A. C. Grayling: takeover is ‘Cape Canaveral’ mo­ment for NCH

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - John.mor­[email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

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.”

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