The summer school trap

Nick Bonyhady wants to know why the cost of summer school is so damn high.

In her welcome post, Dr Jillian Stewart, Director of the University of Sydney Summer School, provides a few reasons why students might choose to spend their holidays studying at summer or winter school: “To catch up on subjects in which they may have been unsuccessful, manage the demands of their normal semester programs much better, or accelerate their progress towards their degree.” What she does not mention is that the University will charge students who take up her pitch roughly four times as much as those who study during semester, for no clear reason.

This year, if a domestic undergraduate student takes an English subject during semester time, they either pay $769 or defer that amount to HECS, a loan with no interest or fees. If the same student took that subject during summer or winter school, they would pay $3700 – a fee that can’t be put on HECS.

FEE-HELP, another loan scheme, is available, but it comes with a 25 per cent fee, bringing the total cost of an English unit to $4625. That is an impossible cost for many students to bear. The difference in cost between a summer school subject on FEE-HELP and a regular semester subject on HECS is a difference of $3856 – enough to cover a whole semester of regular full-time study.

For some students, the extra cost of summer school is still worth it to finish a degree earlier or to fit in more extra-curricular activities during semester. But for others who are taking it to re-attempt failed subjects – who constitute “approximately a third” of enrolments, according to a university spokesperson – or to get back on track after taking time off for personal reasons, the additional stress of paying for summer school can be a huge burden.

But here’s the rub: the University does not have to charge more for summer school than during semester. The Higher Education Support Act allows universities to make a choice. They can receive Commonwealth funding for summer school, make HECS available and limit prices to standard semester rates or declare summer school full fee, remove the option of HECS and receive no Commonwealth funding.

A University spokesperson claimed that “no student is disadvantaged” by summer school because all summer units are also available during semester – a structure that the legislation forces the University to adopt if it wants to set its own fees. However, if the University instead chose Commonwealth support and lower prices, it could still make all summer units accessible during semester. Moreover, this decision does not explain why the University has chosen to set fees so high.   

Part of the cost of summer school is explained by the fact that the University needs to make up for the federal funding it has chosen not to receive. However, for an English subject, that would only be $692, which still leaves an unexplained gap of over $2000 between summer school and semester study.

So why the spike in cost? Some of the money may be for paying academics for teaching outside semester. It is also possible that keeping buildings open over summer costs more, but staff need access regardless and otherwise the University’s investment in infrastructure would be wasted for months each year.

Not all universities charge their students so much over summer, including some of Sydney’s closest competitors. Summer school fees at UNSW (except for their business school) are the same as semester fees and HECS is available. UTS’s new trimester model has the same outcome.
Back in 2003, even Sydney did not charge more for summer school. Legislation at the time required that Commonwealth supported students pay the same amount for their subjects, no matter when in the year they took them. According to Brendan Nelson, then Education Minister, the option of charging full fees was only reintroduced after “ongoing consultation with the higher education sector” in 2004 – and extended to winter school two years later. Certainly, these changes to allow higher fees were not made at students’ urging.

Aside from an SRC petition in 2014, there has been little recent dissent about summer and winter school fees at Sydney, but there is not universal agreement either. Mark Warburton, a former senior public servant at the Department of Education who administered university funding until 2014 said:

“An innovative and efficient 21st century university that is concerned to maximise and support the learning experience of students should not need to use the legislative provisions for summer and winter schools.  They probably should have been removed when the Government sought to eliminate undergraduate fee paying and provide Commonwealth support for all domestic undergraduate students studying at university.” 

In light of other universities’ ability to offer similar units over the same period for less, this raises questions about whether Sydney’s pricing scheme is justified by its costs or an unfair attempt to raise revenue at students’ expense.