Counting the hidden costs of university

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As competition for graduate jobs intensifies, the need to stand out and prove your unique qualities has never been greater. As students push to be top of the pack, however, they are beginning to feel the strain of mounting hidden costs.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters’ biannual survey has predicted a 6.9% drop in graduate vacancies for the class of 2010, with ‘78% of employers now insisting on a minimum 2.1 degree.’ The pressure is growing for students not only to achieve a ‘good’ degree but also to build up a wide collection of skills illustrating their diversity and their ability to stand out from the crowd.

At Lancaster, the introduction of the Lancaster Award has given students the chance to showcase their abilities to future employers and prove they have the skills necessary to fulfil the job requirements.

According to the award website: “At Lancaster we value the academic achievements of our students, but also recognise the importance of those activities you engage with outside your programme of study. The student experience is enhanced by including extra-curricular activities and with more graduates than ever before and increasing competition for jobs upon leaving university, these are vital to your future prospects.”

Nonetheless, the activities required to complete the award hold hidden costs. The required Insight courses, for example, include payments of up to £20 and take two full days to complete. Whilst in the long term these costs are minimal, they can be an unexpected strain at the time.

Clubs and societies have a key role to play in students’ lives, allowing individuals to indulge their passions or try something new. They also play a vital role in creating well rounded graduates, giving students skills and experience to transfer to the job market. Yet clubs and societies contain their own hidden costs, as described on the right.

“Students’ spare time is being increasingly squeezed. They need to work to fund their way through university but they are also increasingly having to raise the quality of their ‘University Experience’ through extra-curricular work which is both expensive and vastly time consuming. If these activities are to be considered part of the value of attending university, they need to be fully accounted for and not considered luxury extras,” said Robbie Pickles, LUSU President.

These are not costs that prospective students always consider when working out finances. A lack of financial foresight about extracurricular activities can cause difficulty for those who want to fully embrace the university experience.

“Gain[ing] the added extras that single you out in the job market can at times ask for significant financial resources. Some students simply cannot afford to do this,” said Pete Macmillan, LUSU VP (Equality, Welfare and Diversity).

Many students are forced into getting part time jobs since their maintenance loan is not enough to pay for accommodation, let alone food, books and extra equipment. With Cartmel and Lonsdale topping a hundred pounds a week rent, the maintenance loan falls around £300 short. For many, bridging this gap comes at the expense of their degrees.

“I believe the most significant course cost is the cost of living which rapidly escalates above and beyond the amount covered by a maintenance loan. Thousands of Lancaster students are forced into their overdraft or into extreme financial difficult by spiralling prices and the difficulty of finding part time work,” said Pickles.

Financial restraints are heightened for final year students whose maintenance loans are reduced by up to £367. For an English Literature student this cut in financial support is the equivalent of all their final year course texts twice over.

It is not surprising then that students have to resort to part time jobs or accessing their overdraft facility. Most banks allow students an overdraft of £1000 in their first year with the option to extend to £1250, £1500 and £1750 in their second, third and fourth years respectively. However, if a student goes over this limit banks will impose fines which can put individuals in a worse situation than they began with.

The Government is calling for universities to work more closely with industry, encouraging researchers to go on work swap schemes abroad. With an increasing number of international students coming to Britain, there is a desire for more British students to venture outside of their comfort zone and spend a year abroad. But going abroad incurs its own string of costs from suitable clothing and health cover to flights and accommodation.

Third year student Emma Edwards, who is spending a year in Australia, told SCAN: “My flights cost just under £1400 return. I also had to get a visa which was [roughly] £320 and compulsory health cover which was about £100.”

Whilst financial support is available to those travelling abroad via the Erasmus scheme, grants are not awarded until January, by which time students will have been in their chosen country for at least four months. During this period students must be able to support themselves, adding to the overall costs of an experience that is being promoted by the Government and universities alike.

Some feel there is a lack of education about the true financial ramifications of going to university. Pickles said: “Few students are made aware of the financial implications, instead being pushed into higher education with little idea of the scale of debt they will find themselves in or the difficulty they will have repaying that debt after they graduate.”

Macmillan believes that more information should be given to future students: “To an extent the Students’ Union has a responsibility to engage with the students and get them engaged with the opportunities that are on offer at the university and the benefits that taking part in these activities can fulfil,” he said.

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