Universities could be prevented from withholding degree results from students who have defaulted on their tuition fees by the Human Rights Act 1998, writes Alison Goddard
Institutions could incur "substantial damages" for withholding information in cases where the courts view the penalty as too harsh, solicitor Alison Castrey of Bristol-based Veale Wasbrough Lawyers told this week's annual conference of the Council for International Education.
The act, which will come into force in October 2000, means that universities will have to demonstrate that sanctions are "proportionate", Ms Castrey said.
Universities might argue that it is fair to have the same sanctions for all unpaid debts, but she strongly advised them against such thinking.
She said: "Institutions will have to explain why they do what they do in terms of fairness. If they are treated with contempt by a student who refuses to pay the fees, then they are almost certainly entitled to withhold information. However, a student who cannot pay because, for example, they have been ill, could have a case if their results are withheld."
Students who can demonstrate "an obvious and dire effect" as a result of information being withheld could also have a case, she added. "Another example would be where a student had got a job but had to have the degree result in order to take it up. The student could demonstrate an economic loss if information were withheld."
Ms Castrey said: "The higher education sector needs to get together to identify what is likely to cause problems. Where individual universities come across
difficult cases, they would be well advised to take legal advice."
The Human Rights Act will also encourage more students to take legal action against universities, she believes.
"The trend towards litigation will continue, and the act is one piece of legislation that will increase that trend. Students are going to be more assertive and universities are going to have to pull their socks up," she said. Clive Saville, page 14