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I study in the UK. I just received an email from the academic registrar of my university regarding my forthcoming graduation ceremony.

Contained within the email was this disclaimer:

Please ensure that you have paid any outstanding study related fees and charges to the University no later than 16:00 (BST) Thursday 16 June 2016 (this includes library fines). If you do not do this, I regret that you will cease to be eligible to graduate this summer.

I have an outstanding library fine of £0.15 which of course I intend to pay but it seems far fetched to me that an academic institution would withhold a degree costing at anywhere between £21,000 to £100,000 due to an outstanding payment of up to £10 (the fine limit after which you cannot withdraw any more books). As I understand it, this stipulation is not confined to my university.

Could I be prevented from graduating due to a trivial fine? Has this kind of rule ever been enforced by a university? Is it legal?

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    I believe I read a story (and, knowing the country, I tend to believe it) where the German revenue sent a payment demand for 0.00 EUR. The person did not pay, and the whole thing escalated, until the person actually carried out a bank transfer over the amount of 0.00 EUR (penalties due to to the delay caused by the dispute had been waived); for some reason, they could not waive the payment process itself. I tend to believe it. Consider this a button to be pressed to be admitted. Making exceptions (even if each individual one requires only common sense) is more expensive than strict adherence. – Captain Emacs May 16 '16 at 12:26
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    It's definitely legal because it's standard UK practice. Of course it's intended for cases of unpaid tuition fees rather than trivial fines but the process may be sufficiently automated that you'll be blocked before any application of human judgement. – TheMathemagician May 16 '16 at 12:32
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    Why would you think this could be illegal? I don't know much about UK law, so perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't think there's any legal principle that says if you've paid 99.999% of what you owe, then nobody can make you pay the remaining 0.001%. – Anonymous Mathematician May 16 '16 at 12:33
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    In my EU country, before being eligible for graduation you should first go the university library and get a paper that confirms you do not owe any books or fines. Without this paper you cannot graduate. So what you are suggesting is common. – Alexandros May 16 '16 at 13:45
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    Note that even with the restriction on new borrowings, you might well end up with significantly more than £10 in library fines. Consider what might happen if you irrecoverably damage or lose one or more books, and then note that many books in a typical university library cost £100s per copy (or even more in some cases) and you could have borrowed several such books at the same time, and you can see how you could wind up with quite a substantial bill... – Jules May 16 '16 at 15:47
38

This is called an administrative encumbrance, it is indeed very standard.

The general notion is that if you owe the university money, then the administration will deny you things. These things may include: unit results, the ability to graduate, exam timetables, or the ability to enrol in new units. In what was certainly a bug, students at my wife's university were even denied access to the payment webpage while under-encumbrance -- which did not help them get paid.

There are often many ways to get encumbered, depending on the university and country. As well as library fines, there are often things like amenities fees, student union fees, parking fines, tuition costs.

Is it legal? Probably. You almost certainly agree to something along the lines of "I will suffer the effects of being encumbered if I fail to pay any fees or fines, and may not be allowed to graduate", as part of your enrolment or financing paperwork/online form tickbox. Is it a legally binding contract, though? Who knows, we will probably never find out as the cost of a lawyer to take it to court and actually prove it through contest is far more than the cost of just paying it. I would bet it is legal, as universities tend to have teams of lawyers on retainer.

Now the real question is will a <£10 fine actually make you encumbered?

That is a question to look to your university rules for. I suggest that it probably won't. That there is a clause saying that encumbered will only be enforced in cases where the debt is >£X.

My own experience with this was that in my last semester of undergrad, I accidentally had a 3 hour loan book out for several extra hours. I got a $9 fine.

So I went to the administration to pay it off. And I found out that I couldn't. They only do EFTPOS/Credit card transactions of at least $15, and they do not accept payment via cash. (These two rules came in separately several years apart and I'm not sure anyone noticed that they clash). But I also found out that encumbrance at my university doesn't occur until you have $24 or more owed.

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    In the US, university parking fines are another common one. – StrongBad May 16 '16 at 14:33
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    The thing the (German) universities I know will deny is not the graduation. They deny to hand over the certificate that you did graduate (i.e. the date of graduation is not affected). – cbeleites May 16 '16 at 16:38
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    @StrongBad -- my former university refused to hand over my severance papers upon leaving the university until I paid outstanding parking fees my girlfriend had accrued before we had even met. They linked them to me because I had added her name to my parking permit. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 16 '16 at 19:19
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    @WolfgangBangerth Sounds like you need stronger background checks in your girlfriend admissions. – Kimball May 16 '16 at 21:43
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    @Kimball -- she's got immunity now as my wife of 10+ years ;-) – Wolfgang Bangerth May 17 '16 at 4:12
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Yes, they can do it and yes, they do actually do it.

If you look at the rules for your university it probably states something similar to this from the University of Leicester:

3.42 A student may be required to pay for certain services or facilities, including compulsory study elements of optional modules, optional residential activities, printing from computers in the open-access computer laboratories, and photocopying. Details are provided at the point of service or in departmental literature as appropriate.

3.43 No degree, diploma or certificate will be awarded to a student who has an unpaid fee, fine, or charge which is associated with the delivery of academic (rather than commercial) services. The University will not certify academic credit or previous awards for a student who has any such unpaid fee, fine, or charge. A student may make a subject access request under the Data Protection Act 1998 for data relating to his/her academic studies; such requests will be met but the data will not be presented in a certified form.

and you formally agreed to follow the rules as part of your registration. However, in 2014 the Office of Fair Trading warned universities that this may be illegal so it's not clear whether they're on legally solid ground if they do so.

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    Yup, worth noting also that you don't pay for a degree, you pay for tuition (ie lectures, seminars, learning resources, exams). University isn't about buying a degree, it's about buying an education. – Jon Story May 17 '16 at 14:37

protected by eykanal May 17 '16 at 15:55

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