Brains and Bloomsbury seem to go together. The bustling central London suburb is home to the British Museum, the University of London, and several leading medical institutions. Back in the smog-filled day Charles Dickens roamed its streets and later the likes of Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E M Forster and Lytton Strachey used it as a base for some serious writing and thinking (among other things). The Pre-Raphaelites launched their art revolution-in-reverse from there, and the much-painted Jane Morris embarked on her career as a Muse. Even the king of the off-beat reggae guitar chop Bob Marley once lived there.

In more recent times another cerebral celebrity has set up shop in Bloomsbury in a move that could well prove to be a slow-burning disruptive innovation for higher education.

The philosopher A C Grayling is the brains behind the New College of the Humanities, whose professoriate includes the likes of Peter Singer, Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins. Based on the American liberal arts college model, the NCH now teaches its own degree programmes as well as University of London degrees.

Late last month NCH announced it would be launching its first postgraduate degree in September, an MA in historical research and public history validated by Swansea University.

As a private institution it has done all those things any start-up has to do, including raising seed capital and private equity funding. Fees are relatively high, but it has ensured a variety of scholarships are available and has committed to supporting students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

NCH has its share of critics, who variously have reviled it as elitist and, with its fees, against the spirit of public education. Curiously, although many of the attacks have come through the pages of The Guardian, one of that publication’s leading columnists has come out in defence of the college.

Simon Jenkins says NCH is simply “exploiting the global intellectual melting pot that is London, to make a point and make a profit. In this they are no different from any publisher, broadcaster, magazine or private clinic,” adding:

“… They have lobbed a few well-aimed grenades at the preference of state universities for incomprehensible research at the expense of teaching, for science at the expense of humanities and for scholarly pursuit at the expense of career opportunities. The proposed emphasis on developing a student’s critical, logical and life skills is admirable, as is the determination to draw on London’s cultural vitality.”

As its name suggests, the college focuses on the humanities. But a massive “added value” it brings is on preparing its students for the world of work, teaching them “the core skills and behaviours that will give them a head start in the increasingly competitive graduate recruitment market, and that can easily be transferred to any field”.

Further, students have “gained highly-prized graduate training opportunities at top firms, including Canaccord Genuity, Clifford Chance, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, Diageo, Hogan Lovells, Lambert Smith Hampton and Porsche…

NCH appears to be succeeding and its offerings in demand. Only time will tell if it continues that way.

If it does, it could well serve as a model for smart, well-resourced and market-savvy higher education innovators.

DM