Report reveals University may break consumer law

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The Office of Fair Trading has said that the practice of preventing students from graduating or progressing in their degree because of outstanding non-tuition fee debts is unfair.

An investigation was launched by the body in July last year after students at universities across the UK complained that they had been treated unreasonably.

Many universities, including St Andrews, may prevent students from graduating or matriculating if they owe any money, 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.

The report ruled that the OFT considers that the blanket use 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.

The OFT is now writing to universities across the UK to urge them to review and revise their practices.

Nisha Arora, a senior director for the OFT’s services, infrastructure and public markets group, said: “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. “

A University spokesperson commented: “We believe our debt recovery procedures to be reasonable and transparent but look forward to reading the detail of any correspondence from the OFT.”

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