AC Grayling: The MT Interview

As the first term begins at his £18,000-a-year liberal arts university in Bloomsbury, the celebrated philosopher turned businessman swats away the carpings of the educational establishment, claiming that his New College of the Humanities will be a harbinger of the future of academia.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

A professor of philosophy on a sales and marketing drive is a novel sight. It's April and Professor AC (Anthony Clifford) Grayling is on an early train from Marylebone to Amersham to deliver his pitch for his soon-to-open Bloomsbury-based university, the New College of the Humanities, to the sixth form of Dr Challoner's Grammar School, founded in 1624.

The boys slope into the assembly hall, the usual mix of low-slung bags, interestingly knotted ties and the odd facial pustule. 'I never know what he's going to say,' says the prof's colleague Jane Phelps, the NCH director of external relations, responsible for school relationships. 'He's the most brilliant communicator but sometimes he forgets to mention the college!'

She need not have worried. Up on the stage, the noteless Grayling is ready for them. He's been briefed by the headmaster that the school - 21 pupils into Oxford and Cambridge last year - is especially strong in maths and electronics and opens accordingly. 'Science,' he opines, 'is mankind's greatest achievement.' (Not maybe what you would expect from the author of 20 books of philosophy, including Life, Sex and Ideas: The good life without God.)

In his wide-ranging address he tackles God, Herodotus, the marketisation of society, Pride and Prejudice, Plutarch, HSBC and the 'cock-ups' of contemporary politicians. The modern world is in a state of flux and ready for his New College with its novel approach: 'We are going to be preparing young people for jobs that haven't even been created yet.'

It isn't mentioned that he's asking pupils (and their parents or private loan providers) to commit potentially £18,000 per year in tuition fees to an untested institution that hasn't even opened its doors yet. But it's a polished performance and elicits intelligent questions from the assembled youths. He makes the NCH sound highly attractive: excellent teacher/pupil ratios, a deeper and broader education than is the norm, with guest lecturers including Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson. In addition, there will be an emphasis on extra-curricular tuition in real-world subjects, including finance, mortgages, parenting and even divorce. There will even be an in-college Minister of Fun at the Bedford Square HQ whose job it is to organise some London-based enjoyment for the rare downtimes. And to top it all, a chateau in France with three swimming pools for summer courses.

Not everybody, though, likes what they hear. When it was announced, the NCH was met with no little opposition from sections of the academic establishment. Working in the often jealous and now profoundly unstable world of higher education, Grayling's success and high public profile as an intellectual clearly gets up the nose of many. The Guardian, which used to publish a weekly column from AC, made a mean-spirited policy decision to have a concerted go at him. And at a launch event in Foyles bookshop he was attacked with pink smoke bombs.

The Dave Spart accusation was that he was creating an 'elite' establishment, a haven for Oxbridge rejects whose parents could afford the high fees. This bothers him not one jot and he responded: 'You want your surgeon and pilot to have been trained in an elite institution. Elitist is fine, providing it doesn't mean exclusive and only for the rich.'

Launching a business is not something Grayling, a lifelong Oxford and Birkbeck academic and writer, has tried before. He grew up in Zambia, the third and late child of an expat Standard Chartered banker and a mother he has described as 'neurotic, difficult and short-tempered. So, not having much to do with her was a blessing.' When he was sent off to boarding school in Cape Town, a four-day train journey away, his parents 'didn't say they were going to fetch me back again. So I thought that was it.' He was frequently beaten at another boarding school in Zimbabwe and once ran away off into the bush with only a packet of biscuits and a bottle of water. He was found by the police, asleep in his uniform in a railway siding.

The defining incident of his youth, however, occurred when he was 19. His sister, who had been born with brain damage, was stabbed to death in Johannesburg. Her body was found dumped in a river. His mother, who went to identify the remains, had a heart attack and then died as well. Grayling's response to this was to throw himself into his work.

For a serious man, Grayling's appearance has been the subject of much comment and no little mirth. His great domed head, with its rich and luxuriant helmet of carefully coiffed hair, makes him look as if he just walked off the stage set of The Lion King. Descriptions of his thatch include 'an impressive trireme of silver virility' and 'a defibrillated Pekinese'. One interviewer even sneaked into the bathroom of his home near the Old Kent Road in south-east London and tweeted that he'd discovered no fewer than nine cans of hairspray. 'A disgusting invasion of privacy,' was Grayling's verdict on this stunt. 'Anyway, we're a household of five people with three women in it. We keep the cans for recycling.' He has three children - two now grown up from his first marriage and a younger daughter from his marriage to novelist Katie Hickman.

He is engaging company and knows it. Rather good with slightly naughty indiscreet stories, he tells one about a Cabinet minister he taught but then failed to recognise one day while walking down Whitehall. He makes you promise - with a touch on the forearm - that you won't repeat it in print.

