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Monday, 1 August 2011

The telephone rip-off for aspiring university students is here again

As results day approaches, UCAS has apparently doubled the number of staff ready to take calls on its PREMIUM RATE TELEPHONE LINE. (See The Independent - 1 August 2011.)

UCAS advises that calls to its (Phonepay Plus-regulated) premium rate number 0871 468 0 468 "will cost no more than 9p per minute" from a UK BT landline. This statement is false.

The facts

Those looking to study mathematics may be able to work out that after paying a call setup fee of 12.5p and a rate per minute of 9.19p, with the total call cost rounded up to the nearest penny, those using a BT landline will be paying more than 9p per minute. For example, a 7 minute call will cost 77p, 11p per minute. Students of the law may however recognise that such deception is not explicitly prohibited under Phonepay Plus regulations.

Budding economists or students of commerce will perhaps be aware that nearly all of the 9.19p per minute BT charge (including VAT) is passed over to the provider of telephone service to UCAS (Cable & Wireless) as a subsidy towards the cost of its telephone system - at the expense of callers.

Historians will perhaps understand that this unique regulation on BT is a legacy from when it was the monopoly provider. Other telephone companies are able to add their own charges to the rate amount paid to UCAS.

BT charges vary from the rest

UCAS declares that "Calls from mobiles and other networks may vary".

Pedantic logicians may argue that because BT alone is prohibited from adding its own charge - it is BT that varies from the norm by having unusually low charges for these calls.

Virgin Media, for example, charges a call connection fee of 13.24p plus 10.22p per minute for these calls.

Calls from Mobiles

Many 6th form students will have mobile phones loaded with packages and bundles to offer text messages and / or calls to normal landline numbers and other mobiles at relatively low rates. None of these bundles cover calls to Premium Rate numbers.

All of the major mobile providers charge between 35p and 41p per minute for calls to the UCAS premium rate number. Excluding VAT, only around 7.5p per minute of this benefits UCAS - the rest is simply revenue for the mobile companies.

UCAS may argue that this is a fair "service charge" for use of its Customer Services Unit, including the time spent waiting to be connected to an advisor. This does not however seem to be a particularly effective way of collecting such a charge, when the "agent" (the telephone company) takes so great a premium over its normal call charges.

Budding philosophers will note that this may be a valuable lesson for those starting an independent life. If they cannot secure a place in higher education and call their local job centre; the number is 0845 6060 234. This yields Job Centre Plus only around 2p per minute in subsidy, but the per minute charge rates to call this number from Virgin Media and the Mobile Providers are exactly the same as for the premium rate UCAS number.

The same is true for tax or tax credit enquiries of HMRC - 0845 300 0627 / 0845 300 3900, and even for NHS Direct - 0845 4647.


The modest subsidies which these public bodies achieve from use of these expensive telephone numbers are dwarfed by the additional cost incurred by callers. If they need the benefits of a non-geographic number, these are fully available on 03 numbers.

All calls to 03 numbers are charged on the same basis as a call to a geographic number - in many cases this means that they are covered by an inclusive call package.

Gradual and highly cost-effective migration to 03 is possible by introducing the 03 equivalents of the 08 numbers as alternatives. In every case the equivalent number is reserved for the very purpose and may be very readily put in place, as a replacement or an alternative; i.e.

0371 468 0 468, 0345 6060 234, 0345 300 0627 / 0345 300 3900 and 0345 4647.

If one or more public service providers were simply to advise callers that they could get through at much lesser cost by swapping the second digit "8" for a "3" on any published 084 or 087 number, then this disgraceful and unnecessary rip-off could be ended very easily and swiftly.


  1. I find your commentaries very interesting and shall try the alternative tax numbers you suggest when I need to. I have long been angry at my doctor's 0844 number (on which you have to listen to a message first and then perhaps queue) : I can get usually get round this by using the internet but older friends don't have this alternative.

  2. Hi there, awesome site. I thought the topics you posted on were very interesting. I tried to add your RSS to my feed reader and it a few. take a look at it, hopefully I can add you and follow...



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