I felt I was being held to ransom by my university - it wouldn't let me graduate

A Telegraph investigation has learned nearly 6,000 students suffering hardship due to the pandemic are being denied the chance to graduate

"Held to ransom": Ellis O'Callaghan couldn't graduate without raising £3,000
"Held to ransom": Ellis O'Callaghan couldn't graduate without raising £3,000

On the day of Ellis O’Callaghan’s final degree assessment Liverpool John Moores University blocked access to his account. In order to submit his work, O’Callaghan was told he had to pay the final tuition fee instalment first. 

“It felt like I was being held to ransom,” says O’Callaghan.”Give us £3,000 right now, or you're not getting your degree.”

O’Callaghan’s story is not unique. According to Freedom of Information requests undertaken by the Telegraph, at least 5,872 students due to graduate in 2020 had their degree certificates withheld due to tuition fee debt. Without official documentation, students cannot prove their award to potential employers.

Although the government loan scheme covers tuition fees for the majority of undergraduate students, those doing a second undergraduate or a postgraduate degree must partially fund their course. International students must cover their own costs, which are considerably higher than those for UK nationals.

The pandemic has left many in this situation without the means to fund their course. Youth unemployment in the UK has risen to 14.5 per cent, and more than a quarter of those on Universal Credit are aged between 16 and 24.

“In March,” says O’Callaghan, “I’d been working two part-time jobs, one in a theatre and another in a comic book shop, both on zero hours contracts.

“My furlough pay was based on the minimum number of shifts I’d done; for one of them that was only £100 a month.” 

As a master’s student, O’Callaghan still had five months left of his degree when lockdown was imposed. Unable to access essential equipment for his course, he asked the university for a fee reduction and told them about his financial difficulties. 

They refused his request but assured him that they would not impose sanctions if he could not pay; yet, they did exactly that on the final day of his course.

“No one even informed me why my access was blocked. I had to go back and forth with my lecturers who agreed to extend my final assessment deadline. I couldn’t get hold of anyone at the uni who could unblock my account.”

Tuition fee debt

O’Callaghan eventually received a letter explaining the sanction was due to tuition fee debt. The fees department claimed to have no knowledge of his prior communications with the complaints department.

“They said they’d reopen my account for one day to submit my work, but then blocked it again.”

O’Callaghan has officially finished his degree, but is unable to receive the certificate. He has since set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money he owes.

Universities have faced heavy criticism for their treatment of students during the pandemic, particularly in regard to online teaching provisions.

In response to a petition to reimburse students for 2019/20, a Government committee stated that paying students are “protected by consumer law, and are entitled to seek remedies or refunds if their university fails to provide the education they have paid for.” The campaign group, Refund Students, is crowdfunding in order to bring a Group Action on behalf of all students in the UK. 

“The university seems very quick to use the pandemic as an excuse for why they can’t deliver services,” says O’Callaghan. “But they seem reluctant to accept it as an excuse for students' problems.”

According to a recent survey by the National Union of Students, seven out of 10 students reported seeking financial help during lockdown.

“This pandemic has only underlined the inequalities that are inherent in our education system,” says Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS Vice President for Higher Education. “Students from already disadvantaged backgrounds have been hit the hardest.” 

Launched a GoFund Me: Liam Knights

Twenty-nine-year-old Liam Knights, who left school at 16 and received a hardship scholarship throughout his degree, was told by the University of Leeds that he would not receive his degree certificate until he paid his final tuition fee instalment.

“When Covid happened,” says Knights, “all my extra shifts [at the university library] were cancelled, so there was an immediate drop in income. 

“I couldn't apply for support from Universal credit because I was still classed as a full time student."

Facing eviction

Knights, who had previously spent five years homeless, faced eviction from his house when the final fee payment was due in May. “I approached the university and asked to delay the payment until I was back on my feet.”

The university refused, instead advising Knights to set up a monthly payment plan. “It would’ve taken me 21 years at £10 a month,” he says. “And I couldn’t even afford that.”

Withholding degree certificates from indebted students creates a Catch-22 situation, as those affected will struggle to get a job to pay off the debt without a degree. Competition is high: there are four times as many applicants for graduate roles than at the start of 2020.

One graduate who faces this predicament is Sagar Kar, a former international student at the University of Leeds. With support from his family, Kar had paid £20,250 per year for his bachelor’s degree in Journalism.

When his family began to experience financial difficulties during his final year, Kar missed the final fee payment. He expected to be able to pay a few months late.

Then, the pandemic hit India and the family business had to close. Kar’s father was hospitalised for two months with Covid. All of the family’s savings went on healthcare, and the business went bankrupt.

Unable to pay the £8,750 he owed, Kar finished his degree but his certificate was withheld.

“In India,” says Kar, “I can’t get a job with a decent wage without a degree certificate. My work permit in the UK was only valid while I was studying, so I can’t find work here.”

Faster repayment

He adds: “The university doesn't gain anything from withholding the certificate, apart from punishing me. If they let me have it I could get a job and repay them much more quickly.

“The situation is completely out of my hands. I’ve started losing hair due to the stress.”

Kar thought his situation was unique until he noticed a Facebook post about Knights’s situation. Knights had also been forced to set up a GoFundMe appeal, when the university got in touch with him again in November, giving him one day to pay his remaining balance.

A couple of days after sharing the campaign online, Knights was invited to discuss the situation with his department. They decided to waive his fees. 

The graduate believes the reaction to his posts on social media influenced the university’s decision. “Students were getting in touch with me saying they’d emailed the Vice Chancellor,” he says.

At some universities, the number of indebted students who have not received their degree certificates is staggeringly high; in the last academic year, there were 356 at De Montfort University, 307 at the University of Central Lancashire, and 268 at the University of Nottingham.

The institutions stress that a number of students have since paid off their debt and received their certificate. However, some were unable to provide the relevant data.

"For the university, it's all about money,” Knights says. “They can’t see the distress their actions cause."

Response

The Telegraph approached Liverpool John Moores University for comment but received no response.

A University of Leeds spokesperson said: “We are acutely aware of – and sympathetic to – the financial difficulties faced by students because of the coronavirus pandemic and are contributing up to £2m to the University hardship fund, open to all current students. We also work closely with students’ union colleagues, who offer students confidential financial advice.

“All students are expected to have made provision to pay their tuition fees before the start of each academic year. We always encourage them to get in touch promptly if they are experiencing difficulties and strive to arrive at solutions together. Last year fewer than 1 per cent of those due to graduate were prevented from doing so because of tuition debt; we continue to work with many of those, agreeing flexible repayment plans to resolve their situations.” 

In cases such as Kar’s, students should have completed any instalment payments for their tuition fees by February 2020, which was before the financial effects of the COVID-19 crisis were known. Because of other exceptional circumstances in Mr Knight’s case, the University covered his outstanding tuition fees.

More information for students at Leeds can be found here.