“I believe that a mature civilised society ought to be funding universities properly through tax. Students should go to university for nothing because it’s an investment that society’s making in itself.” The words belong to Professor Anthony Grayling, Master of New College of the Humanities (NCH). This unashamedly elite private university – student fees £18,000 a year – is housed in an 18th-century mansion in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, where its first students will be unpacking their suitcases and sticking up their Radiohead posters right about now.AC Grayling
AC Grayling, photographed by Des Willie

So why has someone as committed to public education as he claims to be launched a private university charging more than double the fees of London’s other universities? And how on earth has Grayling, a self-described “man of the left”, a prominent humanist and a distinguished educator, managed to alienate so many of his former allies and colleagues?

By setting up a college for the super-rich, Grayling has been accused of betraying public education: of opportunism, parasitism and elitism. Terry Eagleton in the Guardian called the project “odious”. At a speaking engagement last summer angry activists heckled him and let off a smoke bomb. Then there was the reaction of his former colleagues at Birkbeck College – founded to provide high-quality education to working people – from which Grayling resigned last year. In a letter published in the Guardian on 14 June last year, 33 members of Birkbeck’s faculty accused Grayling of losing faith with Birkbeck and public universities in general, and of colluding with, if not leading, the coalition government’s assault on the very principle of publicly funded education. The letter said Grayling was part of an attempt to “asset-strip”, “marketise” learning and offer education that is, in terms of aims, “profit-driven” and, in terms of quality, “cut-price”. During the febrile height of the row last summer, the NCH was even accused of “syllabus plagiarism”, for offering courses which had been written specially for the University of London. Historian Amanda Vickery, who spotted one of her own courses on the NCH website, accused the new college of “ripping off” the University of London.

And the timing could not have been worse: Grayling’s announcement came at the highpoint of student anger and activism over the government’s education policy. A new private college like this was too good a target to miss. Following threats of more disruption Grayling cancelled several scheduled appearances, and others had security seriously stepped up to deal with the threat.

While the heat of last summer has dissipated, some education-watchers think it’s likely that once University of London students are back this September, protests against the college will rekindle, especially given the fact that it’s located on the north side of Bedford Square, WC1 – a convenient stone’s throw from the University of London proper.

A further intriguing aspect of Grayling’s enterprise concerns its relation to organised humanism. Grayling is one of the most prominent and vocal humanists in Britain, going so far as to rewrite the Bible from a humanist perspective in The Good Book (2010). Before the announcement of his new venture he was poised to cement his standing by succeeding Polly Toynbee as President of the British Humanist Association. When the new college was announced a big part of the sell was the involvement of a slew of “superstar” professors who would be drafted in to teach, among them a full house of prominent humanists and atheists: Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Singer, Simon Blackburn and Daniel Dennett. But rather than embrace the New College many humanists were aghast. Protests from within the BHA saw some members threatening to cancel if Grayling was appointed, leading him to step aside. His college was even accused, in this very magazine, of being “anti-humanist”.

So why has Grayling’s New College caused such anger in education and opened a schism in humanism? That’s what I had come to Bloomsbury to find out. Yet to move in to its new home, the New College was borrowing an office in Russell Square. As I waited to meet him I couldn’t help reflecting that given his desire to persuade critics that the NCH is not an institution for the very rich, it was unfortunate that his temporary office was shared with Kahn LLP, a law firm specialising in advising “high-net worth private clients”; the lobby where I waited offered a choice of reading matter between Capital Insights (headline: “Putting Finance First”), Financier and a brochure for Bentleys. The free chocolates, though delicious, could not entirely mask the unmistakable tang of money.

When I was brought in to the board room where we were to meet it was evident that Master Grayling was ready for me. He was as nicely turned out as always, and his hair, well, you can see for yourself. But he also seemed ready to let me have it, or at least set me straight while simultaneously ticking me off. Several times as we talk he expressed disappointment at the fact that rather than come and seek details or clarification “people just assumed we were setting up something to milk the parents of dim rich kids.” Instead of asking him directly, they just condemned him out of prejudice. “Look at you, it’s 13 months since I launched this college and you are here now asking about it, and you’ve already run a negative article about it, that’s not untypical of the response there has been.”

