What has gone so very badly wrong? Until a few weeks ago Professor AC Grayling was a shining hero of rationalist thought: a brilliant scholar, sought-after speaker, great broadcaster, erudite yet accessible writer, creator of his own atheist bible and the newly nominated president of the British Humanist Association. Yet suddenly he’s become a figure of loathing and derision. How can he have so spectacularly fallen from grace?

The bombshell fell when it was announced last month that he was launching a private institution, the New College of the Humanities, to be staffed with a galaxy of academic stars including Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, Ronald Dworkin, Linda Colley and David Cannadine. The college would be based in central London and charge annual undergraduate fees of £18,000, double the highest fee allowed for universities within the state sector.

The announcement immediately provoked an explosion of fury – literally: angry students picketing a talk Grayling was giving at Foyles bookshop let off a red smoke bomb. Professor Terry Eagleton called the scheme “disgustingly elitist” and the 14 dons (who each have shares in the institution) “money-grabbing”. Classics Professor Mary Beard considered the move a betrayal of the sector: while blogger David Allen Green dismissed it as a sham – a branding exercise with star academic names being touted even though few of them would be giving the promised one-to-one tutorials.

Others, though, at least acknowledged the good, even noble, intentions behind the initiative. They accepted Grayling’s argument that his new venture was a strategy for rescuing the humanities from the massive cuts in funding which would require universities either to abandon the humanities altogether or triple their current tuition fees to £9,000 a year. Some way had to be found of asserting the value of the humanities and restoring their significance in higher education.

Grayling is adamant that in an ideal world, he would not be doing this – but as a rationalist, he told London’s Evening Standard, he realises we do not live in an ideal world. So “the choice is, you can either scream and yell and complain about what’s happening – and what’s happening is terrible. Or you can do something about it.”
But while his motive may have been benevolent, his logic is flawed. The idea of harnessing huge names to add attraction and distinction to the teaching seems appealing at first. It recalls the innovative television programme Jamie’s Dream School, where celebrities like Alastair Campbell and David Starkey were invited to teach their subjects to a class of disaffected teenagers. The difference, though, is that Grayling’s potential students will be among the most privileged and motivated. We are told that the minimum A-level requirement for New College will be three As, and that in itself will limit the intake to mostly those from private schools.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds will still miss out on the humanities, since it is the newer institutions, with more mixed intakes, who will be cutting these subjects. London Metropolitan University, for example, which prides itself on its highly diverse intake of students, has cut 70 per cent of its courses, including all of those selected for Grayling’s college

All in all, it is difficult not to see the whole project as misguided and even anti-humanist. If Grayling and his supporters had wanted to create a truly different college of the humanities then surely they should have aimed it not at the most privileged but at the least. The New College of the Humanities could have offered fees of £2,000 rather than £18,000, and all those brilliant “pinko” (Grayling’s term) scholars could have been enjoined to offer their services for nothing. In that way, students from all backgrounds would have had the opportunity to study the humanities together, to fulfil their potential and to learn the real humanist values inherent in these massively important disciplines.

But at the moment, it has to be said with some sadness that the only real value that can be rescued from this misplaced initiative is the manner in which it has drawn public attention to the appalling vandalism currently being visited upon higher education. And for that, Grayling deserves at least one small cheer.