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."Reuse content