Had he been surprised by the response his college had received? “Not really,” he replied, “given the inflamed situation around higher education and because whenever anyone tries to do something different or new in a situation like that naturally enough there is going to be a lot of fuss and bother.” He begins with the indisputable fact that education in Britain is in a serious mess. His college, dedicated as it is to the teaching of the humanities – philosophy, literature, history, law, with psychology, economics and social sciences to be added – is on one level a direct response to the cutting of government funding for the humanities. “From this September onwards there is no more money going from government to universities to subsidise teaching the humanities and social sciences,” he told me. “It is an absolute scandal.” While subsidies remain for sciences and vocational subjects, for now, Grayling is convinced that the notion of publicly funded higher education, at least the model of how it used to be done, is bust. “I spotted it 15 years ago,” he says, “when the Labour government introduced ‘top up fees’. I thought, that’s the end of it, this is going to go on and on, we are shifting away from taxpayer support for education.”

Not only has it been happening for a long time, and been driven by an ideological shift away from the idea of taxpayer-funded education for all in all political camps, but it’s affecting everyone. Every university and college, especially those with big reputations, is looking at how to fund itself properly in a post-subsidy era. He’s just being attacked, he thinks, because he is the first to actually do something.

Grayling’s college is an early model, he claims, of where many of our top institutions will end up. It’s not a model plucked out of the air, or cooked up in a boardroom, but the tried and tested way in which the prestigious American universities like Yale and Princeton fund themselves: the endowment model, where support by the taxpayer is replaced by support from philanthropists and alumni. Fees are high, too, for those who can afford them; but the income from fees and the endowment is used to provide lots of support for those who can’t.

This model, he says, has been misrepresented and misunderstood by his critics. He takes me through the detail. The NCH is in fact three entities. There’s the college itself, which is a not-for-profit enterprise; a trust whose job is to raise an endowment (there is already £250,000 in the bank, with “much more to come”) to fund students who need it; and a service company. This last, a profit-making arm, is owned by the 30 or so individuals who have provided the seed funding (he doesn’t name them but says it isn’t a secret and includes some of the star professors on the staff). Initially the college is committed to funding at least a third of the student body (90 students are expected this year if they all get their grades) through a series of scholarships, bursaries and exhibitions. Some will get all fees and expenses paid, others will get discounted fees, or ad hoc support should they need it. The service company will provide food, cleaning, administration and all the other services necessary for a college. Its contract with the NCH states that any profits from their contract with them will be returned to the college.

However there is clearly an aspiration for investors that once the service company is up and running it can bid for contracts with other institutions which will allow them to realise a return on investment, and then some. We should not be squeamish about this, Grayling says. Why shouldn’t investors see some kind of return? Also the situation is not really different from that of any other university in Britain. Though we think of them as public institutions, all universities are independent private corporations – given subsidies by the government to teach our children – and all of them, he says, have “third leg” spin-off money making businesses: “Everyone knows Oxford and Cambridge earn hundreds of millions from their publishing operations and science development, UCL owns 11 or 12 companies, one of them manufactures compression socks, designed by one of their staff, they sell millions.” His argument in a nutshell is that NCH in this respect is really no different from any other university.Bedford Square
AC Grayling's New College has found its home in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, close to several of the main University of London colleges

But why not a college charging, say, £2,000 a year, with high academic standards? For him those numbers just don’t add up. “Look, even the figure of £9,000 which the government have said is the ceiling is a too-low fudge. It’s a political figure. Cambridge University did a study of how much it cost them to educate a humanities student; this is not a scientist who can be educated in a lab, but someone who needs one-to-one tuition. Their conclusion? £17,500 a year. Look at the comparators – public schools charge £30,000 a year, American universities charge $50,000 a year – then the figure of £18,000 starts to look reasonable. It’s not arbitrary. If you are going to give one-to-one tuition and a high-class education it’s fantastically expensive.”

The education the New College is offering sounds tough and tantalising, not least the guaranteed weekly one-to-one tutorials that even his staunchest critics accept address a genuine deficit in humanities education. Having now made a deal with the University of London, NCH will be offering a degree that combines the 12 modules of their humanities degree, with an additional NCH diploma that amounts to almost a whole other degree course. In addition to the 12 conventional degree modules students will be expected to take four additional modules from another course, the three university core courses – logical and critical thinking, applied ethics and science literacy – plus a “professional programme” teaching basic financial literacy and workplace skills.

But how distinctive will the College’s teaching programme really be? That roster of starry names has provoked scepticism. Do stars necessarily make the best teachers? Will academic celebrities really be bothered to mark a stack of undergraduate essays? The idea of being taught cosmology by Lawrence Krauss or the basics of evolution by Richard Dawkins may seem enticing, but isn’t it somewhat wasteful to offer lectures by these luminaries to undergraduates? Even Grayling admits that he has employed a full-time professional staff to take on the main teaching roles and considers the big names to be “the icing on the cake”.

