Universities will lose millions in unpaid tuition fees when new laws remove their most effective weapon in the battle to force students to pay, finance chiefs have warned.
Experts are predicting financial chaos when the 1998 Data Protection Act comes into force next March. The act will remove from universities the right to withhold detailed degree results from students who have not paid fees.
The sanction has been a favourite and effective way to encourage students to pay. Mike Pearson, chair of the University Finance Directors' Group, said the law was a major cause for concern.
Deborah Findlay, director of finance at South Bank University, said: "The one major sanction that we had was that we could withhold their results. That will no longer be an option for us.
"You often can't bar people from exams, it is just not practical to have fights outside an exam room. But withholding results was effective. I wish the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals had done more on our behalf."
While universities can, and do, withhold access to library and computing facilities for students who have not paid, ministers have urged universities to be flexible and sympathetic, especially those with many students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, who will be less likely to pay upfront.
Ms Findlay said: "It may hit new universities as those with access as their mission take more risks. At some of the old universities I speak to, most students pay on the day of enrolment because mummy and daddy have paid."
The 1984 Data Protection Act already allowed limited access to exam marks after they had been published, but Phil Boyd, of the office of the Data Protection Registrar, said the act extended individuals' access to more data, including exam scripts and marks for individual papers.
He said that some in the university sector had expressed concern. "One or two have told us they are unhappy that people can find out what mark they have got before they decide to pay fees. But universities cannot withhold marks," he added.
Universities can still withhold official degree certificates, but in many instances, full exam scripts illustrating that degrees have been passed may be sufficient for employers.