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‘Application fees are a means of financial gatekeeping’

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Imperial academics’ open letter, shared with Research Professional News, calls for abolition of £80 fee

In an open letter shared exclusively with Research Professional News, Imperial academics call for the scrapping of a new £80 postgraduate application fee, just weeks after academics at the University of Oxford voted to abolish theirs.

Dear Professors Yun Xu (director graduate school), Emma McCoy (vice provost, education), Richard Thompson (vice dean education, FONS), Omar Mater (vice dean education, FOE), Stephen Curry (vice provost, EDI), Maggie Dallman (vice provost, academic partnerships), Mr Martin Lupton (vice dean education, FOM), Mr Richard Martin (director of transformation), Mr Andrew Tebbutt (director of student recruitment and outreach) and Ms Nicola Pogson (director of alumni relations)

Cc Professors Alice Gast (president) and Ian Walmsley (provost), Zixiao Wang (graduate student union president)

We write to ask that the recently introduced application fee for MSc and MRes programmes be removed.

Application fees for further study are a means of financial gatekeeping; by this we mean that fees act as a direct barrier for financially underprivileged applicants, who will be unable and discouraged to study at Imperial. This has been explored in a recent vote by congregation at the University of Oxford, who decided to scrap their postgraduate application fees. Specific criticism was raised that the application fee “as undermining access and diversity efforts by discriminating against those from low-income backgrounds”.

Application fees also directly contravene the college’s equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, the learning and teaching strategy, and undermine all our initiatives to widen participation. The college has also made very strong public statements calling on us to widen participation, e.g. “to the best and brightest, irrespective of their background”. These have been typically targeted towards addressing the significant access gaps at the college, as highlighted by the Office for Students.

The introduction of this fee is important to consider in light of the recent work by the college to improve equality, diversity and inclusion, specifically in response to the racial reckoning with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The report by Leading Routes, the Broken Pipeline, highlights specific issues that Black students have with regards to access and support in higher education. The co-correlation of socioeconomic class and ethnicity, and associated disadvantage, is well established. Given that Imperial, often but not always, requests a master’s-level qualification for PhD entry, this fee represents a further barrier that limits our ability to rebalance access to, and thus participation in, academia.

We have circa 4,000 postgraduate taught students enrolled in the college, many of whom are on one-year master’s and postgraduate certificate/diploma programmes that are now subject to the £80 application fee. Taken that we typically receive six applications per place for postgraduate study, a potential £1.9m can be estimated from this new fee. Especially in the Covid-19 pandemic, this may seem attractive for the college, but amounts to only 0.18 per cent of a total College income of £1,074m, of which £313m is sourced from tuition fees and educational contracts.

This short-term gain must be considered together with the substantial long-term reputational damage to our recruitment. It fails to acknowledge that financially disadvantaged people have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19. The presence of an application fee will actively discourage them from applying even with waiver programmes. Imperial already has a reputation of being an expensive institution to study at, so do we need to project this image further?

Furthermore, this is harmful for any student who can only apply for a scholarship once they have received an offer to study from us; This will especially impact our international students who are also liable for other fees—e.g. visa application fees and English proficiency tests—and thus may potentially damage our international reputation and limit our reach.

It is believed Imperial will have a waiver policy will be in place, yet we can consider: are we asking prospective students, before we make an offer and/or potentially offer financial support, i.e. at the point of application, to disclose the extent of their personal financial hardship? Each of these decisions impacts the diversity of our student population, and the breadth of experience and opportunity more widely in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Another argument can be presented as an intended outcome is that this policy may reduce the total number of applicants, yet data from Oxford implies that the introduction of their (now scrapped) £75 fee did not reduce numbers.

We recognise that there are costs to process each application, and that these must be balanced against the total income stream. If a full economic costing (FEC) of the admissions process was shared, it is anticipated that these costs are likely greater than the £80 fee. If the £80 fee is not FEC linked, then it has likely been established based upon market analysis—the second highest fee from the Russell Group—and exists simply to create a financial barrier—eight hours of the London living wage—to reduce the number of applicants, and also position us among other universities. Yet, we note that Imperial is also in the minority of Russell Group universities to charge a postgraduate application fee.

In summary, we request that the admissions fee be abolished as soon as reasonably possible, and in the lead-up to its removal, there are no increases in the amount charged.


Ben Britton, reader in metallurgy and microscopy at Imperial College London

Christopher Jackson, professor of geoscience at Imperial College London

Andrew Cairns, research fellow in the Department of Materials at Imperial College London

Click here to sign the letter.

Read Research Professional News report on the letter.