Dream of Prince Albert becomes a college with independent vision: Imperial College

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The Independent Online
A PROFESSOR at Imperial College recently described its students as 'straightforward people with a clear view of what they want out of life, and where they are going'.

Sir Eric Ash, the rector, has a similarly independent vision of the college. Imperial and the other colleges and institutes within the university have been compared with colonies under the rule of Queen Victoria's British Empire. The irony is that Imperial owes its existence to a man synonymous with that era - Prince Albert.

The Prince dreamt of a cultural centre for science and the arts. The Great Exhibition of 1851, in which he played an important part, provided the impetus for the development of a cluster of educational establishments in South Kensington. They evolved to form Imperial College in 1907, under a royal charter.

The three main bodies of the nineteenth century - each with complex histories - have retained their separate identities within the college. These are the Royal School of Mines, the Royal College of Science and the City and Guilds College.

Sir Eric has a neat summary of the words of the charter - that Imperial 'exists to be useful'. The college was one of the first in Britain to teach by experiments rather than just by lectures. Even today, there is a strong sense among the students and staff, not least in the pure science departments, that they should strive to find practical applications for their discoveries. The college has always had strong links with the engineering industry,and in the 1990s it ties up research and development deals almost weekly with pharmaceutical and chemical companies as the biological sciences become increasingly productive.

In 1988, the college merged with St Mary's Hospital Medical School to become Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. This has helped to deflect perhaps the most common criticism of Imperial - that it is too narrowly focused, its students too specialised and unaware of the world outside of their scientific endeavours.

Sir Eric has worked hard to try to change this. He has built on links with the surrounding organisations - developing new joint courses with the Royal College of Music and the Royal College of Arts in physics, music and industrial design. This less introspective feel harks back to Prince Albert's original aims.

Imperial has always harboured a fiercely independent streak - its staff and students are often described as ambitious and competitive. The student union has stubbornly resisted affiliation to the National Union of Students, even during the spirited 1960s.

One member of staff has said students at Imperial had 'less complicated lives and lifestyles than the general student body'. She speculated that this was because Imperial worked its students hard. Less charitable observers would argue that successful science and engineering undergraduates are simply boring people. The college is now attracting more women - a quarter of its students are female.

Imperial expanded during the 1960s, largely by replacing Victorian architecture with brutalist concrete structures. Eighteen months ago the college commissioned a Norman Foster design for a pounds 500m refurbishment.

Sir Eric expects to work towards this as money becomes available, perhaps over 50 years. He has in mind a future for Imperial College as a great European centre for science and technology.

The college is already assured the attention of Britain's politicians on science policy, and staff have exerted a strong influence on the forthcoming White Paper on science.

Imperial prides itself on knocking Oxbridge, and is often placed above Oxford and Cambridge when ranked according to success in research and teaching.

Recent Nobel laureates from Imperial include professors Dennis Gabor (physics 1971), Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson (chemistry 1973) and Abdus Salam (physics 1979).

Sir Norman Lockyer, who discovered helium gas in the Sun's spectrum, ran an observatory and collection of scientific instruments in South Kensington from 1875. He also founded Nature, the renowned science journal. The observatory became part of the Royal College of Science, and his collection became the Science Museum.

Thomas Huxley was a lecturer at the School of Mines from 1854 and became Dean of the Normal School of Science in 1881. Huxley was famous for supporting his friend Darwin's ideas on evolution. H G Wells was a trainee teacher at the school, from 1883.

Sir George Paget Thomson, who investigated the microstructure of matter, was the college's first Nobel laureate. Sir Henry Tizard, who pioneered radar, is a past rector of Imperial.

(Photograph omitted)