Oh no, it’s another article about bursaries in Imperial! Though I can’t promise to be brief, I do promise that this is the last you’ll hear about it, from me, at least.
I’ll begin with the same preface given to every discussion of the bursary: genuine praise for the Imperial bursary scheme as a whole. College never tires of reminding us that the Imperial bursary scheme is amongst the most generous in the country, and nor should they – it’s one of the very best and most commendable things about Imperial. Never mind the stellar research or the star academics; far more impressive is how the university tries, through the bursary, to afford their poorest students a university experience on par with their richer peers.
It’s worth bearing these avowedly good intentions in mind when thinking about my topic today. A primer: the bursary entitlement for low-income students has changed several times over the last few years. The UG cohort entering Imperial in 2015 noticed that those in the £35,000-£60,000 income brackets received substantially less – by nearly £2000 a year in some cases – than they would have received had they enrolled a year earlier under the 2014-entry bursary scheme. Analysis by Imperial College Union showed that students in these “squeezed middle” brackets were now falling below College’s estimate for the cost of living in London as a result. A total overhaul of the bursary structure followed, to ensure that every bursary recipient could – through a combination of maintenance loans, bursaries, and family contributions – afford to live and study in Imperial. From 2016 onwards, students in these middle-income brackets would again receive several thousands more per year than they would under the 2015 bursary scheme, and in theory everyone could afford to study at Imperial – hurray!
The problem was fixed, then – so what? Well, not quite. The catch is that the changes were not retrospective; once you’re on a particular bursary scheme, you stay on it (provided your household income continues to fall below the threshold). This means that those students who signed on the dotted line in 2015 as incoming freshers have continued to be short-changed for the duration of their degrees. Many of those affected graduated last year, and most of the rest – including me – will graduate in 3 months’ time, often having received in the region of £8000-£10,000 less over the course of the degree than students a year older or younger.
This is not a small amount of money, even to those in the higher brackets of the bursary scheme. Bursary recipients comprise the bottom third of home students by household income. For reference, a household of two Imperial graduates would expect to be bringing in close to £75,000 only 12 months after graduating, way above even the top bursary bracket (and over double the lowest household income of those affected).
Let’s estimate how much money this would have cost Imperial to address. There were around 160 affected students when I brought this issue to the university’s attention over two years ago in a Union Council paper. With the advent of the new scheme in 2016, students in the £45,000-£50,000 income bracket would receive £3100 more per year than those in the 2015 scheme. If every one of the affected students was in this bracket, it would cost College around £500,000 a year to fix the problem. A pretty serious sum of money, then, but remember that the 2016 scheme is the one devised by College themselves to ensure that every bursary recipient could afford to live in London.
Alternatively, the affected students could have been shifted onto the previous 2014 bursary scheme. This would be a cheaper option, with the biggest cut in the 2015 scheme compared to its predecessor being around £1900 a year (this time for those in the £40,000-£45,000 income bracket). A more modest £300,000 or so would be enough to cover this. Of course, these are all upper bounds for the cost of rectifying the situation; in reality, most students would stand to receive less than this, and the cost to College would be a lot lower.
I hoped that my Council paper would draw the attention of College management to what I assumed was an honest error in their calculations, something that had been overlooked by people with the best of intentions. I hoped that we’d ultimately receive a bursary in line with College’s cost of living calculations; at the very least, I hoped it would be the start of a conversation between College and the affected students.
What followed instead was a tersely-worded dismissal, followed by two and a half years of…nothing. I thought that perhaps College would reach out to those of us affected, either directly – they knew who they were paying, after all – or through the Union. Sadly, this never came. I chased it up initially but my initial hopefulness was steadily diminished by each hurried meeting and vague promise. Like most students who were affected, I eventually abandoned all hope that there would ever be a resolution.
That’s where we were until January 2019, when Felix reported on a new development in the saga: over two years since their original clipped response, and with a chunk of the affected students having already graduated, College have pledged a cash bung of £250,000 to put things right.
