There is one important aspect of AC Grayling's New College that has been strangely ignored, which is a shame because it is arguably the most odious, whatever Terry Eagleton might say. The media has understandably focused on the fee of £18,000 a year, and the fact that this will turn education into an extreme luxury item; but as Chris Dillow suggests, the worth of an £18,000 degree will be considerably less than that of a £9,000 one from a good university, once it becomes plain that its full of dense Etonians.
I also think the notion of a 'private' university is not, per se, anything to fear, and on this Grayling deserves to be heard. Paul Mason's evocative phrase, used in his LSE lecture, that the 'Ross and Rachel era is over', cannot be ignored, simply by demanding more of the form of credit-fuelled and state-driven opulence that Britain enjoyed during Blair's second term. Who knows where the humanities will be housed in twenty year's time? Lets listen to Paul Gilroy, when he says:
Maybe we have to look to a younger generation, people who are either not academics, or have a very tenuous or marginal position in the academic world and are very skilled or adept at using elements of the new technology to build a different kind of platform than the one they would get inside the bubble of official commentary. People like Dan Hancox, and Kay Punk, and Richard Seymour – all bloggers of one sort or another. They may have a journalistic gig too, do a bit of academic life, and have 10 or 20,000 followers on Twitter. I think new technologies impact this idea of public intellectuals very directly.
Against this backdrop, the notion of listening to Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins blather on, at a cost of £18,000 a year, purely because they are publicly recognisable to non-intellectuals (which is purely because they get invited to blather on on Newsnight, purely because they are publicly recognisable to non-intellectuals), appears the equivalent of listening to Emerson Lake & Palmer in 1977. They're yesterday's people, and the only people who don't realise that are those who can't distinguish price from value.
No, the really odious thing about Grayling's proposal is a term that gets lost between '£18,000' and 'private'. That term is 'for-profit'.
Consider the meaning of a for-profit university. Not for-learning or for-research, but for-profit. Actually, this term is always something of a misnomer. The central contradiction of capitalism from a Marxian perspective is that the extraction of surpluses depends on use value: something useful, productive, desirable must be invented or built, before money can start being creamed off. A for-profit car manufacturer must also, to some extent, be for-cars. It transpires in the case of Grayling's New College that even the financiers have interests and objectives that extend beyond accumulation of more money.
But if for-profit means anything, it means that financiers and owners are owed some form of surplus, and are entitled to take whatever surpluses happen to arise unexpectedly. This is quite different from conventional debt finance, in which we assume that the lender will receive some interest on the loan. 'Not-for-profit' organisations such as charities and Foundation Trust hospitals borrow money in this way from banks, but this is not to say that the bank receives the surplus. Surpluses, as Georges Bataille argues, are the central fact of all economy in the 'general' sense of the term. Feasts, wars, orgies, exploitation, sacrifices are all anthropological phenomena which dispose of that which is left over, that of which there is too much. Capitalism's solution to this problem, namely surplus value extraction from labour and distribution of it as profit, is only one of innumerable ways of dealing with the fact that value overflows, that our needs are often more than met. The surplus produced by universities, for example, typically spills over into the public sphere and the enrichment of human lives.
Following the Alan Greenspan-induced 'Ross and Rachel era' of opulent, overflowing credit, finance has returned to its traditional Scrooge-like mentality. There is scarcely enough to go round. And therefore to introduce a profit motive into universities, at precisely the moment when finance has already removed all of the surpluses from public use, represents an appalling insult to injury. To say that the lender and the owner have first dibs on any additional value that happens to be lying around, and to say that in a university, positions Grayling alongside Fred Goodwin and Bob Diamond as those who privatise all gain, then socialise all loss. This is the logic of 'drill, baby, drill' - that because the surpluses are running out, we need to privatise more of them - extended into the intellectual sphere.
So, yes, by all means privatise universities. After all, how many academics enjoy the state breathing down their necks via the Research Excellence Framework? And if you can find an education that is 'worth' £18,000 a year, and genuinely intellectual students who happen to want to spend this, then who, really, is to stop you? Private entities can serve public interests, and anyone who disagrees needs to put down their David Marquand book and consider where their treasured cultural artefacts come from. Where Grayling has suffered a complete failure of imagination is in jumping directly from 'private' to 'for-profit', thereby confirming our worst suspicions about the company that he, Dawkins and Ferguson are keeping, and the Thatcherite politics they harbour.