Written by: Ada Carpenter, Senior Editor and Abigail Keyla, Staff Writer

  • Around 900 students were blocked from University IT services including Canvas and Sussex Direct after being told they had to pay outstanding fees or be withdrawn from the University
  • For international students, this also threatened their student visa status and therefore right to remain in the UK.

Students have been “threatened” with having their student status revoked due to finance system errors made by the University. According to the Students’ Union (SU), just under 900 students, including many international students, received emails from the University’s Finance Team informing them that they must pay their outstanding fees in their student account, and that failure to pay their fees within a 14 day period would result in their suspension from the University. During this time, the Finance Team remained unresponsive to students, causing panic and confusion for those affected.

For international students, the threat of withdrawal also implied that they would be removed from the UK, as the University would report their withdrawn status to the Home Office, resulting in the loss of student visas.

This issue affected both undergraduate and postgraduate taught and research students, with the same ‘reminder letter’ sent to everyone with debt in their student accounts, whether this was outstanding tuition fees or late rent payments. 

During this time, students were blocked without warning from the University’s IT and library services, including Canvas, Sussex Direct, and Outlook among other digital services. This means that students were not able to access lecture recordings, readings, study notes, or their timetables, affecting both their learning and teaching. This resulted in some affected postgraduate teaching students unable to effectively deliver seminars.

The University has since reinstated access to digital learning facilities for affected students, and has been picking up individual cases to come up with a personal payment plan for those with outstanding debt. Notably, there has been no acknowledgement of the impacts this issue had on teaching, learning or to the mental health of those affected.

A group of students and staff have worked with the SU to write an open letter to the University Executive Team detailing concerns about how the matter has been handled, including the “disrespectful, unkind and hostile” language used in the correspondence, the lack of ongoing communication, and the “unacceptably hostile” treatment of students who feel they have been treated as “merely financial assets.”

A University spokesperson told The Badger, “The University has seen an unprecedented level of late or unpaid payment of tuition fees this year and have subsequently been in contact with a number of students about outstanding fees. Those impacted have been sent several letters, and we are communicating a clear deadline for all outstanding fees to be paid. Our teams are being as flexible as they can to support, and jointly agree, the right course of action for students. We will continue to work with those affected on a case-by-case basis.” 

However, the damage has already been done. An anonymous affected student told The Badger that by the time the Finance Team got back to students, they were already “late for everything” and “behind on all [their] modules.” At this point, the student was not allowed to submit their late assignments, leading them to have to resit their assessments in the summer.

“I now have to resit in August, and that brings a lot of different stuff into [consideration], like tickets to be here first of all. My tenancy is not going to [last until then,] so I have to pay a bunch of money to come here and resit, when it’s not even my fault,” the student says.

Many affected students said that they have tried reaching out to the Student Finance team to pay their fees or to reinstate their access. However, the “understaffed” finance team proved unresponsive during the crucial 14 day payment period, causing significant panic amongst the student community especially for vulnerable groups, those from low-income backgrounds, students of colour, and international students in particular.

The issue has also had a significant impact on student wellbeing. The anonymous student shared that they have a history of mental health issues, which the University is aware of, and that this problem has exacerbated their symptoms. 

“Anxiety is very much taking an active place in how I am mentally. It’s just awful. The stress makes me experience symptoms of depression at times, as anyone with mental health [issues], stress is not a good factor playing into that… There are times that I cry because I’m behind everything, and it’s not my fault. And it’s second year, so it does count for my grades… but because I do [care, it means a lot],” the student recalls.

The open letter addressed to the University Executive Team makes immediate demands for public recognition of the mishandling of this issue as well as an apology to those affected. It calls for the University to maintain open communication, provide a channel for complaints and compensation, and begin an investigation into what went wrong. Longer term, it also suggests the revision of the wording of the ‘reminder letter’, properly resourcing and staffing the Finance Team, and enabling flexible payments without direct involvement from staff members. The deadline to sign this letter is Friday 19 April.

The SU International Students’ Officer, Riko Kunisue, several other full-time officers and University staff have met up with University executives to discuss this issue. Overall, they report that the University has been very “defensive” about the issue, and has not admitted any wrongdoing. They claim that since students have not been paying, the University is taking a punitive approach.

“What the University should be doing is apologising to students [as] it’s been impacting students mental health,” Riko commented. “It wasn’t the student’s fault, and they weren’t even able to reach out to the Finance Team during that time.”

The anonymous student argues that “the common element between all of these cases is [the] element of miscommunication.”

“I think it would be nice if we had a conversation because everyone could tell [the Finance Team] what the reason is behind non-payment, because some people were maybe late, or maybe their tuition loan didn’t kick in at the right time, maybe it wasn’t even their fault, like in my case. But it would be nice to have a conversation, rather than just [be] automatically blocked,” the anonymous student lamented.

The University spokesperson made it clear that “Students expecting to graduate in July 2024 or January 2025 will need to settle tuition fee debt before progressing to graduation. Other students will not be able to re-register with outstanding tuition fee debt.

If you have been affected by this issue, please contact the University’s Finance Team at creditcontrol@sussex.ac.uk or at 01273 678076 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. and 2 – 4 p.m. if you have not yet done so. If you have already been in touch, you should expect to hear back soon as they work through the backlog of cases. You can also reach out to the Students’ Union advice team for further support. 

If you have trouble with your living costs, you may be eligible for the University’s Hardship Fund. Applications are open all year long – check out the Student Hub for more information.

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