Great news, if a little belated – but there’s a caveat. Rather than being given freely to affected students, in the same way as the bursary itself, this new money will go towards funding exclusive “specific opportunities” – namely UROPs, medical electives, and a bespoke careers package from the Careers service.
It’s hard to understand the rationale behind this decision. If College were concerned about the situation all along, why not say so? Why reflexively dismiss the issue outright two years ago, when there was still time to do something meaningful about it? And why insist that the money be worked for, in the form of UROPs or medical electives, when the whole point of a bursary is to remove the burden of having to perform extra work to get by?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that College were hedging their bets for two years, patiently waiting for the last of the 2015 cohort to graduate before burying the issue forever. A pretty cynical tactic, but it was working – the issue had all but died in the student body, and soon enough everyone who ever remembered it would be long gone. But from the jaws of victory, College instead snatched a mealy-mouthed mea culpa.
I can think of a couple of ways this may have come about. The first would be the emergence of a split at the top of College between those who (rightly) think that College’s responsibility towards some of its poorest students has been neglected in this instance, and those who (also rightly) worry about the PR implications of stirring the hornet’s nest at this late stage and would prefer to continue playing the waiting game. Such a split would explain some of the less thought-through aspects of the proposal; take, for instance, the decision to fund UROPs for students who are mostly about to graduate, many of whom will soon be without a place to live in London and who (by virtue of being final-year students) are unable even to apply for summer accommodation in halls at student prices.
What’s more, students were informed of this opportunity in a joint email from the Provost, the Union President, and the DPW, sent on the 18th of February. The deadline to submit the 1000-word application form was the 28th of February, giving students ten days to identify a novel research topic, approach potential supervisors, assess whether they would be able to find accommodation over the summer, and agree on a provisional timeline with their supervisor. I suspect that I don’t have to explain the implausibility of this, especially for the ever-frantic final-year students.
What troubles me more is the notion that this is instead a last-gasp attempt to control a narrative. In the silence following College’s initial response in 2016, those who were aware of the situation grew disenchanted with the university’s reticence to engage. Discontent among staff has been a tinderbox for a while; last year’s pension dispute provided the necessary match for it to ignite in unprecedented industrial action. In breaking their silence on the lingering bursary issue at this late stage, College may have been hoping to sweeten their image in the minds of graduating students – students who will shortly be filling in the dreaded NSS; and if they happen to soften the resolve of the more militant staff members in the process, so much the better for them.
* So much for the factors involved in getting us here; regardless, here is where we are, and so I would urge other affected students to take advantage of College’s latest offerings if they can – it would be a shame for the money not to be used given the above. But one question remains: what went wrong in the first place? College will correctly say that there were probably various legal impediments to fixing the issue; that the access agreement is drafted years in advance; that the Union agreed to the changes in the first place, so that students themselves are partly to blame. These arguments are all fair and true; they are also all undermined by the fact that College eventually managed to find £250,000 down the back of the sofa at the eleventh hour.
Couldn’t College have fixed this issue years ago, then? Would it have bankrupted the country or, worse, the university? I can’t answer these questions because, fortunately for all involved (not least myself), I am not in charge of the university finances. Before finishing though, I’d like to highlight a few things that may help you come to your own conclusions.
In 2017, Imperial had by far the highest expenditure on senior management pay in the UK (as reported in Felix 1688), with each of the 20 “Key Management Personnel” earning, on average, around £280,000 – for a grand total of over £5.6million. The next highest was Southampton at £3.7million, nearly £2million (or 4 times £500,000) less. Imperial’s president, Prof. Alice Gast, earned £433,000 alone last year, and she wasn’t even the College’s highest earner; this is separate to the £300,000 she receives from Chevron for her work as one of its non-executive directors, as recently disclosed in an email to all staff. £500,000 to fix the low-income bursary, then: a stretch too far? To adapt a well-worn cliché: it’s not about the size of the budget, it’s about how you use it.