Withholding Graduation: The Scandal Across the UK’s Universities

Every year, hundreds of hard working students across the UK are stripped of their opportunity to graduate. Why? Because of petty fines accumulated for overdue books, poor behaviour and drunkenness amongst other things.

After four years of slogging away at your degree – countless all-nighters to get your assignments in, caffeine boosts to get you through the dreaded dissertation and all – students are told that the £5 they owe for a late book has cost them their degree certificate. Students are forced to wait for the winter graduation ceremony, by which time it is far too late to apply for many graduate training programmes.

This appalling practice is commonplace in over 160 universities in the UK, and the Office of Fair Trading wrote to them earlier this year warning that withholding graduation for unpaid fines could constitute a breach of consumer law. While it is understandable that students should have to pay any outstanding charges to the university, withholding graduation is an extreme measure which is wholly out of proportion.

The NUS’ vice president for welfare Colum McGuire highlighted the paradoxical nature of the measure: postponing graduation hinders students’ ability to repay fines because they might struggle to get a job. Considering that some people with degrees struggle to get a job already, the policy makes very little sense. This late entrance into the professional world can have significant damaging effects on a student’s future job prospects too, and could ultimately cause somebody to have to settle for underemployment.

The University of Sheffield has been the first to remedy their system, abolishing fines for unpaid library books altogether in favour of automatic renewal unless requested by another student. Rather than fines, the only punishment would be that students will be prevented from borrowing further books until their overdue one it returned. Not only does this just make more sense, but it also eliminates the constant fear of attracting a fine and the feeling of being treated as a criminal which comes with it. In a pragmatic sense, it also reduces the workload of university staff who are tasked with having to recuperate and coordinate the fines. Hopefully Sheffield’s action will set a precedent for the rest of the UK.

Do we even need fines? According to the Herald, students coughed up more than £1.5 million to Glasgow’s five main universities alone last year. Add to that the fact that some 600 students have been unable to graduate due to university debts, 214 from the University of West Scotland alone, and we have a serious problem.

Some universities use the money to finance initiatives such as hardship funds, while Downing College, Cambridge has openly admitted that the money has gone towards staff outings in the past, which is a farcical misuse of students’ money. Here at Glasgow, the university made a staggering £90,000 between September 2011 and December 2012, of which a measly 3.8% went towards replacing missing books. The library charges 50 pence per hour for overdue short loan books, and an astonishing £175 for the replacement of a lost inter-library loan book.

It is worthwhile noting that students with a debt to the university of £25 or more are not eligible for graduation. These universities have charitable status and reputations of excellence and of being student-driven, and so it is ridiculous that these measures exist which prevent students from completing their course.

It seems paradoxical that while you are filling out your UCAS application, universities are grappling for your attention with incessant emails and adverts, and then they become totally unhelpful and anti-student when it comes to the trivial issue of a slightly late book.

While it is understandable that universities want to impose preventative measures to stop books going missing or poor conduct around the campus, there are other ways to solve the problem.  It would be a much better approach if all universities adopted Sheffield’s method of simply preventing further books from being borrowed.

That way, students still have an incentive to return books but are not faced with excessive fines or the threat of delayed graduation which has damaging and widespread implications on their career. It also makes for a much less hostile environment; students are not treated as suspects who have an incapability of sticking to due dates, but as hard-working individuals who deserve some leeway.

[Ambreen Rasool]

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