University may breach fair trading rules

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Students may be prevented from graduating because of debt.
Students may be prevented from graduating because of debt.

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.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. What’s the big issue? Once a student graduates, there’d be no easy way for the university to recoup any unpaid fees or debts. Within the UK, they’d be able to sue them – but that’s a costly and time consuming measure. But a lot of these universities also have international students, most of whom will probably leave the UK not to come back (especially with the new visa restrictions), and then there’ll be no means to recoup the money.
    It’s also made perfectly clear to students they won’t graduate with unpaid library fines, numerous times.

  2. I agree, there is no reason why people should be able to get away without paying for things.

    The quote from The Sunday Times (not mentioned here, but in every other article) highlights someone (not at St Andrews) who thought they had three years to pay for their accommodation before graduating. Firstly, I find this strange in itself, as at least here, accommodation is paid for in instalments (if not in full) on predetermined dates in advance. Secondly, it is entirely understandable from the perspective of the university that if someone has not paid for one year after that year, they are unlikely to be able to pay for three years after three years.

    The NUS may have a legal point concerning academic punishment for a financial matter. However, I’m not sure how this is justified as being ‘harsher’ than banks, as it is not comparable in the first place. Anywhere that offers a service that requires payment will attempt to enforce collection of that payment if it is not made. If it were anything else, the response would be the threat of a court summons. As the above comment says, the university probably does not want to or cannot do this (hence why disputes are often settled).

  3. When I was going to be prevented from matriculating because of outstanding accommodation fees that I couldn’t afford the university did their best to help and in the end used the discretionary fund to pay it. They also gave me last years accommodation fees in full.

    I believe anyone who can truly not afford it is protected and that’s not who these rules are aimed at (at least not at st andrews).

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