I'm deeply concerned that this whole top-up fees issue has been blown totally out of proportion, and unnecessarily so. My view is that a large proportion of the students out there protesting this morning actually knew very little about the issue. Not that I blame them - how could one manage to attend College in the past couple of days and not notice the numerous posters advertising the "emergency" meeting of Union council and the protest? Very little factual information about the reasoning behind the introduction top-up fees, just an invitation to fight it.
And indeed that was the view shared by Mr Arif and many others at the meeting of Union council - that we should reject top-up fees outright without even providing some justification as to why we disagree with certain aspects of the Rector's paper. Thankfully, there were more sane individuals present and it was decided that the Union should provide a justified response, but it took a member of ULU to point this out! When you don't agree with something, simply saying "NO" and refusing to have a discussion about it is totally counter-productive. By doing this, you're likely to anger your opponent and achieve nothing.
I agree that the student body should have been consulted earlier about the top-up fees issue and the proposed merger, and we should make it clear to College why we are unhappy about this. As far as I am aware, we have already done this through a letter sent to Sir Richard a few days ago. My point is that we shouldn't let this issue distract us from the useful contribution that we can provide regarding the shaping of the College for future students. If we provide intellectually thought out comment, then College are more likely to take our views into consideration and we will all benefit from this. Conversely, we could sit back and just hold protests, and College Council would probably be distanced even further from the students.
Anyway, back to the issue of top-up fees. I hope that everyone reading this is aware that the cost of educating the average student at Imperial is approximately £10,500 per annum. Government funding is much lower than this and Imperial therefore makes a loss on every student. This clearly cannot continue. The College has been very fortunate to receive funds from other sources including some fruitful research grants, but we cannot rely on these. The College has a responsibility to ensure that it delivers quality education to its students, and it clearly cannot continue doing so unless it has the funds to invest in its own future.
Many of us get up and complain when we're unhappy with the quality of the lecture theatres or facilities around College. But how can we expect to have the best teaching and facilities in the country (and hopefully even further) when we're struggling to make ends meet? The external sources of finance we get should also be going into improving our research activities further, not into subsidising undergraduate students.
I was talking to someone who shares my views earlier today, and we both agreed that top-up fees are inevitable, as the government simply cannot afford to make up the shortfall for institutions such as ours. What we must look at is how to introduce such a system that will not disadvantage students with hardship. As I'm sure you'll agree with me, no one should be denied a place here simply because they can't afford the fees - the opportunity must exist for all to achieve their full potential.
On the other hand, it would be unfair to make the parents of a student from a financially well-endowed family have to pay more each year. Therefore the answer lies in a new loans system, whereby all students would pay perhaps between £1k-£2k per annum during the time they were doing their course, and the rest would be on "loan". This loan would be repaid once they graduate, and the rate and amount of repayment would be determined by their income - similar to the current loans system. Students would then be able to pay back the loan over a long period, and if for any reason they do not reach the threshold level of income then there would be no repayment. The reason I believe this would work, is that most Imperial grads fit well into highly-paid jobs, and therefore the debt burden to them would not be an issue. For someone earning £100k per annum, paying £5k per annum in repayments is clearly not going to be an enormous problem. This system would allow all students to afford education at Imperial if they are worthy of a place on the course they have chosen.
Similarly, if a student decides to choose a former polytechnic, then they'd also have to pay the £1-£2k per annum, but the "top-up loan" element would be lower or non-existent. So every student at University would STILL pay the same per annum when they are at University, but the top-up would be a loan, paid only when they graduate and subject to the threshold conditions etc. This gives students a choice - they could choose a degree at a "cheaper" institution or decide to come to Imperial (and other Redbrick institutions) and realise that what they will receive from Imperial is far greater than if they had chosen the former.
We must move away from this misconception that free higher education benefits our country. We cannot get something for nothing - there is a cost to everything, and as those who come to Imperial can expect to leave and use their acquired knowledge to obtain more financially rewarding jobs than those who leave non-Redbrick universities, surely they should be expected to pay for the education that got them in that position!