What Is a Bench Fee?
A bench fee, sometimes referred to as a Training Support Fee (TSF) or Research Support Fee (RSF), is an additional charge made to PhD students separate to their postgraduate tuition fees. The fee covers a student’s research-related expenditures, from laboratory supplies to specialist training, field trips and equipment hire, which in turn enables their department to continue supporting their research project.
How Do They Work?
The bench fee amount depends on your specific subject and study area. They correspond to your expected level of use of the university’s facilities and will remain fixed throughout your course.
In some cases, the bench fee will be displayed in the PhD advert description. If not, you will need to contact the academic supervisor or the department responsible for the project and request this information. They can provide you with an accurate breakdown of the main costs or at least provide you with an estimate.
If you apply for the project and your application is successful, the university will confirm the exact bench fee amount together with other information in your offer letter.
How Much Are They?
Bench fees vary depending on the project and university but typically range between £1,000 to £10,000 per academic year.
Being a typical range, they can go beyond this, especially for research projects that are heavily laboratory-based or require access to innovative equipment. To give an example, the bench fee associated with a Pharmaceutical Sciences research degree at the University of Huddersfield can go as high as £15,000 per academic year.
Since most STEM PhDs involve extensive experimental or laboratory-based work, their bench fees are generally higher than those for non-STEM research programmes. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for non-STEM subjects such as those in Arts and Humanities to have no associated research fees. This is not because there are no costs associated with their research, but because they are usually low enough to be absorbed by their department.
How Are They Calculated?
Most universities set bench fee bands which are used to determine how much you should be charged. For example, a university charging a maximum bench fee of £10,000 may have three fee bands comprising £2,000, £5,000 and £10,000. If the department estimates that your research project will cost the university £5,750 per year, you would fall under the £5,000 band and be charged this amount.
It’s worth noting that once you accept an offer and enrol in your degree, your bench fee is fixed. This means that even if the university’s cost of securing your materials or resources increases in the following years, you will not be expected to cover these additional programme costs.
Are They Covered by Studentships?
A studentship will cover a student’s tuition fee and living costs in the form of a stipend. In the large majority of cases, postgraduate students on this form of scholarship will also have their bench fees taken care of by the university. However, it is best to confirm this arrangement with the department prior to accepting an offer.
Some departments, such as the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, offer scholarships specifically for bench fees. Due to how high bench fees can go, bench fee scholarships are just as competitive as regular funding scholarships. Therefore, these are usually only accessible to postgraduate students with a strong academic background.
In some cases, an external organisation or research charity may offer to cover your bench fee. To be considered for these financial support opportunities, your research topic will need to be highly relevant to the work they are carrying out. It’s not enough to be researching the same field, they will look to see whether your research has the potential to bring about new and practical knowledge which will further advance the field.
It’s important to keep in mind that if an external organisation covers your bench fee, they will usually do so on the same annual basis as your original offer letter. Due to this, most organisations won’t allow you to overspend into next year’s bench fee allocation. Therefore, make sure you understand the arrangements and factor this into your research timeline to ensure there are always sufficient funds available.
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Bench Fees For Visiting Academics
Most universities will allow visiting PhD students to undertake part of their research in their institution. In these cases, as well as being responsible for paying for their accommodation and travel, they will also be responsible for their bench fee. If the PhD student is visiting for under a year or at irregular frequencies, their bench fee will be prorated to a monthly equivalent. As before, the bench fee will cover the expense for desk space and use of the laboratory and its supplies.
Do You Need to Pay VAT?
If you’re a visiting scholar, whether you will need to pay VAT tax on your bench fee will depend on your visiting reason.
If you are visiting the institution to only use their facilities, then this will be regarded as a ‘supply of facilities’ and you will lawfully be required to pay VAT. This will be the case for an international student as well as a home/EU student.
However, if you are visiting the institution to study or to develop your research skills, then this will be regarded as a ‘supply of education’. Under these circumstances, your additional fees will not be subject to VAT.
Whether the purpose of your visit is for facilities use or for educational purposes can become rather confusing as it will be open to interpretation. Therefore, it is best to contact the host university and discuss your personal visiting situation with them so they can advise you correctly.
A bench fee is only one of several costs you will need to consider if you’re looking to undertake a PhD. Other costs include annual tuition fees, travelling expenses and living costs. To learn the true cost of a PhD and how much each of the above factors contribute to it, we recommend you read the following article: How Much Does a PhD Cost.