Universities across the UK are being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) over claims that preventing students from graduating because of unpaid library and other non-academic fines could be viewed as unfair.
St Andrews follows a similar practice to many other universities in the UK by preventing students from graduating or matriculating if they owe any money to the University, even though many of these fines are not related to their studies.
The University website states that: “Any student with an outstanding debt to the University at the end of the academic session (24 May 2013) will NOT be permitted to graduate. This also includes sponsor’s debts (which will be transferred to your account), tuition fees, residential and telephone charges and library fines.”
The University website also states that students must pay “any outstanding debts” in order to matriculate each year. This includes library fines, accommodation payments and other non-academic debts.
An initial investigation by the OFT found that half of the 50 universities they sampled had terms and conditions similar to these, which could “potentially be viewed as unfair”, and universities could face court action or enforcement orders.
Colum McGuire, vice-president (welfare) of the National Union of Students, said: “Universities are applying harsher measures than those imposed by banks. It cannot be right that an academic sanction is imposed in cases of non-academic debt.”
Following this criticism by the NUS, the OFT has opened a full investigation of universities across the UK under the Enterprise Act 2002. It is considering whether these policies breach the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and certain other consumer protection legislation.
The investigation began in July 2013 and is ongoing. The OFT states that it “will not reach a final view on whether the law may have been infringed until it has completed its investigation. It should not be assumed at this stage that any breach of consumer protection legislation has occurred.”
A spokesperson for the University said: “We are aware of the OFT investigation, it is NOT an investigation of individual universities but rather the common and longstanding practice across the UK high education sector of withholding some privileges where monies are owed. Like other universities, we are considering our response to the OFT’s consultation.”