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The Hot Seat: Grace Fisher (FXU President Exeter)

Thursday 04-02-2016 - 10:38

Falmouth and Exeter Students’ Union has been running a very successful campaign around hidden course costs and financial transparency at their universities. FXU President Exeter Grace Fisher tells us what the campaign has achieved.

What has been the focus of your campaign and how did it begin?

FXU has been working on providing financial transparency information for students for the last two years as part of our top 10 priorities which we produce every year. These are something we develop from student feedback and work with the universities to achieve. In 2014/15 our financial transparency student priority was: ‘Both universities, FX Plus and FXU to publish financial breakdowns by Jan 2015. This is to include hidden and additional course costs.’

Last year’s officer team secured the following changes:               

  • Falmouth University published their finance figures for 2013-14 to students in order to increase the transparency of the university’s financial information. The team worked with Falmouth to produce a ‘student friendly’ publication. This document was noted in a HEFCE paper as good practice, whilst being graphically accessible.
  • Exeter University also produced a financial transparency document for Exeter students. However they chose a different format and FXU felt that this wasn’t as student friendly as Falmouth’s document.
  • Both universities use a joint services provider to deliver a range of professional services on our campuses. For example the library, accommodation, student support and catering. The organisation (called FX Plus) included their finances within the documents produced by Falmouth and Exeter.
  • Following the work of the Guild and FXU, the University of Exeter published via their website, the Guild and FXU websites, a course cost checker. This outlines expected course costs a student typically faces when they undertake any course. These costs will be reviewed every year by the university and FXU and there was also an agreement in principle to try and eliminate all these ‘course costs’.
  • Falmouth University followed suit and their online course cost checker will be available by the new term in September.

How has the campaign continued into this year?

Whilst great progress was made last year we felt that there was still room for improvement. Therefore the officers agreed to continue this work and the priority re-appears as part of our priorities again for this academic year. Specifically, we wanted to take up the following work this academic year as part of our 2015/16 priorities:

  • We have asked Falmouth University to continue to work with FXU to produce a hidden course costs document by December 2015. This will cover the costs associated with every Falmouth course and will be published in 2016.
  • We also asked the University of Exeter to publish PGR/PGT specific course cost information and a fee transparency document for all courses by December 2015.
  • We also asked for written confirmation of the introduction of a cap on international fees on the point of entry and that any incremental rises must be published so they are absolutely clear to international students from the start of their course.
  • Both universities must continue to annually publish information from their financially audited accounts that is accessible and student friendly, via the FXU website.

How was the campaign received by the universities?

This year for Falmouth, it was actually a surprisingly easy process – due to our top 10 being warmly received by Falmouth’s Executive Group, they had already started work on this issue without prompting. After consultation with the Falmouth Director of Finance, they have improved upon last year’s sterling report, by adding a ‘Hidden Course Costs’ tab alongside the description of each course on the Falmouth website, and are looking to produce an easily digestible, student friendly handbook, which will outline all the information set about in Falmouth’s Financial Transparency Document. Falmouth have just given FXU assurances that financial transparency document will be released within the next week; an easily digestible handbook will be distributed amongst students within a fortnight; and hidden course costs information will be published on the Falmouth website for all students to see within the next month.

Within the University of Exeter we are fortunate to sit alongside the Guild in scrutinising the university’s budget and financial planning process but we need to do more to provide this level of scrutiny to our members. Therefore, we’ve been talking to the Head of Professional Services, Cornwall, and the Finance Director to look at ways to improve the communication of financial information to students on all campuses. As a result they have redesigned their financial documentation – making it more ‘student friendly’. Initial drafts of this document are looking really positive and we’re looking forward to seeing and advertising the finalised draft before the end of this term. We are continuing to work with them on our other financial transparency priorities which we are expecting a full update within the next two weeks.

How important is it that universities are financially transparent?

We believe this work is incredibly important and that all universities should be committed to financial transparency. The investment in further and higher education is increasing rapidly and any business should be liable and transparent to its stakeholders and customers. Students have a right to understand how their fees are contributing to the running of their university and they also have a right to have that information presented in a format that meets their needs. For too long the finances of our institution have been hidden in hundreds of pages of annual reports that only a person with an accounting degree can understand!

Where does your campaign for financial transparency go from here?

From here we want to continue to ensure that this standard continues. Falmouth in particular have produced a comprehensive response to our challenge of producing financial information that we can all understand. The University of Exeter will shortly follow. Now we need to focus on how the information is communicated to students and in particular how course related information is communicated to prospective students. We all want students to come to our universities fully prepared for the financial commitment they are undertaking.

We are also in the process of designing and developing an FXU transparency document. This will mirror the work we’ve asked from both universities as we feel it’s also incredibly important that we be part of the requirement and help to set standards. This will outline how we allocate and spend our finances each year but additionally set out our forecasted spend for next year.

What advice do you have for other SUs looking to run similar campaigns?

Our advice to other students’ unions would be to approach the conversation in a professional manner, with a prepared, fact based proposition, including examples of best practice. I.e. “If teeny tiny Falmouth can do it, so can we!” It also helps if you can demonstrate through student research that your members want to see this information and that they would value it as part of their student experience. Also know that HEFCE is on your side as they have asked universities to help make this data more transparent. You can use the case studies they’ve produced on their website to help support your campaign.

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