Thousands of students owing millions of pounds in unpaid tuition fees could face expulsion this autumn, The THES has learned.
At least one university is owed more than Pounds 1 million, while others with Pounds 500,000 outstanding are threatening to prevent debtors from continuing their studies.
Some institutions have said they will refuse to register students with debts still outstanding from the first year trying to enrol on the second year of a course .
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has advised universities to be flexible in collecting fees from students but has not yet offered advice on what to do should these systems fail.
Last week, a lawyer warned that in certain cases sanctions could breach the Human Rights Act 1998.
Crunch time will come in September, when universities will have to decide whether to expel students with outstanding debts. Those thrown out would cease to be students, and universities could pursue them through debt collection agencies or the courts.
Universities are used to collecting debts from international, part-time and postgraduate fee-paying students and those renting student accommodation. But the number of debtors has increased this year with the introduction of tuition fees for first-year home students and is likely to worsen as fee-paying spreads to all the years of a degree.
At the University of Central England, vice-chancellor Peter Knight said debt had increased by 40 per cent to Pounds 500,000, with about 600 people owing money. Most were first-years owing tuition fees. Three extra staff have been taken on to the recovery team and Professor Knight has said UCE will pursue students through the small claims court.
New universities appear to be more susceptible to student tuition fee debt, despite the fact that more of their students are likely to have their fees paid by local authorities.
Plymouth University is owed Pounds 500,000 by student debtors and estimates that between Pounds 100,000 and Pounds 150,000 is due to outstanding tuition fees for first-year UK students. But much of the debt is caused by delays in payments from local education authorities, which pay fees direct to universities on behalf of students means-tested as too poor to pay.
Malcolm Ace, Plymouth's head of finance, said: "We are still wrangling with lots of LEAs where students have not completed the necessary forms, or the LEA thinks the student is not eligible, or the LEA is just overworked. A few authorities still owe more than Pounds 20,000 each."
He added: "If a student is in debt, his or her academic department is informed, and the student is asked to come to the finance department to discuss the debt. If the student does not comply, he or she will not be allowed to enrol on the second year of the course."
At the University of Brighton, director of finance Maggie Deacon said 181 first-year UK students still owed a total of Pounds 116,000 in outstanding fees. Overall debts to the university had doubled this year but this was more due to administration problems than the new fee arrangements, she said.
Bob Peyton, accountant responsible for collection of fees at the University of Hull, said the university was reviewing methods of collecting money from students because of fears that it would become harder. Hull's policy is not to pursue students who are still members of the university. But anyone who still has a debt next term will not be able to register for the second year.
Other institutions are taking a more lenient line. The University of Glamorgan is owed Pounds 1.1 million in tuition fees by 1,300 students, 500 of whom are in their first year. It is not planning to prevent returning debtors from continuing their studies but will withhold degrees from those who owe money.
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