Imperial in £15,000 fee bombshell

October 18, 2002

* £47m for bursaries
* Single fee for all subjects
* Needs-blind admissions

Imperial College, London, plans to charge tuition fees of up to £15,000 a year if its council today approves radical proposals by its rector.

The college - which this week announced merger talks with University College London to form an institution that would threaten the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge - has calculated that it costs £10,500 a year to teach each undergraduate. It thus loses £2,800 a year for every home or European Union student it educates.

The proposals, in a paper written by rector Sir Richard Sykes, represent the most detailed blueprint for a top-up fees regime to be discussed formally at any British university. The paper says: "Prestigious universities cannot rely on government funding to provide the resources necessary for them to enhance or even maintain their academic standards in an international marketplace. A mass tertiary system makes it impossible for any government to fund elite institutions at the rate required.

"It seems likely that the higher education white paper, which is due to be published in November, will state that the government is considering removing the limitation on the fees that can be charged."

Sir Richard invites Imperial's council to state publicly that it wants to introduce higher fees if the government gives the go-ahead next month.

Sir Richard told The THES : "If the government, in the white paper, says that it is going to lift the cap on student fees, then we would want to make sure that we supported the government in that strategy."

Under the proposals, the college would operate a needs-blind admissions system. The funding council grant that the college receives for teaching, some £47 million, would be spent on bursaries for students who could not otherwise afford to study there. Any unspent cash would go into an endowment scheme to fund future bursaries.

A single fee would be charged for all subjects to prevent students shunning the more expensive sciences. The paper states that "other universities have indicated that they would (also) be prepared to do this". The fees would not be introduced until autumn 2006 at the earliest, and there would be a transitional period so that full fees would not be charged until, say, 2016.

Sir Richard told The THES that the tuition fees could be £15,000 a year. The £10,500 figure represents the cost of teaching using existing facilities. If students were paying for their education, then they might expect improved academic and residential accommodation, IT, sports and recreational facilities.

Students held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the proposals. Students union president Sen Ganesh said: "We are concerned that most Imperial students are already expected to contribute some of these costs, and any extra financial burden may further increase student hardship.

"Imperial is a world-class higher education institution that must continue to attract the best students regardless of their financial background."

Some 40 per cent of home undergraduates at Imperial are privately educated and 17 per cent of the undergraduate population comes from outside the EU. The paper says that overseas fees should be reviewed to bring them in line with the prices charged to home students.

Imperial currently charges overseas students up to £20,700 a year, which is the cost of the last three years of a medical degree. Mathematics comes in at £9,800; chemistry costs £13,400; computing £13,500; and other subjects £12,600.

The paper recommends charging "fees which reflect the true economic costs of undergraduate education". This is provided that similar universities charge them; that the student loans system remains in place; that the college continues to receive the £1,100 tuition fee for students exempt from paying; that a single fee is charged for all subjects, at least in the initial stages; and that the funding council grant for teaching remains and is used to provide bursaries for students.

The college would investigate the level of fee to charge, the likely effect on potential students, the effect on the college's widening access strategy, transitional arrangements and procedures for the assessment of needs for bursaries.

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