Friday, June 10, 2011


Bertie Goes to College

Several alert readers pointed me this week to the launch of the New College of the Humanities in England. Although much of what I’ve read about it has been maddeningly vague, it seems to be a for-profit enterprise in which students will be charged premium tuition for access to courses (though not yet degrees, apparently) in humanistic disciplines, with a smattering of employment skills.

Though details remain sketchy, it looks like the business model relies on drive-by lectures by famous people for the marketing appeal, and actual instruction by adjuncts to keep costs down. Given that it costs several multiples of what British universities typically charge, I can only imagine P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster -- more money than brains -- as the prototypical student.

I’m drawn to the story because it combines a few of my pet obsessions. As regular readers know, I’ve held for a while now that the Next Big Thing will be the upscale proprietary. This appears to be a varation on that. The story also gives me an opportunity to name-check Wodehouse, which doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

(Bonus to Wodehouse fans: check out Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. Quoting from memory: “People accuse me of loathing work. Nothing could be further from the truth. I could watch other people work for hours.”)

I don’t see the British model working in its current form, though it’s likely to evolve quickly. The only American attempt I’ve seen -- Founders College -- crashed and burned within a year. But one failed implementation does not disprove a concept.

An upscale proprietary could work, I suspect, if it combined very selective admissions with low class sizes, an extremely narrow set of curricular choices, hotel-style student housing, and a clear identity. The “hear occasional lectures by famous people” hook won’t cut it, since anyone who wants to can go online and subscribe to TED talks for free. The structure would have to be intensely student-centered, with the hook being something like “project-based from day one.” The value proposition, aside from the self-fulfilling value of exclusivity, would be that if offers what the online world can’t. I’m envisioning something close to “spend four years in close quarters with smart people doing self-directed projects.”

In the meantime, though, the for-profits have clustered mostly on the low end of the prestige hierarchy, competing with community colleges. The community colleges have a significant cost advantage that would be even more significant if they didn’t keep taking body blows from state budgets. But either way, the open-admissions end of the market is amply covered. But I don’t think that celebrity guests are enough, at this point, to claim prestige.

So no, I don’t see the new British version working in its current form, but I’m fascinated at the attempt. I consider it version 1.2 of the idea; version 2.0 will be the breakthrough. (Any VC’s looking to make a splash, I’d love to hear from you...hint, hint...)

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there merit in the British proposal that I’m just not seeing? Or is it doomed to be yet another quixotic episode for Bertie?

In part, they're exploiting a vulnerability in the British admissions system.

Britain has taken the common application one step further. One applies completely centrally. The application gets sent to UCAS which then sends it on to the half dozen Universities (actually departments within them) to which you're applying. They make you conditional offers (or not) through UCAS. The offer is conditional on some specific performance in the exams you'll take in June. UCAS lets you accept only two of these offers. One, a "firm acceptance", commits you to going to that University if you meet the conditions. A second, "backup acceptance", commits you to going to that University if you fail to meet the conditions for your firm acceptance, but do meet the (necessarily lesser) conditions for the backup.

There are always applicants who are over optimistic in their backup and, come August, when the exam results are announced find themselves without a place. There's a hurried matching of students without places and Universities with unfilled places, called Clearing, which everyone agrees doesn't work too well.

NCH will not be part of UCAS. You can apply to it in addition to your six UCAS applications. You can accept an offer from it in addition to your two UCAS acceptances. If it turns out that your actual exam results won't be enough for your Oxbridge offer or even your backup offer from Bristol, NCH will still be there.

They will have yield management problems, which have hitherto been unknown in Britain. They will have an interesting attrition problem (though Britain doesn't have a credit transfer system). But adjunctification will help them manage those problems.

They aren't looking to be very big at first. An entering freshman class of 200 has been mooted. Most British Universities matriculate in the thousands each year.

The initial PR has been very bad, but they aren't actually starting until Fall 2012, so if it dies down, they have a real chance of making it.
One key point of the NCH model is something that the US doesn't have, that has been near the top of my "what would be a good idea" list for years.

The University of London lets you register as an external student; if you do, you can take UofL exams and get a UofL degree, and study whereever and however you want. NCH plans to use the UofL degrees, not it's own.

This thread on Crooked Timber is very helpful, especially comment 113.

Nothing, I just want to say good morning and I hope you have a good day. See you tonight! Love
How does one bootstrap high standards and selectivity for profit? It seems to me that capable students who can pay ample tuition are already well served by the American college industry.
I think it’s outstanding that profit based educational models are available, with additional endeavors being launched. Some will fail, but others will adapt, and compete with public education, and each other, to provide alternatives. Choices create competition for market share, which overall in the best interests of the consumer.
Adam - students aren't engaged in a straight-up consumer transaction and it is disingenuous to make such a comparison.
Re: Anonymous
It’s an absurd contrast that those who compete everyday in the market system creating wealth and subsequent tax revenue, while others advocate against educational choice in an effort to preserve the publicly funded schools that employ them.

Imagine the nightmare scenario of nationalizing all grocery stores, with powerful organizations created to lobby politicians, and fight viscously against the formation of any private enterprise grocery store.

It would be the same tired “crabs in a barrel” argument because it’s easier to pull others back down into the barrel of mediocrity, the the perseverance and energy to pull oneself up.

We should all welcome “for-profit” schools, encourage their success, and relish the competition.
One correction: IHE says "the bulk of teaching would come from other full-time staff," which in British parlance would usually hold titles of "lecturer" or "senior lecturer," roughly equivalent to the North American assistant and associate professor, respectively. This of course is also the case at Oxbridge etc.; only the most senior faculty in Britain earn the title of "professor" (equivalent to the unadorned or "full" professor in North American universities).
Whenever I fight viscously against things, I get stuck. The viscosity don't you know.
You can read Three Men in a Boat here:
@Adam: is it your contention that the market for food is not currently regulated or subsidized in any way by our government?
Re: PunditusMaximus

What relevance does your question have? I'm not arguing against regulation.
It sounds like you are describing a Montessori style university.
I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks...

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