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Chattering Classes College

March 18, 2014

I’m getting flashbacks to the Summer of 2011. Once again, well-connected figures are garnering publicity for a start-up education initiative.  Today, we have excited write-ups in the Guardian and on the LRB blog about a ‘free university’. Back then, New College of the Humanities was undercooked and had to go public prematurely in order to raise additional, needed funding. At least, though, Grayling and Co had established a company.

“IF: this university is free” has not even managed to get that together – it has neither associated nor incorporated. That it’s asking the public first for £10 000 is a bit rich.

They are using Kickstarter – a website intended for start-up ventures. On their own website, IF claims to be a ‘social enterprise’ – a non-charitable form which commits to investing the ‘majority of profits’, but not all, to advance social missions. In contrast, charities cannot make profits and must reinvest all surpluses. In addition, charities must subordinate all activities to public benefit objects and specify trustees.

In many ways, New College of the Humanities could claim to be a social enterprise as the high fees charged to some students are used to subsidise the fees of others – indeed some students are on full studentships. NCH also has a charitable arm to provide additional student support.

When assessing a social enterprise – and whether to donate to one – you need to see the formal articles of association or incorporation to see what the mission is, who is involved, and how profits will move round and out of the company. You cannot yet do any of this assessment with IF.

To further confuse things I received the following tweet early this morning

IF can’t both be a charity and a social enterprise unless it creates a group structure with more than one legal entity. I’d want to know to which one I was making my donation.

Judging by its publicity materials, there are further problems with IF as a pedagogical initiative.

Focusing on the ‘free’ cost of its proposed courses, it’s blind to its paternalistic offer. In many ways, it is simply the complement to New College of the Humanities: the cheap and cheerful, liberal arts alternative for the deserving poor, ‘young people priced out of today’s higher education market’.

In its publicity, IF repeats the worst forms of mooc boosterism in claiming to be a genuine alternative to higher education.  In truth, it looks closer to de Botton’s middlebrow School of Life without the price tags. At least NCH students are studying for a degree.

These may be teething troubles that IF sorts out, but their sample course (piggybacking on Yale’s Listening to Music course) doesn’t help. If that’s the current understanding of what a Humanities degree should offer, then let people do Law. University is not about becoming the middle classes of yesteryear. And that leads to my final points.

What is interesting about ‘free universities’ is not that they do not charge. It’s that they are democratic and participatory, often member organisations experimenting with radical alternative forms. IF’s emphasis on the absence of a price focuses on ‘the free beer, rather than freedom’ to quote Joss Winn, who helps to run the  Social Science Centre, a co-operative. IF’s declared dependency on moocs and TED talks only underscores the conservative nature of the endeavour. 

And where will that £10 000 go? You can’t tell from the pitch and may not see any accounts for a while. 


A reply from IF:
We are currently taking legal advice on whether to form as a CIC [Community Interest Company] or a CIO [Charitable Incorporated Organisation]. Our status is that we are two individuals using Kickstarter to fundraise for a specific project, the summer school described in our pitch. 

The CIC is a social enterprise company.


From → Moocs, NCH

One Comment
  1. Matthew Charles permalink

    Reblogged this on Pedagogy & the Inhumanities and commented:
    Andrew McGettigan with some thoughts on the financial structure of the “kickstarter” free university, IF, and some worries about its pedagogical structure. The Guardian article is here:

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