The cost of a premier faculty

2 minute read

The Guardian has an article titled, “Richard Dawkins heads line-up at private 18,000-a-year university”.

I point to the story only to draw attention to this:

The college aims to attract candidates with at least three A grades at A-level with the promise of more direct teaching than at traditional universities. The student-teacher ratio will be better than 10 to one and there will be 12 to 13 hours' contact with teachers each week.

Here are some other faculty mentioned:

Other teachers signed up include Sir David Cannadine, a history lecturer at Princeton; Ronald Dworkin QC, a leading constitutional lawyer teaching at University College London and New York University; and Steve Jones, a leading geneticist. Lawrence Krauss, professor of earth and space exploration and physics at Arizona state university, who has advised Barack Obama on science policy, will teach cosmology.

The article doesn’t really give the information necessary to assess this idea, especially within the British context where lecturers (of the kind advertised here) do relatively little of the actual educating. OK, so they have a bunch of people scheduled to come and give lectures. How many lectures? If this were an American university, we’d be talking about a 12 to 15 week commitment, which is completely implausible on this budget, for this set of lecturers. So we’re talking about a very short commitment – maybe a week or two on campus? What is the education goal for such a short series of lectures?

What does the 10-1 student/teacher ratio refer to? Is it the number of students who get to attend lectures by Dawkins, Krauss, and Dworkin? Again, I find that completely implausible, unless each student really only has the opportunity to sit lectures from one or two of the premier names. Is it that 10 students are assigned per tutor in the college? If the latter, it seems like a total rip-off compared to other British colleges.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad deal but I’m suspicious. I know what I do for students in a 15-week course, and students at Wisconsin taking a full time load get a lot more direct instruction from premier faculty than in most systems. We have a lower budget, and the result is a much higher average class size.

So I would be interested to see how they plan to integrate a much more expensive set of lecturers on their proposed budget with their proposed student/teacher ratio. I just don’t see how the numbers work unless the number of lectures is very small and the use of adjuncts as tutors accounts for most of the contact hours. If I were a journalist writing a story about this, I would look into exactly what students get for their tuition money.

UPDATE: The Guardian now has a more critical essay by Terry Eagleton in the Comment is Free section: “AC Grayling’s private university is odious”.

Somehow it's hard to imagine these guys rolling in at 9am and teaching for 12 to 15 hours a week, which is what you do in the real Oxbridge. Prospective students should talk to these professors' travel agents and insist on obtaining photocopies of their diaries.