By Sarah Hort
Student exchange is a popular option for UNSW Law students, with students able to study abroad for a year, semester or the summer or winter. The faculty promotes these exchange programs heavily (as the university promotes exchange programs regardless of the faculty, with a dedicated exchange office).
Separate from exchanges organised by the UNSW exchange office, the law faculty offers several summer and winter courses at overseas universities, including at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, billed by UNSW Law as “one of China’s top universities”, Columbia University in New York City and Diego Portales University in Santiago. These courses appear on faculty advertisements throughout the law building and are usually one to two weeks in duration.
In terms of fees, however, the courses are not run as a regular UNSW law course. In addition to paying the usual student contribution fees (of around $1,370 for domestic students), students wishing to take these electives must pay a fee ranging from $2,200 to $2,500, which is said to cover “the cost of accommodation, breakfast [not covered for New York course], transportation for field trips, visits and administration costs”. The fee, which appears to be mysteriously arrived at, does not cover flights, travel or medical insurance, or other costs associated with the course.
Tharunka conservatively estimates the costs for the eight day New York course as totalling more than $6,000 per student, estimating around $1,500 for flights, $1,370 in standard student contribution fees, $1,000 in spending money (which also covers incidentals, food, and travel insurance) and the additional $2,500 fee.
While Tharunka understands that a limited number of scholarships are available for some of the courses, it is clear that these courses have significant accessibility issues for students without the financial means to pay the fee on top of the costs of flights, travel insurance and other incidentals. The courses are electives, and thus are not compulsory for students who may not be in a position to afford the fee.
“Chinese Legal System” is the course offered to UNSW Law students at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. In 2017, it ran over a 13-day period, from 2 to 15 July. UNSW Law stipulated that students must use the arranged accommodation for “management and safety reasons”. The arranged accommodation was an on-campus hotel. At print deadline, Tharunka was unable to obtain a quote for a room (the hotel does not appear to have a website).
Although UNSW Law students were forced to stay in the hotel, Shanghai Jiao Tong University offers dormitory student accommodation separate from the on-campus hotel, which costs between approximately AUD$14 and $27 per night for short stays. While there may be legitimate UNSW insurance reasons behind the requirement that students stay in the hotel, using the dormitory accommodation costs quoted as an indication, it appears that accommodation at Shanghai Jiao Tong University is relatively inexpensive, leaving further questions surrounding the $2,500 fee. It is also unclear why students are unable to stay in the non-hotel student accommodation, which is presumably cheaper.
Tharunka spoke to several students who have undertaken the Columbia, Diego Portales and Jiao Tong courses, all of whom requested to remain anonymous. There seemed to be no justification provided to students in relation to the fee, other than the information available on the UNSW Law website. At least one student who enquired about the fee was told that much of the fee was passed on to the host institution.
In 2017, approximately 40 students participated in the course at Columbia University, which equates to AU$100,000 in fees over and above the usual student contribution fee. The course ran for 8 days. It is unclear how 40 students using Columbia University’s facilities for little more than one week could justify such a cost, even with accommodation (and a “welcome lunch”) included.
Tharunka reached out to both the UNSW media office and the law faculty for comment and justification of the additional fee charged for overseas electives. We were referred to the UNSW Law website, which provides the general explanation of the fee as described above, and were further told that:
“The arrangements and therefore costs for particular courses are based on the country being visited/international exchange rates, venue hire, guest lecturers, fieldtrips etc and whether or not accommodation is included.
In the event that your concern is that the Faculty seeks to make a profit from our students by running overseas electives programs please be assured that this is not the case.”
Tharunka requested a breakdown of the specific costs involved, and an explanation as to how expenses are apportioned, but neither the UNSW media office or the law faculty provided such a justification.
Two students who undertook the Columbia course in July 2017 said that the accommodation provided had a mould issue, and that this spread to their belongings while staying at the accommodation. By comparison, I undertook a short course that counted as an elective for my undergraduate law degree in July 2017 at a law school in New York not affiliated with UNSW Law, and was charged around AUD$1,000 for two weeks’ student accommodation in midtown Manhattan. Assuming the accommodation provided was charged at AUD$500 for the week of the course, allowing for another AUD$500 in “administration costs”, there still appears to be $1,500 unaccounted for.
Tharunka also spoke to students who travelled to Santiago to undertake the course at Diego Portales University. They described the accommodation as rundown serviced apartments, although they were clean and suitable for the students’ needs.
Part of the appeal of studying a short course at a university such as Columbia is obviously the LinkedIn and resume cred it provides. However, students we spoke to said that they were told by a UNSW Law faculty member that they were forbidden from stating on their resume or LinkedIn that they had studied at Columbia University, because the course was arranged by UNSW Law and the Columbia lecturers were giving up their time to teach them. The subject has a UNSW course code and assessment and grading is organised by the UNSW Law.
UNSW Law’s website describes its student exchange programs as “culturally rewarding” and “intellectually enriching”. It seems that such reward and enrichment is restricted to students who have the means to fork out up to $2,500 for a vague and unjustified fee.