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"The £9,000 tuition fees cap won't last – we're biting the bullet first"

A. C. Grayling is the pinko liberal philosopher who has made the red see red and the blues turn blue. The mild-mannered atheist has been smoke bombed and heckled, abused and castigated since he announced his idea last week to set up an elite New College of the Humanities in London charging students £18,000 a year.

Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary theorist, described his planned institution as a “disgustingly elitist outfit”, Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, one of only two private universities in Britain, dismissed his idea as money grabbing and unprincipled, and Boris Johnson called it a college for Oxbridge rejects.

But the man whose most recent book was a secular rewriting of the Bible — The Good Book — has created a new academic world in only six days and despite all the criticism he is not going to rest. Richard Dawkins, Niall Fergusson, Steven Pinker and 12 other renowned professors are helping him to build his arts utopia. “I expected some criticism as we can easily be labelled in the wrong way,” Professor Grayling says. “But I didn’t think the backlash would be this vitriolic.”

The majority of those involved have what Professor Grayling calls a progressive outlook. “I’m a lifelong Labour supporter,” he says, adding that he had the idea because he could not bear to watch arts subjects being downgraded and devalued.

“We need history, English, politics and philosophy for a civilised life, for our industries and institutions. We created the biggest empire the world had ever known on the basis of the classics. To any minister who says we can only spend money on learning how to drive a bus or work a machine I would say you’ve got to train minds.”

His new college sets out to redress this balance, he insists, not to make money. “It does upset me to be seen as money grabbing. We are certainly not going to get any richer. We have set up a charitable trust because quality and accessibility are the two important factors. But the country is reaching a crisis in higher education so we want to see if we can bring resources in from outside the public purse.” The cast of professors is stunning but will they actually spend much time on the new campus? “They won’t give tutorials, but they will be partners, bringing advice and expertise. I want to recreate the experience I had at Oxford. I was very intensively tutored in my college but could also go and hear some amazing and extraordinary lectures.”

His students will get degrees from the University of London. “They will do their finals for them, but I desperately want to add depth and a broader curriculum as they do at the best universities in America. So the students will also do logic and critical thinking, there will be science literacy courses and a professional skills unit — teaching them how to read a balance sheet. We will have somebody to help them get internships and another person getting discount tickets for the theatre and encouraging them to go to the ballet.”

Professor Grayling was accused of plagiarism for having taken the University of London’s syllabus and posted it on his own website. “That was such a misunderstanding,” he says. “We were just talking about the curriculum we would have to cover for the university exam but they will be learning so much else here as well.” Professor Eagleton, who accused him of “betraying” other academics by “jumping ship and creaming off the bright and loaded”, has infuriated him more. “Terry spends three weeks every year at a private university in America charging £27,000 a year and he is paid a whacking great fee for it. The stench of hypocrisy is overwhelming. He is a knee-jerk Marxist. These are my folk, I am from the Left. We all began as utopians, thinking that if we owned the means of production we could make the world a better place, but then we learnt how hard it is to do that.”

He regrets that he felt it necessary to set up a private college. “I’ve always thought that, like health, education was a public good and ought to be paid from the public purse, from the age of 3 until the age of 23 fully and properly. But our society has made different choices. We have all been complicit in voting for political parties that have given up on the idea that we should be providing higher education as a serious public good. The Government’s higher education policy is in such a disarray that I don’t think they know what it is.”

The philosopher would prefer the coalition to raise the top level of tax to fund university education, but instead his students will have to pay £18,000 a year and will not be able to get government student loans. Professor Grayling says he is in negotiations with private banks about lending money, at preferential rates, while the college is also planning to offer cheap housing in King’s Cross.

“If you look at what the top-quality institutions charge overseas students, look at what the Ivy League institutions in the United States charge. You will find that this sum of money is the true cost of a high-quality education,” he says. “The £9,000 cap is completely unsustainable. Our belief is that, in probably three to five years, what we are charging is going to be pretty standard unfortunately. We are biting the bullet first.”

He knows that other universities are flirting with going private. “I’ve had e-mails from vice-chancellors and from heads of colleges at Oxford saying that they wish they could do the same thing. It’s a terrible risk that some of the very best places, wanting to remain the best, get the best people and keep their research standing in the world, are going to be hammered by these new cuts.”

Unlike Oxford and Cambridge, the New College for the Humanities will not have to follow the Government’s access rules. But he says he wants to preserve accessibility for poorer students. “The aim is to have more than 30 per cent of our students on some kind of financial assistance. I’ve no doubt that there will be some, maybe the majority of those paying the full fare, who have come from a private education and who have parents for whom that fee is not beyond the realms of possibility.”

He disagrees with the coalition’s plan to force the best universities to take a quota of state school pupils. “This is a real problem, it places very difficult constraints on institutions that want to remain world class.” His students will be expected to have at least three As at A level, and the college will also accept Baccalaureate and Pre-Us (new A-level equivalents sat by some public schools). But he worries that the “gold standard” exam that most pupils take at 18 has been dumbed down.

“We now have A* which are true As at A level,” he says. “You see people with a million stars not getting into Oxford.” He won’t routinely accept lower grades from a state school pupil, although he says: “There are cases where you can see the potential in an individual but for whatever reason they don’t get the credit. This is why it’s important to have strong relationships with state schools.”

But surely he is most likely to attract public school children who have failed to get into Oxbridge? “We’re not in the business of trying to pinch anybody from anywhere but there are so many phenomenal students out there we just want to help a few of them get the best education we can give them. And in five years time it would be very nice if people put us first because they liked the way we taught.”

He wishes more universities would become unashamedly elitist. “Some people think it’s cool to be thick. But we are also a very thoughtful, scientific and philosophical nation and we have produced a huge amount in those fields, and punched way above our weight in terms of population size. I’m not afraid of saying let’s get the best and do the best with them. People want their airline pilot and their surgeon to be extremely well trained, our historians should be too, but elite doesn’t have to mean exclusive.”

Nor does he mock the golf management courses and media degrees if they are well taught. “The aspiration behind trying to give as many people as you can further education is a very good one — an educated population is a flourishing population — but we must examine the content of each course.” He won’t even criticise those who prefer to read celebrity magazines to History Today or The Economist. “There’s a good philosophical reason for being interested in celebrities, gossip and soap operas. Human beings are naturally interested in the human story and they want to know how it is for other people so they can inform their own lives.”

But he does find celebrity philosophers such as Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell irritating. “If people write books which are like the cream that comes out of the aerosol and vanishes after a few minutes, they will leave their readers feeling they haven’t absorbed anything of substance.”

They won’t be lecturing at his college, presumably. Most of his lecturers appear to be atheists — is that a prerequisite? “Higher education is about teaching people how to think not what to think. I’m not going to ask any academic or student what their political or religious views are. But we’re not going to have a department of theology any more than a department of sports science. Personally I think theology and astrology are in the same area. “Religion has a very over-amplified presence in the public sphere. These religious voices have their place but they should be treated as trade unions or the Women’s Institute.”

So as the man who rewrote the Bible, what is the meaning of life? “I’m asked this question by cab drivers all the time and I know the answer. It’s this. The meaning of life is what you make it. Most of history people have been sold the falsehood that there is one right answer, one correct way, a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s all about one religion or — ism — but it’s not true because there’s such a diversity of human nature. There are so many different ways you can lead good and meaningful lives. You’ve got to recognise, respect and tolerate the differences and allow people their chance. And that’s how I see this new college too.”

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