The price is definitely not right

August 25, 2000

Jeremy Hoad asks why universities spring extra costs on postgrad students, often when they can least afford them

Consider this. You walk into a car showroom, choose a car, look at the price on the windscreen, get out your chequebook and pay in full. But as you are driving away the salesman stops you and says: "Oh, and that will be another Pounds 500 for the wheels."

This is what often happens to postgraduates. You choose a course, compare prices, pay the tuition fees and then find out you owe hundreds of pounds extra for "research costs". And what are those, you may ask? You will be lucky to get a straight answer.

Departmental research costs and the like are a blatant scam by universities to earn more money. If a university advertises a course and says what the fee will be, that is what the student should pay. End of story. No waffle about departmental costs. No extra charging. Just an up-front fee that will enable the student to budget effectively.

Although the Department for Education and Employment sets a recommended rate for postgraduate tuition fees (Pounds 2,740 for 2000-01), universities can charge what they want. And they do. Some fees exceed Pounds 10,000 a year for the more popular courses. So it is even more divisive of institutions to then charge extra fees on top of these substantial amounts.

What are these extra fees for? If universities insist on charging extra fees to postgraduate students then it should be absolutely clear what the student is paying for. For some science and engineering courses, bench fees or laboratory costs might be understandable. But the question remains why they are needed in the first place. Is it not implicit that if you register at a university and pay the fees for a course this at least gives you access to the facilities of that university? For arts and social science courses the justification for research fees is even more tenuous because there are no obvious extra costs.

There is another wheeze universities have discovered to screw extra money out of penurious postgraduates. In your final year? Writing up your research? Welcome to the wonderful world of continuation fees. You may not be using the university's facilities at all. You may rarely see your supervisor. Never mind, that will be Pounds 500 please. Yes, I know we charged Pounds 60 two years ago, but we have discovered a nice little earner here: pay the fee or fail your course because you will not be registered and cannot submit your thesis.

This sort of sharp practice by universities, adding extra costs to courses, comes at a particularly bad time for students. Undergraduates already finish their courses thousands of pounds in debt. The government extols the virtues of widening access and lifelong learning, yet refuses to give postgraduates access to student loans.

Once educated to degree level, you are on your own. Demand for postgraduate courses far outstrips the state funding available. If universities are to play a role in society they should be open to all - based on ability, not ability to pay.

Postgraduate courses are not cheap and postgraduates are under ever increasing financial pressure. The least universities can do is be honest about how much a course will cost and stop acting like dodgy used-car salesmen.

Jeremy Hoad is general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee.

* Have you been caught out by a university charging "hidden" costs?

Share your experiences at soapbox@thes.co.uk.

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