Debts prevent students from enrolling

Students denied registration for the next academic year with extreme consequences.

Sam Wigglesworth and Gina Mete
News Editors

Glasgow University has been refusing registration for the next academic year to students who have a debt to the University of over £5, including both academic and non-academic debt.

Students at the University of Glasgow are currently being prevented from continuing their studies should they have any debt over £5 to the University, including debts such as tuition fees and library fines.

The Students’ Representative Council (SRC) have noted to the Glasgow Guardian that this is a problematic policy, as many students are unable to pay their debts until they get student funding but are unable to get their funding until they have registered.

This catch 22 has meant that students who are unable to pay off their debts by now are unable to enrol for their studies, and so face the reality of taking a year out of their studies to pay the debts off. The advice centre staff at the SRC have been working with indebted students to offer repayment proposals but as of now, the University has refused to alter their policy and so, even with a repayment proposal in place, are still being refused enrolment.

The SRC have noted that the University was challenged on this policy in February of this year by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), who carried out an investigation looking into unfair practices with regards to debt collection at university level in the United Kingdom. They recommended that universities with unfair practices should review their policies, particularly around the collection of non-academic debt (i.e. library fines).

The OFT concluded that the “use of and reliance upon contract terms that allow the university to withhold graduation or progression or otherwise to exclude students from tuition for non-payment of ancillary services, in a blanket fashion and regardless of the circumstances” would potentially be open to challenges under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (‘UTCCRs’), the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. (UCTA) and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs).

To this end, the OFT highlighted to universities that they were raising “awareness of the consumer protection legislation among the sector and the types of terms and practices which the OFT considers may be open to challenge as unfair and/or unreasonable.”

They proceeded to recommend that “universities review their rules and regulations, other terms and conditions and practices in light of the OFT’s views outlined in the report, and make amendments as necessary.”

The University of Glasgow refused to change their policy in light of these recommendations and has been challenged on this by the GUSRC executive and Advice Centre. At this time they are are continuing to refuse to change their practices.

Glasgow Guardian heard from one student who is unable to progress to second year as a result of these policies.  The student in question owed £500 rent at the end of the previous academic year; the amount snowballed to £900 after he took a job as Senior Resident at Murano over summer.  He claims he was not aware that his debt would prevent him from enrolling into second year and that it was only made clear after his debt accumulated. He has now been forced to take a year out of his studies to work and pay off the debt. He described himself as being ‘trapped’, believing that if he had not taken the Senior Resident job and found work elsewhere, he would have been able to pay the £500 debt off over summer.

Breffni O’ Connor, President of the SRC is incredibly concerned about the issue and stated to the Glasgow Guardian that, “For several years the SRC have campaigned for a fair approach to non-academic student debt by Glasgow but the University continues to put, already vulnerable, students in a terrible situation; threatening to ruin students’ academic careers because they’ve run into difficulties instead of assisting them with a sensible debt repayment plan. Even if you owe the University a tenner, they’ll turn you away at the gates. How can the University pretend it cares about the student experience when it’s perfectly happy to prohibit students from enrolling in their courses for the year ahead when it’s clear that their problem is temporary or they have other, often health related, issues?”

She further commented that the SRC appreciated the position of the University in terms of collecting their debt, but remained skeptical about the approach the University was taking with students in this position, stating that,

“I understand the need for students to pay back money they owe. However there  needs to be a fair approach and I find it absolutely incredible that the University refuses to change its practices despite the  recent findings of the OFT investigation which concluded “the blanket use of academic sanctions in such instances, regardless of the circumstances, could breach consumer protection law. It is particularly concerning that some terms allow the university to impose sanctions on students even when they owe small amounts or a debt is disputed.” It’s sad that the University has chosen to completely disregard the ruling despite representatives from the SRC arguing in favour of the OFT ruling. We will continue to challenge the University on this where possible.”

Meanwhile, the Advice Centre has informed students in this position to refer to the University Complaints Procedure and has highlighted the option of contacting Trading Standards Commission. However, even if their case is successful, students refused enrolment at this time will still miss the start of the academic year.

When asked about the issue, a spokesman for the University stated, “Students always have the ability to look online in mycampus to check any outstanding balance of their debt – either student debt or non-academic debt. We do not treat non-academic and academic debt differently and students can come to us and we will work with them to agree payment plans. We treat each person individually and work on a case-by-case basis.”