SALLY (not her real name) has always loved hockey. She played it to a high standard all through her County Durham schooldays and when it came to choosing a university, the chance to continue was as important as finding the right course. She chose Northumbria, impressed by facilities including a £30m sports hall, and in 2015 – on top of living expenses – her parents helped her pay the £200 to play hockey. When they discovered that for her last year at uni, the fee had risen to £400, however, they felt their tolerance was being overstretched.

“I don’t think it is at all well known that universities are charging this much for students to play sports,” says Sally’s mother. “I’m not sure where all the money goes. I think universities need to be more transparent about these costs.” Keen to support their daughter’s sporting ambitions, Sally’s parents reluctantly agreed to pay, yet, as her mother points out, they’re lucky they can afford to. For many students facing a similar bill, without the same financial backup, the only option might be to have to drop the sport that drew them to the university in the first place.

Sally highlights the fact that rather than do this, some students would rather earn the money themselves – and risk compromising their studies. “If I didn’t have parents to help me pay, I wouldn’t be able to play,” she says simply. “One of my friends is doing a Masters, and has had to take a job so that she can play, even though she really wants to concentrate on her studies.”

The problem is not restricted to Northumbria. Playing sport at Durham can cost anything up to £350 and even at cheaper universities, like Newcastle, costs vary wildly from, for example, £15 a year for boxing to £170 a year for men’s football. Significantly, it’s often unclear, at least from university websites, what your annual membership pays for – and perhaps more pertinently, what it doesn’t. While Northumbria’s fees may seem steep, it claims to be upfront in declaring them. A spokesman says: “At Northumbria, we are completely transparent about the costs of the programme to students, and the payment they make will cover all costs for the complete academic year – unlike most other universities, there are no follow-up charges.

“As part of the student athlete membership to the programme our students have access to a range of high quality support services, including high performance coaching, physiotherapy, sports psychologists, strength and conditioning and performance analysis. All student athletes also receive their own elite Adidas kit and have all costs for insurance, competition fees, travel and accommodation covered.”

Teesside, similarly, has an elite athlete scheme, aimed at students who “can contribute positively to Students’ Union sport and/or develop the reputation of Teesside University through international level sports performance”. But while its website refers to a Student Union Support Bursary, there’s no indication of either the value of this, or the cost to those who might not qualify for it.

The heavily subsidised sports programme at Sunderland University allows it to claim that it is “one of, if not the best, value in the country”. Its membership structure differentiates between participation and non-participation in events run by British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS), the national governing body for higher education, with non-BUCS costing £35 a year and BUCS, £45. A combined BUCS, Local League and Team Sunderland sports membership is £65, with specialist sports, like American football, charged at £75 a year. What is unclear is whether these figures represent the final costs – or whether, as suggested by Northumbria, there are hidden charges for things like transport and insurance.

A crucial factor in overall sports costs is BUCS membership, which can apparently cost as little as £45 for netball at Newcastle or as much as £400 for hockey at Northumbria – though BUCS itself sets a minimum fee of £50. Its spokeswoman says: “We don’t have a set fee but we do have a fee structure in place. This fee is calculated individually for each member and is based 25 per cent on the number of eligible full-time students at each institution and 75 per cent on their participation the year before.” Not only does this seem confusing – and unfair – to students, it also means that their membership could fluctuate from one year to the next.

The doubling of fees at Northumbria is justified by an improvement in performance, with its athletes now regularly finishing in the top ten, and the cost of kitting them out in Adidas, as worn by Team GB in the Olympics and Paralympics. The university points to the range of bursaries and scholarships available and states that the programme is “considerably subsidised”.

This is cold comfort to Sally’s mother. “I would advise all prospective students who attend open days to ask university representatives how much it will cost them to play the sports they love," she says. "After all, universities are very keen to shout about their sporting and other facilities, but students need to know how much it will cost them to use them and to play for their university teams."