Despite his ringing endorsement of public education, NCH, he is clear, is not for everyone. While he refutes accusations of elitism, the college is unashamedly elite. He says he wants only the very best students, and the college has a rigorous interview process and makes a minimum demand of three A grades at A level, or an equivalent baccalaureate score. For all the talk of generous scholarships, surely this is going to favour students from private schooling?

In response Grayling describes the outreach work being done with academies and comprehensives – rather less than the efforts made by most UK universities, as he himself acknowledges, noting that schools are so time – and resource – pressed they cannot always accommodate a visit. Somewhat defensively, he mentions that he has Devon Hanson on his board, the “super head” from Walworth Academy who has just been drafted in to oversee the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, as an adviser on how to reach talented kids in deprived areas. But he admits that “because of the way education is structured in this country it will be biased towards people who have been to extremely good schools, grammar schools and private schools. That’s bad news,” he acknowledges, “but it would be worse news if a high-quality education system were to be compromised by the struggle to do what should have already been done. The left, my own political home, is quite right to see education as the last great opportunity for providing equality. We’ve tried a lot of ways, like comprehensives, which have been a mixed story. But it seems to me that the place where that kind of social engineering should be done is in primary and secondary education, not in tertiary education. Tertiary education should be about the very best and the very brightest.”

Grayling may well be genuinely committed to attracting and nurturing bright kids from across the social spectrum. What would be a better advertisement for the college than to discover a ruby in the dust? But as we know from American Ivy League colleges, while some without wealth can get access, the student body is overwhelmingly composed of the wealthy and privately educated. Professor Grayling’s defence of his kind of elitism is disappointingly shopworn: “There is nothing wrong with being elite as long as you are not exclusive. You want your surgeon or airline pilot to have been trained at an elite institution.” And that is such a tenuous assertion that it seems to undermine his argument: that a place where everyone is the “best” according to some kind of objective standard – grades or book sales – will therefore be “the best”. I know too many people who had a miserable time at Oxford to believe that (see middle pages). And surely it’s diversity – mixing people who are good at different things and from different backgrounds – that is one of the most valuable assets of public education.

Grayling may continue to assert that “birth, money or the colour of your skin should never dictate if you can get access.” But at NCH, they still do. The College received 1,200 applications last year (some of them , admittedly, were “Genghis Khans” and “Maggie Thatchers” sent in by student protesters) and have already had many more for the 2013 places. So applicants who are bright and well educated and possessed of the confidence conferred by privilege will be the first in line and most likely to predominate. And once they do, as at Oxford, or Princeton, the culture is set and the replication of privilege rolls on.

And how elite, anyway, can this College be, given its reliance on existing University of London courses? Grayling is stung by the accusation of plagiarism: “That kind of irresponsibility was one of the few things that made me angry about this. The unintelligence induced in people by their reflexive responses.” Since degrees at the NCH are granted through the University of London – as they are at many other institutions – Grayling argues it is perfectly legitimate for NCH students to be given copies of University of London courses. But where is the distinctiveness of NCH’s teaching if its programmes have already been devised by University of London academics, rather than Grayling’s infamous star performers?

And unlike our most prestigious universities, with fabulous grounds and unmatched sports, social and cultural facilities, NCH is simply offering its students the facilities of University College London. But he denies that his College is parasitic: “We are taking absolutely nothing from publicly funded universities, in fact we are giving them something. The University of London get revenue from our use of the Library and student union, we are putting money into the system and taking nothing away.”

As for the reaction of his former Birkbeck colleagues, Grayling is dismissive. “There is no more conservative an individual than a 1960s leftie.” In fact, he claims, it is he who is more loyal to Marx, since his University operates on the “good communist” principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. He also thinks he will be vindicated, when the figure of £9,000 a year proves inadequate to provide a quality education, and the less prestigious colleges and ex-polys – a level of education he admires and thinks is vital – find it impossible to compete with the corporate raiders. “I know it takes years to acknowledge that they were wrong, all we can do is to be patient and show them that we are trying to do something that is decent and sincere and good.”

The night before I met New College’s master we had both been at the launch of Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook. Grayling made a nice speech of introduction, and Shaha then paid tribute to Grayling’s generosity and support, without which the book would never have been written. “When I asked Anthony why he had been so generous, without any reward for himself,” Shaha said, “he replied that he was doing it because he thought it was an important book to get out in the world and so I would do the same thing for someone else when I was in the position to.”

So is NCH a product of Anthony Grayling’s altruism – so palpable in his many acts of generosity and decency? Or another example of the over-developed ego of the man who rewrote God’s word? To launch such a venture requires great resources of self-belief – and risks hubris. But you also need huge reservoirs of sincerity and self-confidence to believe that you are saving the humanities in this country, if not the entire university system.