This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Caitlin Bloom, who is an advocate for parity in student experience and was previously a student union officer. 

The recent Brightside and HEPI report for the new Director of Fair Access and Participation got me thinking: at university I was on a course that had additional costs that I had no knowledge of when I signed up. For me, this was very expensive text books. Others had materials, trips or bench fees. Part of the conversation in the ongoing Augar review is about variable tuition fees, but it needs to include all course costs not just tuition fees in any funding system.

These additional and often hidden costs feel like a dark secret of university courses. Some require a significant cost to participate and create work that is at the level expected by the marker. I had a friend on a fashion course who travelled to Paris to get the perfect fabric for her final project, at significant personal cost. On a science course the additional spending is on samples or specific equipment needed to create the data for proving your hypothesis.

The NUS ran a campaign on hidden course costs in 2012 which struck a chord with unions across the country, and many created their own policies to lobby for clarity on course costs at the application stage, but very few managed to achieve this. Coventry University became the sector leader with their flying start package and still have the costs of additional material listed on the course pages. At Coventry University a Theatre and Professional Practice BA (Hons) will have about £400 of additional optional costs for trips while specific workshops are included in the fees.

When this was the hot topic, The Guardian ran a piece on course costs and Alex from the University of Westminster told his story: ‘[in] September I had a six-week project where I had to make two jackets. I spent £700 on fabric for them.’ On average, she spent £200 per university project, but that is frugal in comparison with some of her fellow students’. The fear is cheaper materials would lead to a lower grade. At the time, there was outrage that students were paying increasing additional costs for their required materials but today it would appear that the narrative has been lost.

At this point, the elephant in the room is this concept of variable fees and the impact they may have on this discourse. On the one hand, if the additional costs are taken into account, students may know exactly what they are signing up for. On the other hand, and in my opinion – due to the mess this would make of the system – additional costs would remain hidden to ensure the headline figure remained ‘value for money’. The reason the system would become such a mess is that variable fees would put a very specific value on diverse and different types of knowledge – a topic explored in detail in HEPI Report 104. Would a £10k degree in science, for example, be perceived to be more value than a £6k version at a different institution? Would a social sciences course at £4k represent the skills learned as part of the debate? In essence, how can you put a price on the value of knowledge?

For students who are embarking on courses now, it would be beneficial for them to know the full cost of their course, and it represents a serious disadvantage for those who are not able to pay for materials, books and additional hidden costs. This leads to students taking on additional hours of part-time work to ensure they have the finance they need. While part time work is a great way to gain valuable work experience, for struggling students the temptation is to take on more and more hours to make ends meet. However, there is a cost benefit to this, as the more hours of part-time work that are undertaken, the less time there is for university work. This is shown by the 2018 HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey released just last week. As illustrated in the chart below, students working for more than 10 hours a week in paid employment report significantly lower levels of learning gain and are more likely to report poorer perceptions of value for money.

It is at this point that students may start to question the value of their investment. The decision to work additional hours is one that disproportionally affects the students we should be supporting the most. Equally, keeping the full cost of university courses hidden increases pressure on poorer students, who need this information at the outset. If we are serious about furthering social mobility within higher education, let’s keep this conversation going.