Uni threatens students despite possible breach of consumer law
Final year students have been receiving emails threatening that they may be prevented from attending their graduation if they do not pay outstanding library fines, despite warnings from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that such practices are in breach of consumer law.
Last year OFT wrote 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 followed complaints by the National Union of Students (NUS).
Despite this action almost a year ago, Cardiff University continues to threaten academic sanctions to enforce non-tuition fee debt.
OFT said: ‘The OFT consider the blanket of academic sanctions in such instances, regardless of the circumstances, could breach consumer protection law. It is particularly concerned that some terms allow the university to impose sanctions on students even when they owe small amounts or a debt is disputed.’
‘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.’
The NUS argued that the punishment was disproportionate to the offence and alternative actions, such as the limitation of the service related to the debt, were advocated as an alternative punishment which bypasses illegal activity.
In an email sent by Cardiff University libraries to final year students with outstanding fines above £10.00 it is stated that payment must be received by 12th June 2015. If students fail to do so they are warned that their details will be passed on to the Finance department and they ‘may be prevented from graduating’.
A University spokesperson said: “The University ensures that every opportunity is given to students to clear educational debts. Library fines exceeding £30 are classed as an educational debt and if unresolved may result in a student being prevented from graduating. Students are contacted a number of times to resolve any educational liabilities that might result in this.
“We appreciate that this is a concern for students and are doing everything we can to ensure that they don’t find themselves in a situation where they are unable to graduate. We have now introduced an automated alert system that informs students a few days before library books are due, warning them that late returns will incur a charge.”
Figures for 2011/2012 and 2012/2013 revealed that between this two year period Cardiff University libraries raked in £323,890 worth of library fines – a figure significantly higher than any other university in Wales.
In response to these findings a Cardiff University spokesperson said: “The rate of fines is comparable to other Welsh universities; the difference is that Cardiff University students borrow four to five times more items than in any other Welsh university. There are more students, and we have more books available for students to borrow.
“Fines are only incurred when library books are returned after their due date; there is no need for any student to pay fines if they return – or renew – their books on time.
“Library staff will waive fines where there are genuine extenuating circumstances such as sickness. The purpose of fines is to encourage books to be returned on time so that as many students as possible can share them.”