Henry Procter: Fining students for late returns just isn't working

University libraries are collecting large sums of money from students who return their library books late. Are these sums justifiable and where does all the cash end up? Last year Goldsmiths took £107,000 in fines, Manchester more than £200,000 and in 2007/08 Leeds raised a tidy £359,229. Leeds managed to collect such a large sum by increasing the maximum fine from £10 to £30, thereby raising the amount it took by more than £64,000. Asked to explain its policy, Leeds says it believes its fines are a deterrent to stop students from returning items late and are not in any way concerned with making money.

Sheffield has gone one better and is giving students the option of paying their library fines by credit or debit card online. Universities experiencing difficulty in collecting debt can, these days, call upon the Lewis Group, a specialist debt recovery agency whose remit includes "sun-dry" items such as library fines.

When I was studying at Brighton as a fine art undergraduate, the library was a refuge where librarians moved very slowly and things were more forgiving. When it came to library fines, the only time I remember actually paying mine was during the student union's charity week, when all fines were donated to local charities. I was an average late returner whose "excuse" was usually a bad bout of flu that left me bedridden and unable to use the internet or telephone. Sympathetic librarians meant a fine was sometimes waived.

Now, as a privileged postgraduate student at the excellent Goldsmiths University of London, I am unable to use the library because I have racked up nearly £30 in library fine debts. How has this happened? Why have I not returned my books on time? Like most of my classmates I don't live within walking distance of the library. Mostly, I borrow popular titles classed as seven-day items which are not renewable. So, if I forget one of these books on one of my weekly visits to the college, I clock-up £3.50 in fines per week and £7 if the item is a DVD.

My local film rental shop has a more relaxed fines system and companies such as Love Film do not operate late return fines at all; perhaps they do not want to ruin the relationship they have with their customers.

Most universities believe that a monetary-based fines policy is the only deterrent that will dissuade cash-strapped students from returning items late. In other words, "hit them where it hurts." I think that suspending borrowing rights as a penalty for late returners could work just as well, as could withholding the publication of marks until overdue items have been returned. I cannot accept, as some have claimed, that fines pay for administration costs incurred because of a late returned item. Really, how much does it cost to send out an automated email? Different universities operate different library fine policies. If I were at Oxford I would not be feeling the pinch as much because their overdue charges are more in line with a nostalgic Woolworths penny sweet run – one college charges 5p a day for all titles and this with a grace period; other universities, including my own, charge a lot more. Why the disparity? It cannot be that Oxford students are more trustworthy, can it?

The argument is that university library fines generate income and that these sorts of initiatives help to balance the books at a time of budget cuts. Manchester operates its fines system "to recover costs of non-returned books which have been bought with public money but lost by borrowers".

One of the most invidious aspects of the whole business is the secrecy surrounding income from library fines. Out of the eight universities I spoke to none was able to give me a breakdown of where the money goes and many said it was "complicated".

Whether you agree with university library fines, as a student I would support increased transparency about where these large cash sums go. If money generated from students is used to purchase new books for the library, then the titles need to be those that the students have selected. It is their money, after all. I do not support universities using this money to pay library staff; their core public funding should do this. If fines are there largely to dissuade people from returning books late, surely the sheer amount generated is evidence that this "dissuasion" is not working.

The writer is a postgraduate at Goldsmiths, University of London

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