The New College of the Humanities, founded in London by the philosopher AC Grayling, is being bought by a US university, Northeastern.
In the college’s Bloomsbury building, the pennants of both universities are flying side by side, and their two leaders are planning their joint future.
Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern, says: “It’s not an acquisition, it’s a marriage.”
There’s an element of politeness about this, because in a deal announced last month the Boston-based university is becoming the owner.
But it means the New College of the Humanities (NCH) is now financially secure, it can take a not-for-profit status and can push on to get its own degree-awarding powers.
Keeping the faith
Prof Grayling says it also protects the original ambition to offer something distinctive, with an emphasis on individualised learning.
“Right from the very beginning, the conversation was about, ‘Let us create something remarkable, let’s do something really good.'”
But he says when any new institution is burning through its start-up cash, the temptation is to dilute the good intentions.
“If you start losing your nerve, you start lowering the quality, you drop the entrance requirements and then you just become another high-volume, low-cost college.
“You really have to keep going and keep faith,” he says.
When the college was launched in 2012, it headed straight into a storm.
Students were rioting about tuition fees going up to £9,000 and it seemed like a brash and provocative move for the New College of the Humanities to set fees at £18,000.
Claims about it being a rival to Oxbridge also irritated the academic establishment.
“It was an unlucky moment,” he says.
“But when I first started this I had two unconquerable things on my side: enthusiasm and ignorance.
“The ignorance was manifold. I didn’t have a complete idea what would be involved with the labyrinth of regulatory bodies.
“Nor that we were just about to have a change in visas, nor of the reaction that students would have to the rise in fee levels.”
The setting of such high fees wasn’t a deliberate plan, he says, but a last-minute change when tougher visa rules made it harder to recruit overseas students.
Defying the odds
That had “blown a hole underneath the waterline” of the business plan, which Prof Grayling says, left them with the choice of either scrapping the launch or increasing fees.
When the college opened it was expected to be the pioneer of a wave of new higher education providers, including from the US.
But starting a university from scratch is far from easy, when reputations are built over many years – and the New College turned out to be one of the few rather than the first of many.
What made it even more against the odds was to create a college dedicated to the humanities, at a time with so much emphasis on science and technology.
Prof Grayling, famous as both author and philosopher, proved to be a pragmatic entrepreneur and dogged defender of his college.
Not ‘academic tourism’
So what will Northeastern do with the college?
“The last thing we want is to say that this is going to be a franchise,” says President Aoun.
Northeastern already has a network of campuses, across the US and Canada.
He wants to keep the independence and the ethos of NCH – and to avoid the habit of US universities replicating their own culture when they move abroad.
“Universities in general in the US, when they establish themselves overseas, they base it in an export model.
“I am exporting my campus, my knowledge, my approach.”
President Aoun says he wants the New College of the Humanities to work on joint projects with Northeastern students, but to offer them an authentically English educational experience.
“We don’t want academic tourism,” he says.
The New College of the Humanities will remain a UK-regulated institution – and if it gets its own degree-awarding powers, these will be UK qualifications.
He says there are no plans for any big expansion. “We’re not chasing the numbers.”
Northeastern has about 20,000 students – while the New College of Humanities has about 200 students. It’s like a big chain buying a boutique hotel.
President Aoun’s annual pay, not the highest in US higher education by any means, would start another riot in the UK, with a package worth about $1.45m (£1.13m).
He says the challenge for universities is to make students “robot-proof” for an era in which artificial intelligence will take away many existing jobs.
He thinks NCH’s way of teaching the humanities will provide some answers.
Alongside subjects such as literature and history, students have to learn about science and study entrepreneurship.
President Aoun says universities will have to get over their own resistance to change.
“We want to change the world, but we don’t want to change ourselves,” he says.
With the deeper pockets of Northeastern, it also means that the New College has a much better chance of becoming an old college.
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The editor of Global education is Sean Coughlan (email@example.com).