New College of the Humanities has been “frustrated” by “pressure to conform” with “conservative” universities, but its takeover by Northeastern University will be a “Cape Canaveral” moment for its ability to innovate, according to its founder A. C. Grayling.
Professor Grayling, the NCH master, and Joseph Aoun, the Northeastern president, spoke to Times Higher Education after it emerged that the US institution is planning to buy the UK college once the latter’s application for degreeawarding powers has concluded, potentially by the early New Year.
But has NCH – once seen as the great alternative provider hope by former universities minister Jo Johnson – successfully pioneered a new model, or has it failed?
Professor Grayling said that “what has limited us and frustrated us” was negotiating “the regulatory labyrinth here – which has one important positive value in that it’s about maintaining quality in higher education and we agree with that”.
“But at the same time the [regu- latory] regime…means that you have to conform with the small ‘c’ conservative institutions, for example, that validate you while you’re going through the [degree-awarding powers] process,” he added.
“So we haven’t been able to innovate and do as much as we want to up to this point. When we have our own degree-awarding powers we will be able to…The partnership with Northeastern is just Cape Canaveral from the point of view of being able to think of new ideas and do new things.”
Professor Aoun, author of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, billed the “marriage” as a fusion of Northeastern’s model of “experiential education” and NCH’s one-toone tutorial model and humanities specialism. This will create “personalised education that is relevant for the AI age”, he said, as well as “differentiation” (NCH would join Northeastern’s range of existing international campuses).
In the US, he said, “there are many colleges that are in trouble financially – closing, merging, being acquired. Why? Because they are not differentiated.”
NCH, founded in 2012, has been described by some as a “struggling” institution: it has around 200 students and relies on a shareholder loan to cover costs.
Any “start-up” is “going to face headwinds”, said Professor Grayling. The shareholders who have funded NCH were “perfectly prepared to stay with us on the journey” until a “completely fortuitous” meeting with Northeastern led to the deal, he claimed.
Shareholders own NCH via a for-profit entity called Tertiary Education Services. The largest shareholder is Switzerland-based Eva Ebstein, sometimes described as an entrepreneur, who is also a company director alongside her husband Oliver.
Will shareholders make a profit on their original investment in the deal? Or get their money back?
Professor Grayling said that the funders “never imagined for a minute that you were going to make a bucket of money out of education. So this was a quasi-philanthropic investment from their point of view.”
Asked if there was a plan to grow student numbers, Professor Grayling said that NCH was a “small college by design because of the way we teach and what we do” and “our USP is…the old-fashioned Oxbridge gold standard for the humanities, the tutorial model”.
“But then,” he added, “we propose to expand our master’s programmes and we propose to expand considerably in partnership with Northeastern: joint programmes and contributing to programmes Northeastern [already] do in London as well. So we get the best of both worlds.”