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OFT warns universities against using academic sanctions for non-academic debts

The Office for Fair Trading (OFT) has told universities that preventing students from graduating because of non-tuition fee debts may be a breach of consumer law.

OFT has written to more than 170 UK universities and other higher education groups warning that halting graduations for debts such as library fees or accommodation debts could be illegal. This follows complaints by the National Union of Students (NUS) regarding the alleged widespread practice by universities of using academic sanctions to enforce non-tuition fee debt.

Of the 124 universities initially contacted by OFT, 75% of the 115 respondents were found to use a system that breaches several pieces of consumer law.

The letter written by the OFT expressly states that universities should refrain from potentially unfair and/or unreasonable terms and practices, before recommending a review of rules and regulations.

Nisha Arora, Senior Director of Consumer Enforcement at the OFT, has highlighted the approaches used by the other 25% of universities in the study, before stating that others needed to change their ways in light of this: “Preventing progression or graduation not only affects students’ educational experience but could also significantly harm their future employment prospects and ability to pay off debts.”

One alternative approach advocated by the OFT is the limitation of the service related to the debt, such as denying access to library facilities until late fees have been paid. This system would bypass illegal activity.

Aside from the disputing the legality of such academic sanctions, the NUS also argued that the punishments were disproportionate to the offence.

Colum McGuire, the NUS’ vice president for welfare said: “I’m delighted to see that the OFT has responded to our complaints and confirmed that this practice is incredibly unfair.”

“It’s almost laughable that students who are in thousands of pounds worth 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, and actually made it more difficult for students to repay by restricting access to student support, or making it more difficult to secure employment in an already challenging job market. Universities… now need to review their policies.”

Under Cardiff University’s Rules of Behaviour, which applies to all students of the University, it is stated that: ‘a student shall pay all fees and other money owing to the University in accordance with University Financial Regulations. If payment is not received the University may initiate proceedings under the Procedure for Payment of Tuition Fees and Other Monies’.

The Procedure for Payment of Tuition Fees and Other Monies states that if a student does not pay their debt in accordance with appropriate procedure, ‘the University also reserves the right to refuse permission to attend Graduation, and to withhold any certification/references confirming an award’. This clause regards tuition fees, but also relates to residential charges and ‘other monies’.

A Cardiff University spokesperson confirmed that the University is yet to be contacted by the OFT, adding that: “the University ensures that every opportunity is given to students to clear educational debts.” It was also confirmed that unresolved educational debt may result in a student being prevented from graduating, and that library fines in excess of £30 were included in the term ‘educational debt’.

Oli Dugmore

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