Higher Education Students Need Flexibility and Support; Hidden Costs and Rising Debts Have Left This Year's Crop of Freshers Facing an Unwelcome New University Challenge, Warns Katie Dalton, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) Wales

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), August 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

Higher Education Students Need Flexibility and Support; Hidden Costs and Rising Debts Have Left This Year's Crop of Freshers Facing an Unwelcome New University Challenge, Warns Katie Dalton, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) Wales


Byline: Katie Dalton

LAST week saw thousands of students facing potential disappointment when some universities in Wales declared themselves full, days before A-level results had been announced and before clearing had even started.

The recession and fear of unemployment has led to more A-level students than usual applying to university this September while, at the same time, people who had left education are returning to retrain as mature students, hoping to reap the long-term benefits.

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Despite the fact that the nus s mber of university places in Wales is not capped as it is in England, universities still have to exercise caution. Institutions can choose to recruit beyond their funded numbers, but will receive no extra support for such students, relying only on the tuition fees paid by each individual.

If too many students are recruited on this "fees only" basis, it can lead to resources being stretched too thinly and the quality of teaching being affected. This also puts an extra burden on the government's student support budget which provides help for students through grants and loans.

In this context, it is completely unacceptable that applicants are left in the dark about the true cost of degrees.

Last week, a survey by university information website Push revealed that the level of student debt had risen by 24% and, in some cases, reached figures of more than pounds 20,000 a student. At the same time, an NUS/HSBC survey revealed the true cost of certain courses in higher education.

Maths and computer sciences degrees emerged as being the worst offenders in terms of hidden costs, with students spending an average of pounds 1,430 extra to pay for books, equipment and fieldwork. Many students preparing to go to university this summer may be in for a real shock when they start to learn the true cost of higher education.

NUS Wales believes universities need to publish these hidden costs for applicants to see. There also needs to be better information, advice and guidance about student finance, including money management workshops and support in time of hardship. Information needs to be visible on university websites and prospectuses, with advice and support readily available on campus, so students do not have to get into commercial debt or jeopardise their studies by taking on too much part-time work.

Most institutions recommend that full-time students should work no more than 16 hours a week, but figures from the Institute for Employment Studies suggest that 52% of full-time students in Wales do paid work during their academic year. About 41% of these said it had a harmful effect on their studies, compared to 29% the previous year.

In the same period, 91% of full-time students and 57% of part-time students in Wales turned to commercial lenders to subsidise their studies. …

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