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Private money, public good? The New College for the Humanities and the history of university funding


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Can the history of the foundation of English universities illuminate the debate about the proposed New College of the Humanities? In the 19th century, civic university colleges were founded in an age when the exclusivity of Oxford and Cambridge, tied to the Anglican Church and open only to men, appeared irrelevant to many in a modern industrial nation. This was challenged in 1826 with the founding of University College, London on utilitarian principles: open to all creeds (and none) and both sexes. New northern university colleges, such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, took the same approach: founded out of civic pride and the philanthropy of industrialists, traders and bankers.

Despite the urgent need for a better technically educated workforce, these civic leaders believed passionately in offering a broad range of scientific and humanities subjects as a mind-broadening experience. This motivation continued despite the fear of continental (and especially German) industrial competition from the late nineteenth century. The highly focused German technical universities did not offer a model for Britain. The intended market for the new university colleges was school-teachers, office clerks and corporate managers. A variety of part-time, evening and full-time undergraduate courses was offered, with degrees conferred by the University of London until the university colleges gained their own independent status. Although this external degree system began to chafe, it set an academic standard (and will do so with the NCH).

Higher education was accepted as a public good and the new universities had charitable status. Their income came from fees (never sufficient as a single source of income), local government finance, Treasury input and private philanthropy. Those in charge of finances were perpetually worried about balancing budgets, not least because full university status was only granted to colleges which were considered financially viable. In 1914, Treasury and local authority contributions amounted to 50%, endowments and donations 18% and fees roughly 30% of the total average annual university income. It was not until after WWII and the growth of the welfare state that an assumption about full state responsibility for higher education took root. Until then, private philanthropy was crucial for f universities' early development. Named posts, teaching accommodation, laboratories, libraries, university museums and whole new subject areas were privately funded by the local community. The motive was similar to that expressed by A. C. Grayling: the 'fabric of society' needed it. The academics in these institutions gave a huge amount for little financial reward. Many tirelessly combined teaching, research and administrative work. They believed in the importance of their research as the underpinning of undergraduate teaching. From the earliest days, these university colleges were rounded institutions whose founders intended to raise the bar in a civilised society.

In retrospect, the heyday of British universities might seem to have been the 1960s - with state and county scholarships, the 'well-found laboratory' and the founding of seven new universities at public expense so that more school-leavers could take up free university places. There were no longer fees; philanthropic involvement declined as the tax-payer became more or less the sole funder. By the mid-1980s, though, in an era of economic downturn, with a government which put its faith in competition rather than 'public good', austerity had set in: academic posts were frozen; 'brain drain' was in the air; morale was low. A single and declining source of funding (the state) seemed perilous. Universities sought revenue by marketing their scientific expertise, securing lucrative research contracts. Some set up fundraising offices, following American models - having forgotten earlier English models. The economic recovery and confidence of the 1990s convinced the government that the state should provide higher education for 50% of school leavers. But many new students had highly unsatisfactory educational experiences; and, when the economic bubble burst, it became clear that tax-payers alone could not bear the rapidly increasing costs. Fees (albeit at a fraction of real cost) were reimposed, subsequently increased; government began to introduce a market economy in the provision of university education.

Meanwhile, underlying attitudes to higher education had changed profoundly since WWII. First, increasing reliance on state funding led to a sense of entitlement on the part of both students and academics. People working in university fundraising frequently encountered hostility from academics who opposed 'letting the government off the hook'. In the late 1980s there was discouraging talk of 'going out with begging bowls' to financial prospects with whom many academics wanted nothing to do. It was a far cry from the days when civic dignitaries and local worthies clubbed together to create and develop their university colleges. Secondly, there had grown up a deep suspicion of 'elitism'. Admiration for well-educated leaders of society - those whose natural abilities, education and social commitment marked them out - became discredited. The corollary has been recent government attempts to force universities to address the problem of poor state schools and work to pull up the socially disadvantaged, even to the extent of lowering academic standards for students. These attitudes underlie part of the howl against Grayling's brave and understandable proposal.

However, the earlier history of university funding might provide some warnings to this venture. First, we don't have examples of great teaching institutions, devoid of research; nor of a highly focused curriculum, such as is being proposed here in the study of the humanities. Secondly, English undergraduates - unlike Americans - have never paid a realistic price for higher education, don't usually work through college and seem much more debt-averse. Thirdly, in the post-war decades, philanthropy was marginalised and has not blossomed in the way that the first generation of university fundraising professionals hoped it would. It may prove very difficult to acquire endowments to fund poor but able students. Lastly, and above all, the ability of those early institutions to get started and take off owed much to the shared belief of academics, founders and funders that they were creating a public good. They thrived as charitable institutions with diverse sources of income. Will Grayling's college be seen in the same light?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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