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#CutTheCosts: Hidden costs at Ulster University Students’ Union

Thursday 17-03-2016 - 12:50

Conán Meehan, VP Academic & Student Affairs at UUSU, talks us through his work to reveal the additional costs that students had been uninformed about prior to starting their courses.

There’s nothing worse than paying for an item at a set price, only to be subject to those sneaky add-ons in small print which just seem to sky-rocket your expected cost, leaving you more than slightly underwhelmed if not out of pocket. But at least in small print the information is usually still there, albeit in intentionally hard to find places. So why then is it acceptable for universities to camouflage information regarding additional fees from consumers? (i.e. you)”

I remember writing the above as a preamble to an SU blog entry regarding the issue of hidden and additional course fees at Ulster University.

In it, I expressed concern at what I saw as a financial obstacle to students trying to fund their education whilst also trying to survive as a student.

As a graduate of Fine Art from the Class of 2015, I was only too familiar with having to pay unexpected, and often unreasonable costs, simply to fund my academic studies, which involved a heavy deal of constantly replacing tattered brushes, depleted oil paints and other studio essentials. Current art and design students, I’m sure, will naturally sympathise.

When I was elected Vice President of Academic & Student Affairs, I was elected on a clear mandate to force the university’s hand in making additional fees information clear and transparent in its prospectus.

After all, the UK Competitions & Markets Authority were, and still are, pretty clear about it; they consider it to be an omission of crucial information that is considered compulsory for academic success. Although they affected most courses across the prospectus, applied and laboratory based courses were hit hardest.

To give you a flavour of how badly Ulster University students were being affected, nursing undergrads are subject to £130 worth of vaccinations upon enrolment just to pursue their degree; that’s not including costs for uniform or mandatory placement (£1,895). And Irish Language students pay £125 each semester to attend a compulsory residential, also necessary for academic success.

By mid-semester, Ulster students usually find themselves out of pocket simply because they had little or no time to budget for these unanticipated invoices.

In November 2015, UUSU spearheaded a social media campaign on the issue with the hashtag #TheRealCost. We wanted to raise awareness about the extent to which hidden fees affected the average student, ranging from required reading in the form of textbooks to the cost of hiring ceremonial attire for graduation.

Through infographics I think we got the message across, and needless to say it got a lot of traction on Facebook and Twitter. As a result, the students’ union’s governing body, Student Council, asked student officers to lobby senior members of university management around this issue in hope of an immediate and conclusive resolution to hidden course fees.

Subsequently, the President Colum Mackey and I approached the PVC responsible for Learning & Teaching to relay our concerns, which she acknowledged and agreed as being an outstanding issue. After a lengthy but constructive conversation with her, she made a commitment to the removal of these hidden fees in future printed, digital and online university prospectus editions.

At the time it seemed that we had made a mountain out of a molehill with such a quick resolution within an hour of meeting. The issue had been on the agenda for years, but with no real movement or sign of resolution.

But it was an issue that mattered to students, and a good exercise  in student democracy.

For the students’ union this is a real success story; it demonstrates the influence that collective campaigning and a bit of brain power can have on institutions, affecting tangible change to the student experience.

I hope it empowers your union.

See our Hidden Costs Campaign Pack for more ideas around starting a hidden costs campaign at your SU.

Got a story to tell of a successful campaign on your campus? Email campaigns@nus.org.uk to promote your work.

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