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Educational Entrepreneurship, Part 1

Monday, June 6, 2011

Well, the three week public policy Intersession is done. I’ve taken a course like that before, but A: it was a lot less rigorous (Drama for non-majors), B: I wasn’t working full time, and C: I was 20. Let’s just say that while I learned a lot and wished the course could have been longer, I’m also hoping we don’t have to endure many more of those. Next up is 8 weeks on diversity in higher ed, and I’m (foolishly?) optimistic that the relaxed pace will leave me with a bit more time to blog. It also may afford me a chance to get up on my Social Justice soapbox in a post or two, which is rarely a bad thing. But first, I’ve come across a couple of intriguing entrepreneurial ventures in the past few days that bear some discussion this week. Part 1 will be posted in both The Infoliterate University and the COIL Blog, not as sure if librarians will care about part 2…

 The for-profit New College of the Humanities in the UK is an interesting startup  venture that’s attempting to craft a new path for teaching the liberal arts and hard sciences for students who want a particular educational experience. At first glance, aside from the superstar founding faculty this university doesn’t appear all that different from niche SLACs like St. John’s College or Cornell College* that sell their old school liberal arts focus, low student/faculty ratios, and/or unique course delivery. However, this model is portrayed as something that will benefit faculty at least as much as staff, as the theory is that the small size and higher profit margins will allow faculty to conduct research and reach students in a way impossible when navigating the twin bureaucracies of university and government. More unique is the fact that this new educational ventures is starting in the wake of ongoing austerity measures in the UK. The fact that there is demand for this suggests a growing dissatisfaction (or at least presumed dissatisfaction) with existing options among students with the cash flow to afford to take a flyer on these ventures. The College also addresses elite faculty’s concern that government is growing unwilling, and possibly unable, to underwrite high-level research in the style to which it has become accustomed. I’ve suspected for a while that some colleges might start experimenting with new revenue streams to supplement tuition and grants, but this school seems to take that concept to the extreme.

  While I imagine that the future could be leading higher ed toward an increased schism between research and education-centered institutions, I wonder if that model is sustainable in the long-run either. It’s also possible that this is a one-off reaction to the unique issues rocking the UK, which makes our ‘crisis’ look amusingly mild. I will say that it is reassuring that this group of capitalists obviously value the “useless” humanities enough to put their money where their mouth is, at least in the UK. However, having studied in the UK, higher education is honored in a way it isn’t in many other places, even here in the US. Britain’s much less populist than the US as a rule, as even my beloved down-to-earth Scotland can come off as a wee bit elitist to a Sooner Born-and-Bred type. There is very little reverse snobbery in the culture, and Brits take their role as the Intellectual Center of the West (in their minds, at least) extremely seriously. If this venture takes off in the UK, it will be interesting to see if the model makes it across the pond. On one hand, my egalitarian bent toward Education for All shudders at the price tag, like almost of the Brits commenting on this story. On the other hand, my inner entrepreneur, snob, and anglophile are all almost tempting me to submit a CV…assuming of course, that this place will ever exist in the form described in the article, or lives long enough to build a library.

 In fact, DOES a library make sense for an institution like this? On the surface, it seems like it would, as we strongly support most of the humanities, and many of us are refugee liberal arts majors anyway. But are there unique options a school like this could present? If nothing else, this dedication to a life of the mind lends itself to a closer merging of classroom and library, and I could see co-teaching and embedded projects working well. If I were building a library for this program, I’d think about privileging study spaces over stacks (especially considering the School’s alliance with London University), and aiming for a high librarian/student ratio, possibly even assigning each student/faculty a personal liaison librarian who could provide one-on-one research appointments to help them get started on projects, and would come to know their research interests and goals. A Cadillac experience, no doubt, but these kids would be paying a Cadillac price tag, especially when you recall that British universities were essentially free until the mid-90s (assuming you passed admission standards) and state schools (which almost all UK universities are) still can’t charge more than 9000 pounds a year in tuition, which currently works out to about $15,000.

All that said, the more I write and read up on this, the less sure I am that this will go anywhere. One assumes the math at least theoretically makes sense, though the key lesson of my brief time in corporate America was that in the short run one could make a balance sheet say almost anything you wanted it to, provided neither side had much to gain from close scrutiny. I’m also unsure about the kind of class/racial diversity that would be found in a school like this. If the idea is to train up classically educated businessmen, even in the UK they will have to communicate and compete with folks from other backgrounds.  Finally, if you dig down into the follow-up to this story which includes a financial analysis and a Terry Pratchett-esque satire of the syllabus, it seems slightly possible that the PR doesn’t quite match the reality of the program. At the end of the day, this could be anything from a tax writeoff to a genuine higher ed institution, and either way it should be an interesting story to watch.

Later this week: Part 2, Microlending for students

*note—I considered Cornell College seriously for my undergraduate program, but OU’s bribe aid package kept me in-state. Considering I met some world-class scholars and my husband at OU, and it gave me the financial freedom to pursue that aforementioned year abroad, I don’t regret this. Also, after completing that intersession in about the same time period as a Cornell term, I’m not sure I missed all that much.

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