University of the People v College for the Few

For the many or the few?

A previous post commented on the Fantasy institution that is the New College of the Humanities. This story rumbles on in the UK and is continuing source of interest for many. But whatever one might think of the merits or otherwise of the project, no-one would seek to suggest it is primarily concerned with widening participation. The BBC summary of the story captures the essence of the NCH proposition:

The New College of the Humanities says it will teach “gifted” undergraduates and prepare them for degrees from the University of London.

The privately-owned London-based college will open in September 2012 and is planning to charge fees of £18,000.

The 14 professors involved include biologist Richard Dawkins and historian Sir David Cannadine.

Professor Dawkins is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, as well as being the author of The God Delusion, and Sir David is a professor at Princeton University in the United States.

Based in Bloomsbury, central London, the new college says it will offer eight undergraduate courses in the humanities taught by some of the world’s most prominent academics.

Degrees cover five subject areas – law, economics, history, English literature and philosophy.

So it really is a marginal, if interesting and entertaining, development. As William Cullerne Brown puts it:

Yet the more I think about these aspects, the less worried I am. The NEH is reminiscent of the many liberal arts colleges that flourish in the US. Some are prestigious, most aren’t. But none has a hope of rivalling Harvard and Yale. In an established market like England, I don’t see the NEH gaining the reputational traction it aspires to. It is demanding high grades from applicants, but what if it doesn’t get them? The investors can’t just say forget it then – if things go badly it could easily become known instead as a place for rich thickos. And anyway, the NEH is not a new sector. It can’t be more than just one, apparently quite small, place. And it can never be more than a tiny fraction of what the Russell Group needs to win the political long game, even if you oppose its objective.

Contrast this with a fascinating new model for tuition-free higher education in the US as recently reported by The Washington Post:

The Pasadena, Calif., nonprofit university offers college coursework to about 1,000 students worldwide essentially for free. The only charge is a one-time application fee of $10 to $50, which varies according to the comparative wealth of the student’s home nation.

Professors and deans donate their labors. Founder Shai Reshef has just two paid academic employees. Students access and download assignments online. Class discussions take place in old-fashioned text-based chat rooms, which enable students to participate on the most marginal of computers.

“The idea is to open the gate for anyone who wants to study,” Reshef said during a visit to The Washington Post.

Founded in 2009, University of the People claims to be the world’s first tuition-free online university “dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education”. The institution exploits the growing reach and falling cost of online study.

Some volunteer administrators and faculty come from Columbia, NYU and other prestigious universities, drawn, Reshef said, by the potentially transformational power of a free, online, global university. Formal partners include Yale Law School; NYU plans to offer some of Reshef’s students transfer to its campus in Abu Dhabi.

A quite different approach.

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