Growing debt level cuts students off at the pass: A degree depends on more than good marks, Andrew Bibby reports

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The Independent Online
FINAL-YEAR students looking forward to celebrating the end of their courses might do well to remember that a degree doesn't depend only on passing the finals. Perhaps as many as 4,000 a year find they are unable to graduate because they have outstanding debts to the university.

A survey last year found that on average, students have run up debts of more than pounds 1,750 by the time they leave college. Universities effectively put themselves at the front of the queue of creditors, by requiring students to clear their debts before awarding degrees.

One person well aware of this rule is Clive Holloway, who completed his degree in mathematics at Royal Holloway College last summer. Technically he is still not a graduate, due to pounds 183.60 the college says he owes for accommodation.

His debt arose when he (along with other students) withheld 20 per cent of their rent in a protest over disturbance caused by construction work on a hall of residence nearby. 'I was in my third year, and there was a building site running continuously outside the window,' he said. In the end, the campaign fizzled out: 'Other third-years paid up finally, because they wanted to get their bit of paper.'

Mr Holloway is not yet looking for a career job, and accepts that when he does, he too is likely to pay up. At the moment he is more concerned with paying back other debts: 'I had an overdraft of pounds 500, which I'm paying off at pounds 50 a month.'

'Universities are entitled to withhold a degree because of non-payment of debts, though usually the threat is enough,' said Ted Nield, spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. A recent CVCP survey found that one student in 20 was in debt to a university, the average being almost pounds 500.

Frances Ledgard of the University of Leeds said that each year 12 to 20 of its students were prevented from taking their degrees. 'It is a sanction which is reluctantly used, for debts over pounds 50. Most do pay in the end.'

The University of Sussex said it stopped 27 students taking degrees last year and withheld certificates for a further eight who had smaller debts.

'At the moment we have about 100 students who will not be graduating because of the size of their debt, but a letter is going out to them and we expect an influx of money,' said Brian Reynolds, a finance officer at the university.

At the University of Sheffield a spokesman pointed out that the rule there applied also to items of property, such as missing library books.

A spokesman for the National Union of Students said: 'We ask institutions to look sympathetically on students who have this problem, rather than using the degree certificate as blackmail.' He added that some universities had also withheld references to employers.

Final-year students are at least able to sign on for state benefits as soon as their course officially finishes. First-year and second-year students are no longer entitled to vacation benefits, as part of the 1990 changes in student finance.

Marie Galloway, one of two full-time money advisers working at the Leeds University student union, said: 'Students are going home earlier, back to Mum and Dad, who at least will feed them.'

For those without understanding parents, the union has begun a soup-kitchen during Easter and summer breaks.

Student grants have been frozen for three years at pounds 2,265 (pounds 2,845 in London) with a government top-up loan providing a further pounds 525-pounds 715 (pounds 605-pounds 830 in London), currently at 3.9 per cent interest. Some students may also apply for small grants from university access funds, designed primarily for students from non-typical backgrounds.

Even with the loan, however, said Marie Galloway, an average student was likely to be several hundred pounds short of the basic income support level. 'Students are the only group over 18 with no safety net. Everybody else can claim income support, but students can have no money and still not be able to claim benefit,' she said.

The Leeds union has set up its own hardship fund, financed partly by bar and shop profits, and it regularly approaches educational charities for support for individual students.

Student drop-out rates have been increasing. A survey this year by the CVCP found the number withdrawing because of hardship had almost trebled in a year, from about 270 to almost 800, while a further 7,600 students had left courses for unexplained reasons.

Universities themselves may be swelling the numbers, by monitoring debt levels when students re-register after summer vacation. 'We do impose a frankly strict regime at the start of the second and third years, and we will not allow students to register if they owe us significant amounts of money. This may seem cruel, and I do feel for the students,' said Mr Reynolds of Sussex. Other universities have similar policies.

(Photograph omitted)