When university fees rose sky high recently, the majority of potential students realised that there would be little chance of escaping big student loans if they were to find the money for the three or four years of a degree course. Many of their parents girded their financial loins, knowing a great deal of extra support would probably be needed.
But it is not just the more obvious fees and living expenses that you have to think about. There are a lot of hidden items which can build up the costs of taking a degree. For instance, it’s unlikely a student will survive the course if they don’t have a decent laptop or tablet. Depending on the course they are taking, students will often need extra equipment too. The full kit for a drama student – dance shoes, special clothes – or sports kit can cost hundreds, for example. What about photographic equipment or computer-based design software packages for art students?
Going away to university for the first time, it can also be a shock for the average new student to discover that the main textbooks on their reading list might cost £50 each. Academic publishing has been slow to come round to producing e-books. The often complex content, with colour images and diagrams, makes these books much harder to digitise than your average novel. The picture is gradually changing, to the point where the academic bookseller Blackwell’s has recently set up a digital development office to work on digital formats for e-books. This will mean main textbooks, as well as those students need to read around a subject, will be much more cheaply accessible, from anywhere in the world. But in the immediate future, many students will still need to shell out for expensive hard copies.
Choose your university carefully
Many universities have recognised that these hidden costs can be difficult to meet for many students. Although course fees may now be as high as £9,000, upfront sweeteners are being offered by many educational institutions. If you are choosing a university, what’s on offer for your area of study could be a factor in your selection criteria – although of course, the choice of course to suit your academic and career interests should always come first.
But it’s worth looking at what’s on offer. Some colleges offer bursaries to help buy equipment. Some will actually pay for a tablet computer for you, others give book tokens or cards for particular book shop chains which are loaded up with a certain amount of money to spend on books.
Some of these offers are dangerously close to sales gimmicks, disguised as recognising academic excellence: for example, scholarships for high A level achievers which are effectively cash prizes. Or there might be free sports club membership on offer, rent waivers, or exotic, paid-for overseas field trips. If you are considering applying to several universities with similarly attractive courses, at similar distances from home, then do look at the sweeteners to see what would most help you with hidden costs or add the most benefit to the enjoyment of your course, because they might just give a particular institution an edge.