Universities that impose “academic sanctions” such as library bans and blocked email access when students fail to pay rent could face legal action.
A warning from the higher education regulator was issued after a report revealed that hundreds of University of Liverpool (UoL) students living in halls recently received such punishments for failing to meet rent payments.
According to figures seen by student newspaper The Tab, 687 students in halls were placed under the sanctions in 2017.
It comes after the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued guidance in 2015 which warned that the blanket use of academic sanctions for non-tuition fee debts could face legal action.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, has told universities to be “mindful” of the guidance, which says that they may be open to challenge under “unfair terms legislation”.
She said: “It’s also important that all students have the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education. Clearly having access to university systems and libraries is crucial if students are to succeed in their studies.”
The Liverpool Guild of Students has this year launched a “Cut the Rent” campaign to try to reduce university accommodation prices to cut the number of students falling into rent arrears.
Rory Hughes, president of the Guild, said: “The fact that one in six students in UoL halls of residence are falling into rent arrears is a damning indictment of the university’s extortionate rent portfolio.”
He added that “applying legally dubious academic sanctions in order to recoup the money owed makes the University of Liverpool nothing other than a dodgy landlord”.
Since its guidance was issued in 2015, the CMA has taken action against a number of universities over academic sanctions.
Legally binding commitments were secured from Buckingham and Bucks New universities, as well as University College London (UCL) and the University of Glasgow.
A University of Liverpool spokesperson said: “We always seek to deal with these matters in a fair and proportionate way and we are of course aware of the guidance provided by the CMA.
“The university keeps its approach to sanctions for non-payment of residential costs under review and is working with the Liverpool Guild of Students and others to discuss this, and additional support for students in arrears.”
They added: “Non-payment of residential fees does not result in immediate sanctions. Students are contacted a number of times and offered flexible payment options.
“They are also encouraged to contact the money advice and guidance team to discuss their financial position and receive advice on eligibility for university hardship and welfare funds.”
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