Why I...believe full fees and bursaries are the only way forward

October 25, 2002

We all agree that universities are under-funded. Successive governments for 30 or more years have neglected their responsibilities to higher education. Our buildings are in a state of disrepair and many are not fit for modern teaching and competitive research. Unless we take action, we will not have adequate resources to maintain the quality of our education and research.

At Imperial College, we offer high-quality education to our students. Much of this is provided by academic staff who are world authorities in their subjects. In a global market we must consider how we can maintain this position.

Pay is abysmal. How many of our best young people are going to learn and train for ten or more years, post-school, in order to earn £30,000 a year as an academic in central London? Salaries, infrastructure and support services all need to be improved if we are to maintain academic standards.

The transparency review has shown that, for Imperial, we now lose about £2,800 for every student taught. At present, universities cannot determine the price for undergraduate courses for home and European Union students. We endure the pretence that all courses at all universities are the same, of the same quality and standard, and have the same attraction to employers. Institutions with higher costs are not permitted to charge higher fees.

This situation is not sustainable. The government is unlikely to want to fund institutions at different units of resource - and in any case, why should the taxpayer support the higher costs of someone who is going to earn considerably more than the average? The government's priority is mass higher education, not selective funding for a few.

The choice before Imperial and other similar institutions is not attractive given that additional government funding is unlikely. If the government were to remove the restriction on home and EU undergraduate fees after the next general election, we would begin to charge full fees thereafter. We would expect to build up over a long period of time to reach a fee level that represents the full costs of the education provided.

It is right that those who can afford to contribute to an education that provides a gateway to well-paid jobs should do so. We will never select students on the basis of their ability to pay - only on their ability to benefit from our courses. A bursary scheme will be implemented and used alongside a needs-blind admission system. Our modelling so far indicates that even with the majority of our students gaining full bursaries the college would still gain the significant additional resources it needs.

We would, though, implement such a scheme only in certain circumstances. The government would need to agree that our teaching grant would remain, and be used to fund the bursaries. Naturally, comparable universities would need to introduce similar fees at about the same time. We would protect students already on their course or holding an offer of a place so they would not be affected by the increase in fees. We would look for a uniform fee across all subjects to become the norm. Before full fees were implemented, we would investigate and consult fully on the details of the plan, the bursary schemes and the impact on our strategy for widening access.

After we have introduced such a scheme, then we might expect to attract considerably more private funding from individuals, alumni and companies who might be more willing to donate towards supporting students when it is clear that it is no longer a government responsibility.

No one, however, likes paying more for what they receive at a subsidised rate. I cannot, though, see any alternative if we want to continue to provide the high-quality education valued by students and employers.

Richard Sykes
Imperial College, London

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