Sebastian Payne

A. C. Grayling interview: being hated, the need for private universities and celebrity academics

Professor Anthony Clifford Grayling is on top of the world. Well, Bloomsbury. Sitting in his office overlooking Bedford Square, the Master of the New College of Humanities can barely contain his self-satisfaction. ‘We have been more successful than anybody could have guessed,’ he informs me.

Two years ago, ‘one of the most hated men in academia’ was the target of eggs, smoke bombs and insults when he announced a new £18,000-a-year private university. His aim was to marry the tutorial teaching model with a challenging liberal arts course — with the help of some celebrity friends. Academics, foes and friends all rounded against Grayling and willed his experiment to fail.

Although the hatred has dissipated, the NCH’s master acknowledges both himself and his college provoke anger. ‘There are plenty of people that are cross about it but I hope there are worthier objects of dislike than my old self.’

Still, it cannot have been easy to see so many of his academic friends turn on him. He’s quick to attack literary critic Terry Eagleton, who described the NCH as ‘odious’. ‘Mr Eagleton was caught out teaching at one of the most expensive universities in the United States and getting a very fat fee for it. Hypocrisy takes a new name there,’ Grayling says smugly. ‘But other more serious colleagues and friends of mine in higher education, who have the same sort of outlook as I do politically, I did find a little disappointing.’

With his trademark grey hair, donnish quarters at the top of the college and oval glasses, A. C. Grayling does not have the air of an education revolutionary. Neither does the New College of Humanities, an institution that, despite the naysayers, opened in 2012.

The pupils filtering in and out bear the trademarks of normal university students —messenger bags, large textbooks, scruffy trainers and raggy scarves.

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