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?