AC Grayling woos elite independents

Don-turned-entrepreneur is touting his new college to the heads of Britain's most expensive - and exclusive - independent schools

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He is among Britain's best-known philosophers, but Anthony Grayling's project to start up a private specialist humanities college with eye- watering fees is gaining him almost as many column inches as his musings.

In September next year, the New College of the Humanities (NCH) will open its doors to the first 180 students. Eventually it will teach 1,000 students at any one time, but there is a catch - it will cost pound;18,000 a year to study there. That is double the pound;9,000 that most mainstream HE institutions will be charging by then.

As its founding father and "master"-elect, AC Grayling, as he is better known, is now doing the rounds promoting the NCH, which includes taking his message to the annual gathering of the heads of the top 250 independent schools next week.

To the college's critics, it comes as no surprise that Professor Grayling is making the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) at St Andrews a port of call - after all, with fees of pound;18,000 a year, it would appear at first glance that only children whose parents have the funds to send them to some of the country's top independents will be able to afford his new idea.

But ahead of his speech, he told TES that he is expecting around one-third of the intake to receive financial assistance from the college. "Quite a lot of students who will get this financial support will be from the state sector," he said.

The likelihood is that all bar a handful of those given financial support in the form of 100 per cent means-tested scholarships and so-called exhibitions - where students pay the first pound;7,200 of the fees - will come from a state-educated background. "Obviously kids from the independent sector will come because of the fees they're already paying," explained Professor Grayling. "But we're looking for very bright individuals from everywhere."

Indeed, last week the college made its first assisted-places awards to a sixth-form college student from Hackney, east London, and a pupil from a state grammar school near Cheltenham.

Professor Grayling claims that the aim of the NCH is not to make a profit. The model, he says, is closer to Oxbridge colleges; he also acknowledges the influence of the liberal arts colleges that are proliferating in the US. "We're trying to build it up that way," he said, adding that his new college will undoubtedly herald the arrival of others like it. "There is an inevitability that there will be more independent and private provision at the higher education level here."

The entry benchmark for the NCH, where teaching staff include professors Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson, will be three As, or 38 points under the International Baccalaureate. But Professor Grayling says the college will be flexible in the grades it requires. "If someone is tipped to get four A* and only gets two As and two Bs, then we're not going to cut them off."

Yet looming over his plans to offer a "richer experience" will be those sky-high fees. He denies that they will inevitably make the college elitist, and when asked if a multi-millionaire could simply buy their child's way in, he is adamant. "Absolutely not."

But he offers no apologies for the fees the college, which is bankrolled by unnamed wealthy benefactors, will charge.

"If you want a high-quality motor car you have to pay for it," he said. "If you want something really good, that's just a fact of life. (University fees of) pound;9,000 - is that sustainable?

"There must be vice-chancellors out there who will be thinking: `When is it going to go up to pound;12,000, pound;15,000 or pound;20,000?' The pound;9,000 fees are a joke. It's politics keeping them there and not reality. That's the choice society has made. I don't agree with it, but this is the reality."

Help is at hand

The New College of the Humanities is beginning its outreach work this term, arranging visits to schools and academies across the country.

Professor Grayling said he wanted entry to be "needs-blind", with its 100 per cent scholarships based on academic merit. Nearly two-thirds of the assisted places will be through "exhibitions".

The college has established the New College of the Humanities Trust, which has been registered as a charity in the UK and will offer additional assisted places. Students will also be able to receive loans for tuition expenses.

Original print headline: No elitism jibes, please. This is a `richer experience'

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