Denied a degree – because she hasn't paid her rent

I'm not in arrears, says student bringing legal case against university

A student is bringing a test case against her university for withholding her degree until she pays off alleged rent arrears.

The plight of Maria Lavelle, who completed a performing arts degree at the University of Winchester with a 2:1 pass, is mirrored by hundreds of students across the country. The university has told her she must pay back £3,540 in rent it claims she owes on her university lodgings before she can receive her degree. Ms Lavalle says that she moved out of the accommodation after only three weeks.

Last night the National Union of Students described Ms Lavelle's case as an "extremely significant test case", adding: "This is a common practice among universities and it's something we've been concerned about for a while."

There are fears that, in a potentially scarce jobs market such action could deal a crippling blow to a student's chances of employment.

Ms Lavelle, who has been unable to find employment as a result of the degree being witheld, denies she owes the money. Jaswinder Gill, who is representing her, also argues that the university has no right to withhold the degree as she has fulfilled all her educational obligations to it.

The case, which is expected to end up in the High Court this autumn, will be seen as an important indicator of the powers universities can wield to recoup money.

Ms Lavelle joined the University of Winchester as a 25-year-old mature student last summer after completing the first two years of her degree course at Bournemouth University.

She says she specifically asked that, as a mature student, she should not be billeted with freshers, as the atmosphere might be too noisy.

When she found that she had been, after three weeks she wrote to the university giving notice that she intended to quit and move into a flat in the centre of Winchester.

"They didn't give two hoots," she said. "They have just brushed me off.

"I'm looking for graduate jobs but officially I'm not a graduate. I have no results to show an employer and no information. When I explain what happened, it doesn't sound good.

"I'm not the youngest student in the world and I wanted to spend the summer on a graduate job in Bournemouth – but I'm on jobseekers' allowance, which wasn't the plan."

In a letter to the university, Mr Gill said: "We are instructed our client paid all tuition fees, duly attended all lectures, completed all aspects of the course including coursework and assignments leading to an expected honours degree award on 17 July.

"Clearly there is a fundamental contract between the student, as a consumer, and the university in the provision of a full programme of education leading towards degree qualification and degree ceremony.

"As we see it, both parties have performed this part of the contract and indeed this is consistent with the mission statement of the university, namely: 'To educate, to advance knowledge and to serve the public good'."

The university said in response that the rental contract agreed was for the full academic year.

"Your client has not paid the occupancy fee of £3,541.60. Our client has witheld your client's bursary of £720 as a result of your client's non-payment. Your client therefore owes our client £2,821.60p and as such our client has the right to and will withhold the award of your client's degree and refuse your client access to a degree ceremony while this debt remains outstanding," its legal representative said.

"Our client considers this matter to be of the utmost importance to its business and is prepared to defend its right to withold a student's degree and graduation ceremony in court if necessary."

It warns the university will seek interest on the sum if it is not paid in 28 days.

Tommy Geddes, the university's deputy vice-chancellor, added: "The matter is subject to a legal challenge by Maria Lavelle and the university is vigorously defending its position. There are some discrepancies between her version of events and ours and there is disagreement regarding the university's regulations.

"Maria signed a legally binding contract with the university and the university has every right to recover the accommodation debt.

"The university's regulations do state that students are ineligible for the award of a degree unless all fees for tuition and housing and any other sums, including fines, have been paid in full.

"We will continue to examine the case with our solicitors and we hope to reach a resolution soon so Maria can graduate."

Six years ago the Office of Fair Trading ruled against Kingston University withholding a degree from a student who owed money, saying it was "unfair" to conflate the roles of education provider and landlord. However, this ruling only applied to one case.

Wes Streeting, the NUS president, said: "Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for universities to withhold degrees or block academic progress in this manner.

"It is important to remember that it is often the poorest students who are vulnerable to this kind of unreasonable action.

"NUS would advise any student whose degree is being withheld by their university to contact their students' union advice centre."

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Network Manager - Oldham area - Up to £30,000

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

Teacher of special needs required for Burton on Trent

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Exciting Opportunity, Rand...

Behaviour Support Assistant

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Behaviour Support Worker Th...

Youth Worker / Teaching Assistant - Nottingham

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are looki...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home