Private-school pupils will dominate elite college set up by AC Grayling

Three times as many offers made by £18,000-a-year New College of the Humanities are to pupils from private sector

AC Grayling's new £18,000-a-year private university will be dominated by students from private schools in its first year, as just one in five offers of places have been made to state school pupils.

The philosopher's venture, launched as an alternative to Oxbridge, and teaching degrees in five humanities subjects, has made 91 offers to students – of which 22% have been made to state-educated pupils, and 66% to those from independent schools. A further 8% are not coming directly from school, while 4% are mature students.

Visiting professors at the New College of the Humanities, due to open in Bloomsbury, London, in September, will include Geoffrey Robertson QC, who will lecture on human rights law, and the Harvard academics Steven Pinker and Niall Ferguson.

Grayling said the college had made outreach visits to state and private schools and denied it was exclusive. However, out of 130 visits, the college's staff visited just 21 state schools. Some state students have also attended visits held at private schools such as Rugby.

Of the 91 offers, seven are for scholarships – with no fee charged to the student – and 37 are for "exhibitions", for which the fees are £7,200 a year. Scholarships are means-tested awards for candidates with a household income of less than £25,000 a year, while exhibitions are awarded on merit.

The remaining students, if they take up their places, will have to finance themselves as they will not qualify for government-backed loans. Grayling's team is in talks with high street banks about commercial student loans.

Grayling said: "Anything very high quality, very demanding, can be described as elite. I don't personally have any difficulty with that word. You yourself would quite like your surgeon or your airline pilot to have been taught at elite institutions, and we make great efforts to look for talent right across the board."

"The fee is not arbitrary – put it in context of the fact that top American universities charge in the region of $50,000 a year … when you look at what independent schools in this country charge, look at what our universities charge overseas students."

Grayling said the fee was a reflection of the cost of providing a "very high-quality, intensive education".

The private institution will have at least nine full-time academic staff and aspires to maintain a 10-to-one ratio of students to staff. Grayling has promised 12 hours of contact time a week, including a one-to-one tutorial. "The one-to-one, essay-based weekly tutorial is under a lot of pressure in a lot of our universities and is a vanishing model in almost all of them. We see that as a key part of what we do," he said.

Grayling regards the college's target students as the thousands who do not win places at Oxford and Cambridge each year. The average grade offer to prospective students this year is three A grades at A-level.

The college team hopes in time to build up its endowment so that it can move towards "needs-blind" admission.

The college, which is backed by about 40 private investors, with no institutional money, does not have its own degree awarding powers. Instead it will offer University of London international degrees in economics, law, English, history and philosophy. It will also offer mixed programmes in philosophy, politics and economics and philosophy, politics and history.

The history degree include courses in the "birth of western Christendom", the social and cultural history of Europe from 1700 to 1880, and the foundation of modern political culture.

Because the degrees are international, students cannot claim government tuition loans. These are available at up to £6,000 for private institutions offering students courses validated by a body with UK degree awarding powers.

The NCH is the latest for-profit university to open in England, following private equity-owned BPP, and the £200m acquisition this week of the College of Law, the UK's biggest law school, by Montagu private equity. The College of Law offers a two-year accelerated law degree for £9,000 a year, on which students can claim loans of £6,000.

Grayling said his venture represented something "fresh and different".

"My great anxiety is that changes in higher education will generally speaking have the effect of a downward pressure. We see a lot of what the government calls private providers offering two-year degrees at very low fees, and mainly of course in vocational subjects, but if ever that were to diversify into serious intellectual endeavours then a two-year, shopfront education doesn't seem to me to be a higher education at all."

Jane Phelps, the college's director of external relations, said it had been challenging to get access to state schools.

She said: "While we're very, very keen to talk to state schools, it's been extraordinarily difficult to get in, first of all to find the right people to talk to in school and then getting an invitation to go because they don't have the framework in their daily schedule which allows time for outside speakers to come in. We're very keen to go and talk to more state schools."

The universities minister, David Willetts, had plans for a higher education bill, which would have given private universities' students the same rights as public ones – in exchange for private bodies accepting government restrictions on maximum fees, and access for candidates from under-represented groups. But this bill has been shelved.


Jeevan Vasagar, education editor

The GuardianTramp

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