LONDON -- Looking out the window of his book-lined office, it is easy to imagine Aldwyn Cooper as the president of a small liberal arts college somewhere in the wilds of New England. There is the snow falling gently on the leafy campus outside, amid the bustle of students walking between classes.
With his bow tie and neatly trimmed white beard, Mr. Cooper looks the part -- even the British accent does little to dispel the impression of a comfortable academic backwater. Only the steady procession of cars driving on the left side of the road indicates that these woods are actually in the center of London.
Last July, Regent's College was granted degree-awarding powers by the British government. Next month, the school, which has about 3,700 full-time students, expects to receive university status, which would make it only the second private university in Britain. (The University of Buckingham, founded in 1976, was the first.)
A nonprofit company registered as a charity, Regent's receives no funding from the central government. Ever since David Willetts, the British minister for higher education, announced the coalition government's eagerness for private providers to enter the sector, Regent's, which was founded in 1984 as an outpost of Rockford College in Illinois, has been working toward university status.
"Part of the reason it's taken so long is that we're helping the government make up the rules as it goes along," said Mr. Cooper, the school's principal. "They've never had to deal with an institution that offers both British and American degrees before," he said. Formerly known as the British American College London, Regent's is made up of seven specialist schools, which include the London School of Film, Media and Performance; the School of Psychotherapy and Counseling Psychology; the European Business School; and Regent's American College London, which offers a four-year undergraduate liberal arts degree through Webster University, based in St. Louis, Missouri.
Until this year, undergraduates who opted for a three-year European-style program had their degrees validated by the Open University, whose annual fees, at £5,000, or about $8,000, for both domestic and foreign students, have long been the cheapest in Britain.
"Because we're not state-funded, there are no controls on our fees or on the number of students. So we can charge what we think is correct," Mr. Cooper said. Regent's charges both domestic and foreign undergraduates £14,000 a year.
Asked to justify such high fees, Mr. Cooper pointed to a faculty-student ratio of 14 to 1 -- "and those 14 are all actually teaching students," he said. With no classes larger than 25 students, most of the teaching is done in seminars or tutorials. Foreign language study is also emphasized, with "10 economically important languages" taught on campus.
"We are the most internationally focused educational institution in this country," he said. The largest single group of students, 15 percent, comes from Britain. An additional 10 percent are American. The rest come from everywhere else. "There are 130 nationalities on campus, but no enormous number from anywhere," he said.
"We have classes with Serbian students, Croatian students and Bosnians sitting alongside one another in ways they didn't think they could," said Lawrence Phillips, who heads Regent's American College.
"They have made a career decision to do an American liberal arts degree," said Sophie Laws, director of the college's humanities program. "It sets them apart because it is so portable," she said.
Mr. Phillips said he found the broader focus of liberal arts teaching more rewarding. "I came here out of specific concerns about the narrowness of British universities, producing business graduates who can't write and historians who can't count," he said.
The school's cosmopolitan atmosphere was an important factor for Martha Gausdal, now in her second year studying for a bachelor's degree in international relations and human rights.
"I'm from Alesund, an island in Norway. It's a small place," she said. "Here my classmates speak German, Spanish, Arabic, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese. I get to sit next to people brought up in Afghan society and people brought up in French society."
"It makes you more capable of understanding other cultures -- you get less suspicious," said Ms. Gausdal, who is president of the undergraduate student union.
Her friend, Lisa Marie Nyvoll, who is also from Alesund, is in her third year studying international business and French. She said she had also considered the London School of Economics and Cass Business School.
"I knew I wanted to be in London," Ms. Nyvoll said. "In Norway you only study a single subject, and I wanted something more flexible. But I also wanted small classes, and a lot of attention from the professors, which you get here."
"All my professors know my name," Ms. Gausdal said. She also liked the way the American curriculum, unlike the British or Norwegian ones, gave credit for class participation. "It's important for me to be able to be vocal in class -- if you study politics you need to have debates and conversations," she said. "I'm not so good when it all comes down to just one exam at the end of the year."
Because their country is not a member of the European Union, Norwegian students would have to pay the international student rate for any British university.
At the London School of Economics, British and other E.U. students who start undergraduate degrees next autumn will pay tuition of £8,500, while overseas students pay £15,700. Cass Business School charges £9,000 for British and other E.U. students, and £12,500 for those from overseas.
"Regent's is a bit more, but it seemed worth it," Ms. Nyvoll said, adding that the Norwegian government gave students who attended overseas institutions a combination of scholarships and loans to cover the costs -- with 40 percent of the loan amount forgiven for students who pass their final exams.
British and other E.U. students are eligible for government loans covering as much as £6,000 of tuition. For the remaining £8,000, the school offers as many as 50 full scholarships a year to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"Yet we find it difficult to fill those bursaries," Mr. Cooper said. "Even though at least 1,300 of our students would be eligible for government loans, only about 90 apply. The majority of students who come here are from relatively comfortable families, ranging from comfortably middle-class to staggeringly wealthy."
"The students generally are from privileged families," Ms. Nyvoll said. "A lot of them come from business families. And much as you might like to think the world is really fair, when it comes time to look for a job or an internship, the contacts you make here can be really helpful."
Regent's has "a long-term aspiration to become completely needs blind," Mr. Cooper said. However, in the short term, the ability to admit students regardless of their ability to pay will have to contend with other aims, including a projected doubling of student enrollment in the next seven years, the opening of overseas campuses in Hong Kong, Eastern Europe and South America, and the acquisition of a design school and a law school.
Like awarding its own degrees, gaining university status is crucial to the school's plans for expansion. "We do a lot of work with the Russians -- they love us to bits," Mr. Cooper said. "But the government in Russia hasn't been able to recognize us. Same with the Saudis. Now they can. And of course it's also important for employers -- and for our graduates."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.