Universities “could be breaching law” by preventing students from graduating due to debts

UNIVERSITIES have been told they could be breaching consumer law by preventing students from graduating because of minor debts other than tuition fees.

hatA report published on Tuesday (18th) by the Office of Fair Trading has warned universities against banning students from graduating because of non-academic debts such as library fines and university accommodation. Around three-quarters of universities currently do this, and the OFT has written to over 170 universities about the issue.

The investigation was opened in July 2013, following complaints from the National Union of Students that even a debt as small as money overdue on a library book could be used to prevent students from being allowed to graduate. Students argued that this was disproportionate.

The OFT has said that the “blanket use of academic sanctions” could breach consumer-protection law, and it has told universities to reconsider their terms and practices.

Nisha Arora, from the OFT, said that:

“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. That is why we are writing to all universities today to ask them to review their terms and practices in light of the OFT’s report. Not all universities use these terms, and our report identifies some examples of alternative approaches. We expect all institutions to ensure that their rules and methods for debt collection are fair and comply with the law.”

Colum McGuire, NUS vice-president for welfare, said the OFT’s warning showed that such a sanction was “incredibly unfair”:

“It’s almost laughable that students who are in thousands of pounds of tuition-fee debt were having academic sanctions placed on them for money owed for non-academic debt. Students who owe money for accommodation, overdue library books or other non-academic debt should certainly pay off the money they owe, but this sanction was disproportionate.”