Published on February 19, 2014 | by Matteo Besana & Laure Fourquet

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Universities warned over student debt penalties

Group picture of four graduates

Universities can no longer prevent students from graduating because of unpaid debts such as library fines. [Flickr: UNE photos]

UAL and other universities could be breaching consumer law by preventing students from graduating because of outstanding debts such as library fines.

In a letter to UK universities, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) warned against the use of academic sanctions against students who have not paid for university accommodation, childcare services or material fees amongst other debts.

UAL is thought to be one of more than 170 institutions the OFT is encouraging “to pro-actively review their rules and practices, and revise them where required”.

The letters come after an investigation was launched in July 2013 following a complaint made by the National Union of Students (NUS).

Harsh

A member of LCC Contract Administration Office, who did not wish to be named, said: “From the registration point of view, we could say they are paying for the facilities but I think it’s maybe a bit harsh if students don’t graduate. I guess it also depends how much they owe the university.”

Pia Nicolé Sarkar, a third year Interactive and Moving Image student at LCC, explained that paying minor debts such as material fees can be a real burden.

“I think £100 is too much for a lot of people, myself included. They make you pay £100 for material that you can’t use and make you fail your degree if you can’t afford it,” she said

Scrutiny

As a result of the investigation, Higher Education institutions will be under scrutiny by the new Competition and Market Authority, which will likely impact on the decision making process when it comes to debt and graduation.

In a statement, Nisha Arora, from the OFT, said universities had range of ways of dealing with the issue some needed to change their approach: “Preventing progression or graduation not only affects students’ educational experience but could also significantly harm their future employment prospects and ability to pay off their debts.”

NUS Vice President Colum McGuire welcomed the news, stating: “I couldn’t be more pleased with our result today that we’ve won the case and had this debt management practise ruled as unfair.”

He added: “What might seem a real top level bureaucratic policy ruling will make a huge difference to students’ lives.”

Advice

SUARTS President Shelly Asquith told Arts London News: “I think this is absolutely fantastic news. It is morally wrong that a university would withhold academic qualifications because a student may be in arrears on their library books or housing.”

She concluded: “Institutions should spend more time offering debt advice and financial management workshops to students instead of the resources they put into chasing these debts.”

However not everyone has supported the decision: “I totally agree with students not graduating if they don’t pay their debt,” said Doctor Mark Ingram, senior lecturer and Contextual and Theoretical Studies Coordinator at LCC.

“If they don’t pay for it then why should anybody else pay their fines? We wouldn’t have any books then,” he told Arts London News.


 

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