Universities have been slammed by the Office of Fair Trading for stopping students from graduating over menial library fines and other debts distinct from tuition fees.
After examining complaints made by National Union of Students (NUS), the OFT found the universities could be breaching consumer protection law by preventing students from progressing to their next year of study or graduating altogether over small debts.
The OFT is encouraging all universities to adopt alternative practices to deal with unpaid library fines so as to prevent them from breaching laws and hindering the progression and satisfaction of students.
Nisha Arora, from the OFT, told the Guardian: "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."
Many students have been affected by mounting library fines, with some stuck in an endless cycle of not being able to renew essential texts as their fines exceed the maximum amount by the university. A desperate need for texts is juxtaposed against the fact they cannot pay existing fines, leading to them reaching an extortionate level. Moreover, some students are being hindered as a result of parking fines - a seemingly irrelevant debt as opposed to the weight of student loans.
Coincidentally, student paper the Cherwell this week revealed the Bodleian libraries at Oxford University alone raked in more than £127,000 of library fines in the 2012/2013 academic year. The University of Oxford is one of the many institutions who refuse to let students graduate without first clearing all library fines.
Rob Henthorn, President for Education and Employability at Aberdeen University, said: "Financial sanctions are never an appropriate way of managing university services – students are struggling enough with money as it is without shelling out more cash, sometimes hundreds of pounds, for lost or late books. Our universities need to be bold in finding alternative methods to ensure timely return of resources.
Any universities attempting to block students from graduating if they have outstanding library fines must be taken to task. Graduation is not some reward which the university can withhold until a debt is settled: it’s formal recognition of the learning process and achievement which students undertake. Moves like this are just another sign of students being treated like customers first and learners second."
@HPUKStudents Circa £62.50ish. Dissertation reading, they extended the return date, but neglected to mention they changed the T&Cs...— Harry Taylor (@HTaylor_KHFC) February 24, 2014
Colum McGuire, the NUS' vice president for welfare, said: "It's almost laughable that students who are in thousands of pounds 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 that prevent students with accommodation arrears or overdue library fines from obtaining their degree, or enrolling in another year of study, now need to review their policies and put in place more sensible ways of helping students and graduates to pay off any debts."