Taken on the evidence of one surprising week, the Brave New World of higher education is like a London bus. You wait for ages for one big initiative to appear and then two come along at once. Appropriately enough, both involve Imperial College, London, which has announced merger talks with University College London at the same time as floating plans to charge fees of up to £15,000 a year. The timing in this case, however, is far from accidental: Sir Richard Sykes, Imperial's rector and UCL's original choice as provost, sees the two developments as not just complementary but as essential to challenge Oxbridge and the giants of US higher education.
Whether the merger can be rushed through remains to be seen. There is logic behind it and the prospect is certainly exciting, but universities are naturally conservative places. Even the reintegration of Manchester University and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology is proving difficult to achieve.
Top-up fees, on the other hand, now seem unstoppable. Even before the government's strategy paper is published, the question is not whether universities will be allowed to charge more for tuition, but how much and with what strings. Almost everyone who thinks about universities at all agrees that they are underfunded and that no government is likely to come up with the money they need to expand and to improve their international standing. The argument that students or their families should bear more of the costs has been gaining wider acceptance - we can be sure that the proposal would not be advanced by ministers unless polling had shown a reasonable level of public support. But, until now, the discussion has been couched in largely abstract terms.
Attitudes can soon change when there are figures attached, as there are in Sir Richard's paper for today's meeting of Imperial's council. Sir Richard's scheme is based on an independent calculation that it costs the college £10,500 a year to educate each undergraduate, although he concedes that fee levels will eventually be based on market value, rather than on cost. It is acknowledged that even affluent parents would need some warning of a change to full-cost fees, so charges might have to build up gradually over a decade. But the final fee might be nearer £15,000 than £10,000 if the new breed of customer expects better facilities and services.
Even as a long-term aspiration at what might by then be the leading university in Britain, fees on this scale will be enough to make middle-class parents blanch. The supporters of higher charges are fond of comparisons with independent school fees, but they forget that maintenance and tuition for a student living away from home already add up to much the same as the £6,700 average day-school fee paid by the vast majority of those in the independent sector. Boarders may pay £15,000, but they account for only 14 per cent of independent school places and less than 1 per cent of the total school population.
Of course, not all of the universities contemplating top-up fees would charge nearly as much as Imperial. But, as common as they may be in the US, even a few such fees would set back the cause of increased participation in higher education. Although any scheme would be accompanied by bursaries, families without a tradition of higher education would be bound to think twice. Indeed, with the size of the earnings premium enjoyed by graduates under increasing scrutiny, so will many of the middle-class parents who will actually do the paying. However much ministers may want to free up the market, there may be no alternative to a fees cap of the kind advocated by the Council for Industry and Higher Education.