University of Law accused of “despicable” debt collecting by aggrieved father
10 September 2013 | By Becky Waller-Davies
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The University of Law has been accused of “frightening” students by aggressively chasing debts incurred by people who have never set foot inside the institution.
Philip Northcott, whose son Michael, a graduate of Royal Holloway University and now a journalist, enrolled on a graduate diploma in law (GDL) course in April 2010, claims that the university “frightened” his son by chasing debts of £4,500 in a “despicable” manner after he tried to cancel his place on the September 2010 GDL three working days after the set cancellation date of 31 July 2010.
Northcott, managing director of Essex-based publishers Mulberry Publications, whose daughter is beginning her GDL at the university this month, said: “I think it’s a bad way for an educational institution to act. My son signed up for the GDL in April 2010. He then decided law was not for him, as so many young people do, and tried to cancel three working days after their cancellation deadline.
“They pursued him for the money in October, November and December 2010. I represented him as a lay solicitor, if you will, told them to get lost, and and they stayed away for two years. And now the debt collector has come around again in August 2013, in a fishing exercise and so they are pursuing him again for £4,500.”
Midlands firm Nelsons has been employed by the university to chase the £4,500 that it claimed is outstanding. The money represents the first instalment of the GDL and the university reasoned that it has incurred costs from employing tutors and procuring classrooms and course materials in advance on the course start.
Northcott explained that his son emailed the University of Law, then College of Law, on 5 August 2010, attempting to cancel his place. The university replied, saying that he was was liable for the first instalment of the GDL. He responded, saying that he simply did not have the funds to pay the instalment.
The finance department of the university emailed Michael Northcott on 11 August saying: “As per the terms and conditions that you agreed to when you accepted your course please for the GDL full time course, any cancellation after the 31 July 2010 but on or before the 5 December 2010 will incur 1st instalment of fee liability. No exceptions can be made.”
The university then sent another email to Michael Northcott on 29 September 2010, telling him that he had no registered for his class and alerting him to the fact that his cancellation request had not been processed.
Philip Northcott said: “They did not even have the administration procedure to deal with the cancellation. They did not process it properly. They could not have done anything to mitigate their losses; they had not even followed a basic administration procedure to cancel his place. I do not believe they have incurred anything. They would have to quantify those losses. They have not suffered that loss (£4,500) because of him cancelling three days after the deadline.”
He added: “If they are going around doing this they are making money out of kids by frightening them. They must get a lot of kids who try to cancel after the deadline. Law is not for everybody and a lot of them are scratching around for something to do after university. I wonder how many kids they pursue like this, and how much money they make out of doing this.”
The University of Law said it rejected Northcott’s claim that he had tried to cancel his place on the GDL.
Board member for business development Sarah Hutchinson said: “I am not at liberty to discuss an individual case. I refute that he attempted to cancel [before the fee liability deadline]. I can only really comment upon two things.
“First of all, our debt recovery action has not changed; there is no change in policy or practice. The student is not being singled out. Our standard practices and procedures are clearly flagged up to students at the time that they accept the place.
“They are on the website, they are on our terms and conditions and we make it absolutely crystal clear that the final date for cancellation is 31 July immediately proceeding the course. After that point, our resources are committed. Our tutors, classrooms and materials are not recoverable beyond that point. We always remit the second instalment; we are not charging the full fee.”
She added: “I would also point to normal practice - if you cancelled your holiday within six weeks of the due departure date you get charged for the full holiday and the holiday companies do not remit 50 per cent of the fee.”
Philip Northcott accused the institution of being on “questionable” legal ground, saying that its terms and conditions did not amount to a contract.
He said: “For a contract to exist in law, both parties have to be cognisant of that fact. I don’t believe that when a 21-year-old ticks a terms and conditions box they are really cognisant of what they are entering into. And they know that – they’re the bloody College of Law.
“But still they are pursuing aggressively; even though they know that their legal standpoint is questionable. To my mind the contract is unfair. It is based on a tick-box on an internet site. I find their behaviour despicable.”
He added: “It worries me; if my son did not have my support he could be agreeing instalments with them. And how many kids do that after dropping out of the College of Law? Loads I should think and I reckon they are stinging them all the time.”
Hutchinson responded: “We are training lawyers - we flag up terms and conditions - and it is a genuine cost to us when a student cancels late.”
Northcott said that he would agree with the university’s assertion that it incurred costs if it did “not market the courses right up until they start.”
He continued: “They don’t know their final number of places (in advance). I do not believe they have incurred anything. They would have to quantify those losses. They have not suffered that loss (£4,500) because of him cancelling three days after the deadline.”
The conduct of private versus public educational institutions was also called into question.
Northcott stated that he doubted a traditional university would be so aggressive and said: “To behave like that towards young people who are embarking on education is wrong. My point would be if you are going to be a private education provider, with that comes certain responsibilities and you should observe certain codes of behaviour.
“If you are a private hospital, you can’t behave like a ruthless private enterprise. If they really are purporting themselves as some kind of education institution then they really need to behave a bit more responsibly. “
Public universities usually observe a protocol of undergraduate students attending a number of lessons and submitting pieces of coursework before chasing students for unpaid tuiton fees.
Hutchinson emphasised the difference between private and public institutions. She said: “Public universities are subsidised very heavily by public funds. You need to check the standard practice for LPC providers. BPP’s cut off date is the same as ours. It is industry standard - 31 July. We are not in anything like the same position as the (public) universities. It is a totally different industry.”