Degree withheld in Worcester fees dispute

University may apply to lift stay on small claims court pursuit of graduate determined not to pay for ‘inadequate’ tuition

April 9, 2015

Source: Getty

Complaint: the student believes that the tuition she received was inadequate

A student who refused to pay some of her course fees because she believes her tuition was inadequate has condemned the university for withholding her certificate until she pays.

The student, who does not want to be named, enrolled on the University of Worcester’s two-year MSc in nutritional therapy in 2011. All went well in her first year. However, she believes the tuition she received in her second year was inadequate.

Although she passed the course after resubmitting her dissertation, she told the university she was willing to pay only half of the second year tuition fee of just over £3,000. Worcester then declined her requests to release her degree certificate.

In a letter to the student last July, John Ryan, university secretary and pro vice-chancellor for students, wrote: “The fact that you completed your course successfully [entails that] the university discharged its responsibilities for supporting you to a successful conclusion of your course.” But as “a goodwill gesture” he offered to reduce the amount the student owed by 25 per cent.

When the student refused the offer, the university sought repayment of the full amount through the small claims court.

The student meanwhile sought her certificate via a subject access request, which allows individuals to request all information institutions hold on them. But in its response Worcester said it would “continue to withhold your certificate pending settlement of your outstanding debt”. The student has appealed to the information commissioner.

Last month, the university offered to accept 50 per cent of the outstanding fees, but the student has refused. She told Times Higher Education that she was no longer inclined to pay anything, owing to Worcester’s handling of her case.

The small claims case is currently stayed but the university has said it may apply for the stay to be lifted.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said the Consumer Rights Act permitted universities to refuse to “complete the deal” by issuing degree certificates if students withheld fees – which students were entitled to do if they believed the university had failed to deliver the promised quantity of tuition with “reasonable care and skill”. It was then for a court to decide how much should be paid.

“But the fact that the degree has been ‘awarded’ after due assessment…is a piece of data the information commissioner can force the release of. For many purposes, that is all a graduate needs,” he added.

In a statement, Worcester says it “fully investigated” the complaint and that the student had opted not to appeal against its verdict. “We are presently engaged in confidential negotiations with [the student] and remain hopeful an amicable resolution can be achieved.”

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