'Rent arrears' student wins right to graduate

University threatened to withhold degree if alleged debts were not paid

A student denied her degree because of alleged rent arrears has won her fight to be allowed to graduate.

Maria Lavelle, who completed a performing arts degree from the University of Winchester with a 2:1 pass this summer, will graduate tomorrow.

Her case was highlighted by The Independent which revealed that hundreds of students were in a similar situation.

In an out-of-court settlement, the university has agreed that she can graduate and waived the £3,540 fees in back rent they said she owed.

Last night her lawyer, Jaswinder Gill, said the settlement would give heart to hundreds more students who felt they had "no alternative but to reach for their cheque" if threatened with the withholding of their degree.

"Many people told me to give up and that I was flogging a dead horse by fighting it," said Ms Lavelle. "If it hadn't been for Jaswinder Gill, I would have done. You can be intimidated by the threat of the loss of your degree."

Ms Lavelle joined the University of Winchester as a 25-year-old mature student in 2008 after completing the first two years of her degree course at Bournemouth University.

She moved into student accommodation but asked if, as a mature student, she could not be housed with freshers as she thought the atmosphere would be too noisy.

When she found she had been, she gave notice that she would be moving out and into private lodgings. However, the university said she had signed a contract to stay the whole year in student accommodation and argued she should pay back £3,540 in arrears.

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

Tommy Geddes, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester, said: "The university has reached a settlement with Maria that allows her to graduate without being in debt to the university.

"We have reached a settlement in order to save costs and the university has not made any admission of liability with respect to its right to bar students from graduating while in debt."

Ms Lavelle said: "At last I have something tangible to show people when I apply for a job. When I explained what had happened to people it didn't make me look too good. I can relax and carry on looking for a good graduate-level job."

Mr Gill said: "This is an important case despite no ruling by the courts since it highlights a major issue of public importance. This is the first case of its kind and it is hoped some good will come out of it with significant benefits for all students."

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