Northumbria Students’ Union has won plaudits for its highly effective hidden fees campaign, which tackled head-on the damaging surplus costs that many students incur on their degree programmes.
Unless you’re lucky enough to be an heir to a fortune or have a hefty university fund at your disposal, you are likely to know the financial tightrope that as students we all have to walk upon while taking our degrees, forever careful not to slip and fall into the seemingly bottomless pit of debt.
Nonetheless, I like to think I am good with money. I can factor in how much will be taken out of my wages once I graduate to pay off my student loans, and I am pretty good (thankfully) at budgeting enough money for food between my monthly rent payments.
However, it is the other secret payments that really cause problems for me. It’s the optional-extras-to-enhance-your-learning-but-they-aren’t-actually-optional things that I somehow have to factor in to my already-tight budget. It makes my stomach sink when my lecturer talks about an upcoming trip that I know that I really need to attend but I can’t afford it. And I know I’m not the only one.
In November of last year, NUS and HSBC released the findings of their Student Experiences Report, detailing that students on some degree courses had to find up to £1,430 per year to cover the cost of books, specialised equipment and fieldwork.
In response to these findings, former NUS President Wes Streeting commented that: “It is completely unacceptable that applicants are left in the dark about the true cost of degrees.”
And by no means was this the end of the matter. In January of this year, Northumbria Students’ Union took up the pledge to abolish ‘hidden fees’ in its newest campaign.
Identifying Hidden Fees
So what exactly are hidden fees? Hidden fees constitute as any expenses which are not described in the pre-entry communication onto a specific degree programme. This can include paying for obligatory field trips to passing modules, as well as specialist equipment which is a vital requirement in fulfilling a degree.
One first-year sports student aptly sums up such a dilemma, stating: “Every sports student is expected to pay £300 to go on a trip at the end of May to the Lake District. I was told that if I did not pay for it, then I would fail the course.”
In fact, Northumbria has gone further to classify that even optional extras – which students feel that without participating or owning will disadvantage their education – are a hidden fee. Ultimately, if hidden fees continue to be an ‘optional’ cost, then the student in question will not receive additional student loans to allow for this extra spending, and as a direct result will have to supplement this with a reduction in their general living.
In addition to trips, other additional costs include specialist clothing. Lab coats in particular seem to be a thorn in many a science student’s side. Students have highlighted that they spend sums of up to £200 on course-related clothing, with a mean spend of £32. Another example is specialised computer software, which has a mean expenditure of £200 for particular programs.
Many pieces of software are not available on university computers, and even when they are, computers are drastically limited. What’s more, both studio fees and specialised equipment (such as art supplies) can cost up to £100 per year for students. Travel costs for placement students and CRB checks are also unwelcome additions to the list. In fact, 71 per cent of students at Northumbria University who had paid for a CRB check stated that this was an unexpected cost (a CRB check costs £44).
In total, 400 Northumbria University students were asked about their experiences of additional costs that they face during their studies, and the unanimous decision was that such hidden fees are unreasonable and unfair. In short, these expenses are undoubtedly detrimental to students who have to fund these additional costing in already-tight budgets.
Effective financial planning is a life skill that is vital for any person, especially a student: by creating additional costs, universities seriously hinder a student’s ability to do so – especially with many universities (including Northumbria) increasing tuition fees in the next academic year.
Furthermore, it is believed that hidden fees discriminate against those from lower-income backgrounds. For such students, hidden fees can dictate whether a student will apply for a specific programme of study, and are a large influence on students dropping out of such a programme.
Northumbria consequently put forward three proposals to eliminate hidden fees. Firstly, to completely remove hidden fees from all Northumbria University courses (to coincide with the introduction of the new tuition fees in 2012). Secondly, to open a dialogue between students, the students’ union and academic colleagues to form a consensus on what will be defined as a hidden fee. And finally, a detailed action plan from every academic school, highlighting the process by which the fees will be eliminated.
Furthermore, the union asked that the university gives further consideration to the way it supports students in the process of purchasing textbooks. Many of the students shared their concerns over the amount spent on books. One student simply said: “[I’ve] stopped buying books as I can’t afford it.”
While Northumbria Students’ Union does not directly class textbooks as a hidden fee, it believes they are a large, unwelcoming expense for any student. The price and quantity of textbooks on many courses seems unreasonable, and there is an inadequate number of free resources available to many students.
Throughout January and February, 700 students took part in a visual petition which united students across all degree disciplines. Students were asked to have their photo taken while holding up a whiteboard, which quoted the approximate additional costs the student had paid during their time at the university.
Moreover, 1,200 students sent postcards to the vice chancellor asking for the removal of hidden fees. The union’s decision to adopt a more visual and innovative methodology rather than the traditional petition was hard-hitting and created a more personal approach, managing both to shock and persuade that a re-evaluation of university protocol was needed immediately to coincide with the rise in fees.
Jo Rhodes, Northumbria Students’ Union’s President, says: “We are really proud of our hidden fees campaign. It has been hard work getting the university to recognise the depth of feeling among students about this issue, but through high-profile, visual campaigning we have managed to do just that.
“More students are aware of this campaign than any we have ever run before. But we know that there is much work to do before September 2012 in agreeing a final position with the university, and ensuring that students get the best deal possible. When students are paying £8,500 per year, it will be unacceptable that they will have to continue paying for essential costs on top.”
It is a testament to the union’s tenacity that by April 2011, Northumbria University had signed an agreement to remove ‘where affordable’ all additional costs to students that are related to their study. The university has also committed that where costs cannot be removed they will adopt a fully transparent approach in all pre-entry communication material.
The effort and initiative of Northumbria Students’ Union needs to be applauded.
The team at the union has not only brought about a genuine change to the lives of its students, but has been able to engage and unite the membership around a single issue.
You can download a full copy of the report that Northumbria Students’ Union submitted to the university board of governors at mynsu.co.uk/hiddenfees
The Facts: Northumbria
78 per cent of students stated that hidden fees were ‘unexpected costs’.
Expenditure on field trips can range between £50 and £1,000.
Students can spend up to £200 on course-related clothing.
50 per cent of students are surprised at what they have to spend on books.
On average, £168 is spent by a student on textbooks.
There is a mean spend of £200 for specialised computer software.
Students are asked to pay their own studio fees, ranging up to £100 per year.
71 per cent of students were shocked that they had to pay for CRB checks.
Students on average spend £40 on printer credits.
Hidden fees are off-putting to lower-income students wishing to apply to university.
Hidden fees negate effective financial planning.
This article was featured in the October 2011 edition of Spotlight. If you do not currently receive Spotlight, email email@example.com