If I include train fares and subsistence as well as fees, studying for my MA in Novel Writing at the University of Manchester probably cost me ten thousand pounds. I used to think it was worth it: without the guidance of fellow students, not to mention my excellent tutors, author Martyn Bedford and poet John McAuliffe, I'm not sure my first novel would ever have found a publisher.
My fellow students helped me see my work through fresh eyes, and when I rewrote "Fire Horses" from scratch it was accepted by the first publisher to read it, Legend Press. Legend took my second a few years later, and I'm now working on my third and fourth; I often tell anyone who'll listen how that Manchester MA changed my life. A creative writing course might not be able to teach you how to write; it can certainly help you learn how to edit.
When in January 2013 the university invited me to return to speak about my career, I was delighted to accept. After all when I was taking my MA back in '04-05 one of the highlights was hearing guest authors (Jonathan Trigell and Toby Litt to name but two), publishers and agents talk about an industry which then seemed mysterious and elitist.
Understanding that I'd probably benefit from publicity in return I neither asked for nor was offered payment, but was happy to travel from London to my home city for the day so long as I wasn't left out of pocket. I was reassured by Faculty Alumni Officer Emma Packham that my fares and reasonable costs would be met: "Grab some lunch, which I am happy to reimburse."
On Wednesday 13 March I travelled back to Manchester, where I gave an hour-long presentation to dozens of media club students, discussed careers as part of a panel for two hours, and was interviewed on camera. I arrived home late that night feeling elated and proud to have been invited to participate in the event; it felt I'd made it at last, been recognised for my achievements since leaving University. The next day Emma emailed to say:
"Thank you very much for attending the Media Club and career panel event yesterday - despite the nerves you were fantastic! Thank you also for taking part in the film interview - Richard was absolutely thrilled with the material! I hope you enjoyed coming back to campus. I think the panel event went really well, and it was great to see the students so engaged."
Now all I needed to do was claim back my expenses. Apart from my return train ticket, I spent a few pounds on sandwiches and snacks, plus tube fares in London. My total expenses, including the train fare, were under £100.
Around a month following the event I was told by Lecturer in Victorian Literature Dr Michael Sanders, now dealing with my claim, that contrary to what I'd been led to believe I now needed to submit original tickets and receipts to the finance office - scanned copies wouldn't do. I sent them off.
Meanwhile I'd also received a number of emails from one Gareth Pettit, who worked in the Development and Alumni Relations team. Gareth explained he would "welcome the opportunity to meet with you and find out more about your experiences of studying at Manchester for myself, as well as to learn about your life and career since graduating."
When, after several further emails, I gave in and invited Gareth to my home, after a short time discussing my writing career he brought the subject round to money - and how I could help the University by giving them some of my own, partly to help the "under-privileged" to study.
When I explained that I left home at 16, paid my own fees to attend, had never been offered a penny, and would not be giving the university money when I could be giving it to my own kids for THEIR education, he left. However a few days later he sent another email, providing more details of the "Your Manchester Fund" and with a direct debit form attached. As I hadn't even been reimbursed for my guest appearance yet, I chose not to respond.
Finally, over four months after receiving my invitation and two months after the event, I received a cheque through the post. To my amazement it was for less than the amount for which I'd claimed; among other things, my tube fare hadn't been reimbursed because I hadn't supplied a receipt. How I'm supposed to provide a receipt for making journeys using an Oyster Card remains unclear.
Despite an apology from the office of the President and Vice-Chancellor, the university continues to insist that the amount received was correct and I would only be reimbursed for items for which I could provide proof of purchase. In other words, the same University which invited me to speak at a careers event now seems to believe I'm trying to rip them off - for a tenner.
I will never attend another event at Manchester, and have asked them to remove my name from anything which promotes the University. I would advise anyone considering studying at Manchester to consider how it treats its former students. If this is how it treats us - how will it treat you? As people to be cherished - or potential cash cows to be milked?
Follow Mark Piggott on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markliampiggott