Creating the NCH has been this teetotal workaholic's greatest challenge yet. What Grayling has to grapple with is the unique nature of British society and its incendiary mix of money, privilege and education. 'The UK is rather particular in its attitude to education and its importance in trying to restructure what is a class-ridden society where privilege can be bought by money,' he says. 'This is perfectly understandable. I've always regarded myself as being on the left in politics, so the response from some of my own colleagues was a deliberate attempt to whip up a storm.'

There is also a discontent about mixing education and commerce. This is rooted in a broader unease about the privatisation of public services that includes the NHS, the welfare state and the police - to which, for example, the now disgraced G4S is providing support services. Even if these institutions were to be run better and more efficiently for their customers - ie, us - the fact that profit may be involved appals some.

Grayling finds this argument lacking in logic. 'One could say that if your very existence depends upon providing good quality service, you're not going to succeed and make that profit unless you do so. However, the countervailing argument is summed up in one word: banks. They have shown how the profit motive can make you exploit other people and misbehave towards them. But the idea that the profit motive is always corrupting is now without foundation.'

Grayling points out that many universities are already private institutions that engage in for-profit activity. Oxford and Cambridge make millions from publishing. 'UCL in London owns 10 or 11 private companies, one of which manufactures socks and is incredibly successful.' The truth is he's no class warrior battling for the bourgeoisie but is profoundly interested in education, which he believes has become far too narrow after the age of 16 and the completion of GCSEs. NCH has been a dream of his for many years and he says he wants it to offer two innovative things: a broader liberal arts curriculum based on the US model and a return to small tutorials, the one-to-one teaching method now dropped from most establishments because of its cost.

'We want the forensic examination of ideas: organised and argued for and against, week after week, right through university,' he enthuses. 'It's a fantastic, vigorous intellectual training. We live in a time of extremely rapid change and people do need to have this greater breadth of vision, as well as the training on how to think. We will not just assume that people will pick up how to think by osmosis when they study philosophy or history. Thinking about thinking will be part of the curriculum, a core compulsory aspect of what they do.'

No little thinking has been done about British education over the past two decades. We agonise over it but change is hard to come by. It is now nearly 15 years since it was first mooted that paying for higher education in the UK should be the responsibility of the beneficiary - ie, the student. Grayling's belief is that mature developed societies should invest in free education at every level, but that argument has now long been lost - 'We've given up on that and made our choices that we will spend our money on Trident missiles and the rest.'

But he doesn't believe the results of introducing a market - where students can choose where they spend their borrowed money - have fully sunk in yet.

'The changes in higher education and raising the tuition fees have been misunderstood, even by those most directly affected. For example, some big corporate players are coming into the higher education field such as BPP, Capita and Pearson. (The last of which has announced the opening of Pearson College, offering a degree in business and enterprise from bases in London and Manchester.) They're offering two-year degrees in vocational subjects such as business management, IT and accountancy. This is a threat to the bottom third of universities - the post-1992 ex-polys that are offering the same thing over three years at £7,500. Many will have to reinvent themselves as two-year, community-type colleges. Many of them have closed down humanities departments already.'

But does he object to market forces being extended into education? 'The market is not a reliable and fair instrument. It has always been thought by the centre and left in the UK that education was the last great resource for social justice - moving people into new possibilities. The grammar school system was an incredible instrument for moving people out of the working classes into the middle classes. The attempt to create a much fairer system in comprehensive education actually compromised that aspect of it. But the virtue of the grammar school system had a big vice, which was that the people who went into the secondary modern schools were grounded as second class at the age of 11 - which is horrific.'

The whole system is now in no-man's-land. Grayling says the comprehensive system has failed and that the Government has no real policy on higher education - 'the Coalition has no idea where it's going.' He worries that the introduction of tuition fees is having adverse effects: 'There is a threat to people who are not used to borrowing money and are frightened by it. There seems to be a tremendous disincentive, which will disproportionately disadvantage people from deprived and working class backgrounds.'

But he won't have the post-1992 ex-polys all made extinct. 'The people who say too many people go to university and read for degrees in photography which are absolutely useless, thus causing a drain on the public purse and that market forces will get rid of a lot of dead wood ... are people that I emphatically disagree with. I think those universities actually do an incredibly good job. Somebody who gets EE or CDD at A level and isn't going to go to a Russell Group university might be moved on, given chances, learn things and might come out a different person at the end. The fact that universities offering such places are under threat should be a worry for our society.

'At NCH, we're not the problem. Our critics are pitching it at the wrong end, at a tiny little college which sets its standards very, very high. What we are is a small Oxbridge college which has set itself up in London. We're not a threat to anybody.'

