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Thursday, 17 October, 2002, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Top uni's plan for higher student fees
NUS demo
Rising debt has already provoked student anger

Imperial College in London has set out how it would introduce "top-up" tuition fees for students of up to 10,500 a year.

Initial discussions ... with a number of other leading universities have indicated a commitment to charge higher fees

Imperial College discussion paper

A confidential paper to be discussed at the college's ruling council meeting on Friday says "it seems likely" the government will next month propose to remove the limitation on fees, currently capped at 1,100.

The paper - in the name of the college rector, Sir Richard Sykes - seeks agreement that Imperial would then "state publicly that it would wish to introduce higher fees".

It would do so only in collaboration with other prestigious universities - but another senior figure at Imperial has said a number of institutions "are sworn to work together on the initiative".

He believed that among those "of a similar mind" were University College, London (UCL) - with which Imperial announced earlier this week it was planning to merge, forming a huge new university.

UCL has denied this, adding that future arrangements about student finance were not part of the merger talks.

Student anger

Imperial's student union has expressed outrage at the proposals.

It plans to hold a silent protest outside the college council meeting on Friday morning.

At an emergency meeting on Wednesday evening, students vowed to oppose any fees increase, objecting to "the paper and the principles behind it" and arguing that "education should be free and accessible to all".

A spokesman for Imperial College said the paper was the "first stage" of a process that would enable students, as well as the university's senior management, to air their views.

The Department for Education declined to say anything ahead of the publication of its strategy document, due next month.

Sir Richard Sykes
Sir Richard: Advocates a market rate for fees

Sir Richard's paper says the results of the "transparency review" of higher education had shown that it cost Imperial about 10,500 a year to teach a student - but it got only 7,700 from central funding and from fees.

Exploring various options, he says: "If, for example, the fee were set at 10,500 ... then 16.9m would be generated if 30% of students paid full fees and 70% received bursaries."

The annual bill could be several thousand pounds more, on the basis that fee-paying students would also have higher expectations about the quality of accommodation and other facilities - and be willing to pay for them.

Political sensitivity

In the past, the government has ruled out top-up fees.

The previous education secretary, David Blunkett, told MPs last year, prior to the general election: "There will be no levying of top-up fees in the next parliament if we win the next election."

But the issue has refused to go away, with the so-called Russell Group of 19 top research-based institutions - including Imperial and UCL - consistently in favour.

Universities UK, representing the heads of all higher education institutions, has kept top-up fees as one of its options for future funding - partly as a way of reinforcing its demand for an extra 9.94bn to ensure Britain remains a world leader in academic research.

But Sir Richard's paper is by far the most detailed proposal to have been made public.

Others, particularly in the new universities, are against them.

Derek Fraser, vice-chancellor of the University of Teesside, has argued that universities should have to choose between remaining publicly-funded and moving into the private sector.


Sir Richard's assumption is that any change would happen after the next election, so not before 2006.

He says the risk of Imperial's acting alone "is too great".

"Initial discussions, though, with a number of other leading universities have indicated a commitment to charge higher fees."

Imperial's director of strategy, Chris Towler, has said the college does not know what will be in the government's white paper but "we do believe that this will be an acceptable way forward".

In an interview with the college's student TV station, he said: "There are a number of universities that are sworn to work together on the initiative".

"Certainly the top universities in Britain would jump on this opportunity" - moving to higher fees "in a stepped way" from the old arrangements.

Cleft stick

Academics at Imperial are said to be upset by the proposals.

The local secretary for the Association of University Teachers, Sue Smith, said students already ended up deeply in debt - particularly in her field of medicine, with its long courses.

"So anything that may add to that and anything that's likely to reduce access we would consider to be very sad.

"However we have to acknowledge that higher education generally is being chronically starved of funds and we want to be able to give a quality education to the students," Dr Smith said.

"If the universities are not receiving the money from a central source where else do we get it from other than the consumer?"

Top-up fees
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