Withholding exam results from debtors may be unlawful

June 13, 2003

Universities may be acting illegally if they withhold exam results from students who owe them money, an education lawyer has warned after the Office of Fair Trading forced Kingston University to change its debt collection policy, writes Phil Baty.

Hilary Crook, head of the education unit at lawyers Denison Till, said that universities would no longer be allowed to use the widely adopted sanction against student debtors. She said they would have to rethink their debt collection policies.

Ms Crook said: "If universities are not taking payment in advance, they are now likely to have to sue for their debts rather than withhold marks. It is generally considered that this will cost more, take longer and be less effective than withholding qualifications."

The warning came after the OFT announced last week that it forced Kingston University to change its contract with students. The OFT said that a clause in the university's regulations "potentially denied students the results of an assessment because the fees relating to another course had not been paid".

Kingston's sanction against its debtors breached the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, so the university, facing legal sanctions, changed the clause to make it clear that withholding of results would happen only if a student owed money relating to that specific course or part of the course.

The OFT ruling does not challenge a university's right to withhold exam results where the student has failed to pay specifically for the course in question.

"However, it seems from the OFT ruling that the university or college is not entitled to withhold all products if only one or more unrelated items have not been paid for."

This would mean that an institution could not withhold any exam or final degree results because fees for accommodation, or other services not directly related to the tuition, had not been paid.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK said it was not clear how common the sorts of practices were that would fall foul of the law but said UUK would alert universities.

A spokesman for Kingston said the university had cooperated with the OFT to change potentially unfair terms:"The university does not withhold the results of assessments but it does reserve the right to withhold certification of the results of a course until any outstanding debts relating to that course are discharged."

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