Public interest cases

Financial issues - June 2016

 

Consistency in applying regulations

Bournemouth University

A student at Bournemouth University complained to the OIA about the fees charged for a period of attendance on a course from which she withdrew part way through. The University charged 25% of the full year’s course fee following the student’s withdrawal after five weeks.

The student had withdrawn for financial reasons. She requested that her fees be waived in recognition of her circumstances. The University explained to her that the fees charged were clearly set out in its fees policy, and that exceptions could be made only where there were “severe mitigating circumstances”, such as “serious health issues or bereavement.” It said that the student’s financial difficulties did not amount to severe mitigating circumstances.

The OIA decided that it was reasonable for the University to conclude that the student’s circumstances did not warrant special consideration, and that the complaint was Not Justified.

 

Refund of fees

De Montfort University

An international postgraduate student at De Montfort University had her Tier 4 visa refused by the Home Office. She appealed that decision and, in the meantime, was permitted to enrol at the University. She was automatically re-enrolled the following year, while her appeal was still pending.

The Court of Appeal rejected her appeal but by that time she had paid two years’ fees. The University declined to refund her fees. She complained to the University and the University dismissed her complaint.

The OIA decided the complaint was Justified because it was not reasonable for the University to have dismissed her complaint without referring it to a full University Complaints Committee. The University had told the student that she was enrolling “at her own risk” but did not fully explain what that meant. There was no evidence that the University had highlighted the financial risk or provided explicit advice to the student on the specific impact upon her should her visa be refused at any point during her studies. The University had a different policy for enrolled students and for applicants, and this was not made clear to the student. The overall refund policy did not mention students whose visa applications were rejected post enrolment.  .

We recommended that the University refer the complaint for further consideration and amend its procedures.

 

Relationship to outside bodies

Open University

A student complained to the OIA after the Open University rejected her complaints that its actions had excluded her from accessing specific financial support.

The student was eligible to apply for a stipend from an external organisation that offered funding to study at approved institutions. The University was not listed as an approved institution and the student asked if it would seek to register so that she could access funding.  Following discussions with the external organisation the University advised the student that it was unable to pursue registration as the requirements were onerous and in some cases contravened Data Protection legislation.

The OIA found the University to have acted reasonably. In our view it was within the University’s discretion to decide whether to apply to be recognised by another body.

We decided the complaint was Not Justified

 

Access to funds

Queen Mary University London

A student complained to the OIA about a decision taken by Queen Mary University of London on his application to the Financial Assistance Fund, which operates under national Assisted Learning Fund (ALF) guidance. The University had upheld his appeal, and recalculated the student’s allocation from the fund, but he remained dissatisfied.

Part of the student’s complaint related to the inclusion of salary sacrifice childcare vouchers in the University’s calculation of his income. The student had not declared the value of the vouchers or deducted the amount from the childcare costs he included on his application form. He argued that as the fund guidance and application form did not make any reference to childcare vouchers they should be excluded.

The ALF guidance is clear that institutions have discretion to make decisions based on local circumstances. It also provides for calculations to take account of actual childcare costs and in kind benefits, including salary sacrifice scheme Childcare Vouchers. We considered it reasonable for the University to take into account the value of the vouchers.

We decided the case was Not Justified.

 

Withdrawal of transitional fee support

Open University

A student complained to the OIA after the Open University rejected his appeal against withdrawal of transitional fee support due to lack of academic progress. He contended that he had been misinformed about his eligibility for funding and in particular the requirement to study during each academic year.

The University’s Fee Rules were specific that students must study a module or modules linked to their transitional qualification ‘in each academic year’ unless there were exceptional circumstances as outlined in its policy. It expects students to familiarise themselves with its procedures. The OIA considers this reasonable.

The student had not studied during the whole of one year. He claimed for an exception based on two criteria: maladministration by the University and unforeseen circumstances of a serious nature. He did not provide evidence to support either claim.

We decided the case was Not Justified.

 

Importance of clear communications

Kingston University

A student at Kingston University complained to the OIA about his fee liability during a suspension from his study due to mitigating circumstances.

The OIA decided the complaint was Partly Justified on narrow grounds relating to the communication to the student of his fee liability. While the University’s regulations set out fee liability it accepted that specific written advice to the student, that he might suspend his studies “without academic or financial penalty”, was ambiguous. The University apologised to the student and offered to reduce his liability by 50 per cent as a goodwill gesture in the light of the distress and inconvenience caused.

The OIA saw no evidence that the University had informed the student of his fees position on his return or during the period of his suspension. While it would have been open to the student to seek clarification we considered that the University had a responsibility to explain the position to him and that its failure to do so made it difficult for the student to plan for his return.

We recommended that the University repeat its offer to reduce his liability by 50 per cent and recommended an additional payment for distress and inconvenience.

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University of York

A PhD student at the University of York complained to the OIA about the University’s decision to charge him a continuation fee for the writing up period of his PhD.

The student had been awarded a 3.5 year studentship funded by the relevant Research Councils. He was informed by the University that this would cover “full UK fees” and provide an annual stipend in financial support.

At the start of his fourth year the University invoiced the student for a continuation fee. The student stated that this was unexpected as he had understood from his offer letter that his studentship covered his fees.

The OIA reviewed the offer letter and the information it directed the student to on the University website. We did not consider that the information made it clear that the student would be liable for fees at the end of the standard three year registration period for a PhD.

The OIA found the complaint Justified. We recommended a refund of the fee and an additional payment for distress and inconvenience. We also recommended that the University review and amend the information provided to students about their liability for a continuation fee where the studentship they receive is longer than the standard length of PhD registration.

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Sheffield Hallam University

A student at Sheffield Hallam University complained to the OIA that the University rejected his complaint about the impact of a change of status from part time to full time.

The change was made by the University following a conversation with the student regarding his intentions.  It was not clear that the student had been fully informed of the implications of making the change or given his written consent. The University accepted in its consideration of his complaint that the student had financial issues arising from the change in his mode of study. It offered a reduction in fees.

The OIA considered that this did not go far enough in recognising the distress and inconvenience caused. We additionally upheld the student’s complaint that the change had altered his choice of modules. We found the University’s decision on other aspects of the complaint reasonable.

We decided the complaint was Partly Justified and recommended financial compensation to cover a rebate of the difference between the part time and full time fees, and for distress and inconvenience.

 

Withdrawal of discount

University of Wolverhampton

A student at the University of Wolverhampton was eligible for a tuition fee loyalty discount for alumni who returned to the University for further study. He complained to the OIA about the University’s decision to withdraw his discount because of late payment of his fees. He contended that the decision was unfair because he had not been made aware of the terms and conditions of the discount or of the deadline for paying fees.

The University sent us the terms and conditions document that had been sent to all returning students at the start of the academic year and that was available on the website. This set out the date that each instalment was due and made it clear that the discount was subject to prompt payment. It also provided evidence that the student had been sent reminders throughout the year.

Universities have a duty to apply their policies fairly across the student body. The University could demonstrate that it had provided the relevant information to the student. The OIA decided that the withdrawal of the discount was reasonable and that the complaint was Not Justified.