Grayling believes that an entirely independent, private status will come to seem increasingly attractive. He's convinced that within the next 10 years the top half-dozen universities in the UK will terminate their relations with the government. They will go entirely independent, because the government attaches increasingly awkward strings to the funding it gives them.

In his first year, beginning this autumn, Grayling has taken 90 students after 400 applied for places. All but two have three As at A level or better. A mere 20% were educated in the state sector, but Grayling points out that many of those from independent schools are not wealthy and were on scholarships. Almost 45 of his students are in receipt of some sort of financial assistance and are not paying the full whack of £18,000. He says that figure should never fall below a third as they work towards their mature size of 1,000 students. There are 12 scholars who pay no fees and receive a bursary towards living expenses. 'My aim is to make this small college so good that we will raise from our alumni and other people a big endowment and we can be needs-blind. People will apply to us, we will accept them on merit and if they haven't got any money we will educate them anyway.'

Grayling is taking his lead from the most successful US universities. The Ivy League institutions have such huge endowments - Yale's, for example, is worth nearly $20bn - that poor but very bright students have for many years been able to gain entry.

Setting the whole thing up has been no easy task. All those involved in NCH - and they are an ideologically driven lot - have been disturbed by the red tape involved. Grayling, who has very little experience of running a business outside being a non-exec at a small magazine publisher, was shocked by the 'tens of thousands of pounds that pour out of our coffers into lawyers' pockets'. But he has heeded the advice of an old college friend who become very successful. 'He told me: if you've got a good idea, find the right people to carry it out.'

His chairman is Charles Watson, who spent 23 years at City PR firm Financial Dynamics. His chief executive is Jeremy Gibbs, who comes from a background in venture capital, and his sales and marketing man, who also puts together the extra-curricular life skills component, is Matthew Batstone, a former head of marketing at the Economist Group.

So is NCH likely to make anybody a vast sum of money? Not for the moment. It is both a charitable trust, a limited company with investors and a not-for-profit college. There are 40 shareholders, including Grayling himself and some of the famous profs. It will have to wait three years before it can award its own degrees - until then, they will be University of London degrees while the Department for Education sees if Grayling passes muster.

It could become valuable in years to come. If the college does well and some sort of franchisable brand can be exported - as several leading British public schools and universities have done, opening branches in the Far East - then it might be an estimable business. There is also the rise of digital distance learning, which requires far less capital to set up. And British higher education brands, however poorly we look after them, are highly thought of around the world.

So what about business, the making and even the love of money? What does the philosopher in him think of commerce? 'Well, the crucible of the western intellectual tradition is Greece. Socrates's attitude towards those who taught for money, the Sophists, was very disparaging. Both he, and Aristotle afterwards, thought that anyone with anything to do with buying/selling/profit/interest was involved in a degrading act. The best kind of life was one of detached contemplation.'

Which, of course, is hardly open to most, apart from the Petra Ecclestones and Chloe Greens of this world who, anyway, prefer consumption to contemplation. 'Precisely. These people all had their own little farms and slaves, harvested olives - that's how they managed to live so they didn't have to charge for their lectures.'

Academia has hardly been the place to get rich over recent decades and its monetary prospects appear worse by the day. This has not escaped Grayling's notice. 'It was a very interesting revelatory moment to me when some of my older colleagues told me a professor until the 1950s and 1960s could quite easily have afforded to buy a house in Hampstead. Between 1970 and 2000, public sector salaries increased by 42% in real terms. In that same period, real salary increase for academics was 3%.

'It's not as if dons are indifferent to their pay packets but they're still very, very disparaging about financial activity. More generally, however, people understand that the making and generating of wealth is essential. Societies that have been very successful economically are ones that have very high levels of culture, education and health care.'

And what might Grayling - or Socrates for that matter - make of the likes of Bob Diamond? 'These days everything can appear for sale. Status is entirely a matter of money. This has gone hand in hand with the deregulation of the City. The result has been a wildfire of people being greedy and money becoming an end in itself.

'There are people not that well off who assume that others have got money because of their talents and hard work and they think that's fair enough. But when the balance goes really wrong, then you get our present difficulties. It's part governmental and regulation but also to do with the public conversation. The reason Bob Diamond resigned is because of opinion. Public sentiment has turned against these people.'



  • To ensure NCH is excellent but not exclusive

  • To build up his endowment fund to allow needs-blind admission

  • To align his ideals with the need to make NCH financially successful

  • To develop his brand by turning out distinctive, highly employable graduates




1949:  Born 3 April in Luanshya, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Educated in South Africa, Zimbabwe and at Sussex University
1986 Lecturer then reader in philosophy at St Anne's College, Oxford
2005-2011 Professor of philosophy, Birkbeck College, London
1985-now Author of more than 20 books on philosophy and other subjects
2000-04 Fellow of the World Economic Forum
2011 Master of the New College of the Humanities, London.

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