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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Administration Assistant / Apprenticeship Industry

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for an e...

Recruitment Genius: NVQ Assessor

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Private Training Provider off...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own