17 August, 2009
Graduating from university is traditionally a time for celebrations and beginning a new career after many years of hard work. For one student however, the summer of 2009 has been more concerned with taking legal action against her university for withholding her degree because of alleged rent arrears.
Maria Lavelle completed a performing arts degree at the University of Winchester and achieved a 2:1 pass. The university has told the student that she must pay back £3,540 in rent which it claims she owes for her university lodgings before she can receive her degree award. Ms Lavelle has argued that she moved out of this accommodation after only three weeks because it was unsuitable for her as a mature student in her final year of study to be living in the same building as 'freshers', as it would be too noisy.
Ms Lavelle has also said that when she found out that her neighbours were first year students, she wrote to the university and gave them notice that she intended to quit living in the lodgings and move into a flat in the centre of Winchester.
Because she has not officially graduated, Ms Lavelle is said to have been unable to find employment and she denies that she owes the university any money. Consequently she has now brought legal action against the University of Winchester in addition to the argument that the university has no right to withhold the degree as she has fulfilled all her educational obligations to it by paying all the tuition fees, completing all coursework and assignments and attending all the lectures.
The National Union of Students has called this a 'significant' test case and raises the issue of the contract between institution and student for the provision of a full programme of education and what is to be expected by parties subject to it. Ms Lavelle's legal representatives have said that both parties have performed their obligations under the contract and as such, Ms Lavelle is entitled to her degree.
The University of Winchester has countered this argument by saying that under its regulations, students are ineligible for the award of a degree unless all fees for tuition, housing and any other sums, including fines, have been paid in full. They have said that the rental contract agreed with Ms Lavelle was for the full academic year and that because they have not received the total amount for this period, they have the right to withhold the degree until it is received.
The case, which is expected to be heard in the High Court in autumn 2009, may be seen as an important gauge of what powers are held by universities and how they can use them to recoup money.
In 2003, the Office of Fair Trading ruled against Kingston University for withholding a degree from a student who owed money, on the grounds that it was 'unfair' to combine the roles of a supplier of educational programmes and a commercial landlord. However, this ruling has only applied to one case.
Issues such as these will be of a real concern to students who are graduating during a recession. These are fears that in a contracting jobs market, having a degree withheld will prevent a student embarking on their chosen career path. Those who could be affected by this case may wish to monitor its progression in the coming months.