By Naina Bhardway, News Editor (@NainaBhardwaj96)

Scotland’s universities are punishing students who owe them money by withholding degrees and refusing to re-enrol them until debts are paid, despite official warnings that their actions may be illegal.

Over the past five years, Glasgow University has refused to award a qualification to at least 50 students on the grounds that they have debts, which includes everything from library fines to a compulsory fee to join its General Council.

However the real number of withheld awards is likely to be considerably higher as the total does not include those penalised for having accommodation fee debts.

Glasgow abandoned its hardline policy in December after an intervention from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which expressed concern over fairness after it emerged that academic sanctions were being imposed on students who owed as little as £25.

However, the university, which charges £9,250 per year in fees for those from the rest of the UK and receives millions in taxpayers’ cash from the Scottish government, is refusing to issue the degrees it has already withheld from students, despite them achieving all academic requirements for an award after years of study saying that “this will not be applied retrospectively as we do not consider that our past policy breached consumer law”.

Dundee University said it had a system that automatically bans students from matriculating if they owe cash, while St Andrews operates a similar policy.

In response to Freedom of Information requests, Strathclyde University also admitted to withholding a small number of degrees last year because of unpaid debt, and Stirling University said that there were “historical instances” of the practice.

Meanwhile, some universities also ban students from re-enrolling at the start of each academic year, potentially leaving them unable to attend classes, unless debts are cleared.

Vonnie Sandlan, President of NUS Scotland, said: “Students can find themselves in debt for a range of reasons beyond their control. Allowing this to limit a student’s progress, or even stop them graduating, is completely unacceptable.”

In 2014, after an Office of Fair Trading investigation, universities including Abertay and Glasgow Caledonian abandoned policies that prevented students re-enrolling if they owed money. The OFT called on universities to “refrain from using potentially unfair and/or unreasonable terms and practices”.

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