Fee chaos for year abroad students

Louise Wilson

Confusion over the University and the year-abroad programmes offered has led to a student not receiving Student Finance for nearly two months after the academic year began.

Sasha Murphy, now a fourth year student studying History, attended Dalhousie University in Canada as part of a Junior Year Abroad programme. This year, however, Ms Murphy has had difficulty in enrolling as a student at Glasgow to commence her Senior Honours, leading to Student Finance being withheld. Ms Murphy also expressed several concerns over the final grade she will receive due to a lack of communication from the departments at Dalhousie and Glasgow.

The agreement between the Universities for exchange students is that students will only cover Glasgow’s fees. Ms Murphy applied for tuition fees through Student Finance England as advised, and was awarded the £1820 to cover them. Upon arriving in Canada, she received a letter from Student Finance outlining that Glasgow only wanted £910 for the year. However this year, she was unable to enrol with Glasgow using MyCampus due to outstanding charges of the remaining £910, and was threatened with the Debt Collection Agency.

Ms Murphy returned to Glasgow in August to try to resolve the situation. She said: “I was told that what had happened was that I was down as an Erasmus student, so would have only had to pay the £910, and that they then realised their mistake. And that I would now have to appeal to student finance to pay the other half of the fees, but Student Finance told me this could take months to process. In the meantime I was unable to open a student bank account in the UK – I had closed them when I left to study abroad – as I was not a registered student, which also meant I couldn’t get an overdraft to try to live off and I also couldn’t get a student loan as I wasn’t registered.

“In the end, after many angry/emotional phone calls and emails the study abroad department helped me get a letter so I could open a bank account. But I was unable to register until 29th October – and even then I was only able to do this after going to the SRC advice centre and using their help to put extra pressure on contacts in the finance department.”

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow, commenting on behalf of the Exchanges and Study Abroad department said: “We believe student mobility is an integral part of the student experience at Glasgow and we take the concerns that have been raised very seriously. We would like to apologise to students who experienced problems and assure them we have taken steps to prevent them happening again.

“Professor Jill Morrison recently chaired a university-wide working group in order to help address all of the issues raised and, as a consequence, a set of good practice principles were prepared that all subject areas can now use. We will now monitor these issues to ensure that they are addressed before they become problems for the next cycle of students participating in the programmes.”

The spokesperson continued: “Processing of fees can be complex and a number of variables contributed to the problem. For example, Accounts Receivable experienced difficulties in getting funding agreed with SAAS. Delays in this process resulted in some students receiving emails stating that their funding had been withdrawn. Some students participating in Erasmus were incorrectly recorded on MyCampus – this in turn resulted in delays; and there were also specific problem areas for students embarking on Study Placements and Work Placements. Different rules apply to these students in terms of the level of funding which can be recouped from SAAS. The problem is further exacerbated where the student is international or an RUK fee paying student.”
Ms Murphy also commented on the lack of information being given on grades from last year. She was told that work submitted would be marked to the same standard as work done here, despite a much heavier course load, and that grades would not be confirmed until after her final exams.

Commenting on the workload, she said: “There were issues with the workload while abroad, and how it is not really comparable with the workload in Glasgow. Glasgow are planning to mark the work from abroad to the same standard as the work done here, and this seems unfair as we were being asked to do a fairly insane amount. I did not meet a Canadian student who was taking a full course load, and most were shocked that I was managing it and not having some kind of mental breakdown. We were then unable to do all work to a high standard and I am worried Glasgow will penalise us for this. That aside, I worked bloody hard last year to keep up and think I deserve to keep my grades.”

Due to differences between the grading systems of Dalhousie and Glasgow, submitted work is sent over with mark sheets to go through a ‘process of translation’ to match Glasgow’s 22-point GPA system. The process was due to start from the end of November, allowing students to enter their portfolio of assessed work from September.

Dr Iain Banks, Junior Year Abroad Co-ordinator for History, believes the concerns over grades is due to students misunderstanding or misremembering information given before going abroad.

He said: “What History follows is the University of Glasgow assessment policy which makes it clear that no work taken abroad will be re-marked over here, but that there will be a process of translation of the marks.”

He continued: “The principles that we follow are that students should not be disadvantaged by having opted to study abroad for a year, and that we respect the grades awarded by the partner institutions. ”

Referring to the sheer workload some students received on their year abroad, Dr Banks continued: “Students need to find out before they get there exactly the amount of work they will be expected to do.” He stressed that the process of translating grades is essentially second marking, and that the job of the University is not to change a mark. Dr Banks assures students that the University will not depress the mark, unless there are some serious discrepancies between the piece submitted and the grade awarded.

Economics students who studied abroad last year are in a worse situation than that described by Ms Murphy. Students have now been told that their grades from their year abroad will not count towards their final degree grade. This will obviously have a detrimental impact on the standard of degree they receive.

Professor Noorbakhsh, Head of the Business School, said: “We are not aware of students having concerns about the treatment of their period of study abroad and we would encourage any who are to speak to staff in Economics to address these concerns; their grades were not translated for inclusion in their honours degree classification and students were informed that this would be the case for their 2011-12 study abroad in Economics before they elected to go abroad.”

A University spokesman clarified that although this is still the case for students taking their Junior year-abroad in 2011-12, procedures had been implemented to prevent this from happening again: “All subjects will now translate grades from study abroad and incorporate them into honours degrees calculations. It should be noted that this was not a widespread problem, although it was a serious one for those students affected by it, which is why we have moved quickly to correct it. All students are advised to liaise directly with their subject area and they will be able to articulate exactly how grades will be treated.”

However, overall Sasha enjoyed her year-abroad and despite the difficulties urges those who are considered doing one to do so. She said: “Despite these complaints, it was amazing and I would recommend Canada to anyone!”