Saturday, 14 March 2009

£360,000: Fine for some. University library pockets record sum in fees

Leeds University libraries took £360,000 in fines in the last academic year, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.

The total is up £60,000 from the £295,000 charged in 2006/07 – a rise of more than 20% in one year.

The charges levied in 06/07 themselves represented a significant increase, up £25,000 from the year before.

In all, the University has amassed £925,919 in library fines over the last three academic years.

The figures reveal that the average undergraduate pays around £9.30 in library fines for every year of their degree, totalling £28 for the last three.

Exeter student paper, Exepose, reported last year that the University of Manchester collected the highest amount in fines of those libraries that responded to their enquiries.

Manchester, the largest university in the country with over 39,000 students, charged £190,388 in 2006/07. The figures obtained by Leeds Student show that Leeds exceeded this total by over £100,000, even before the 20% increase that occurred last year.

The figures come as part of a response to a Freedom of Information Act request sent to the University by Leeds Student earlier this year.

Public authorities are legally required to respond to requests submitted under the act, and subject to a number of conditions they must supply the information within 20 working days.

The response from the library came after 21 days, one day over the legal maximum.

The University has moved to justify the record sum collected.

“The significant rise in fines charges between 06/07 and 07/08 was because the overall fines threshold was raised from £10 to £30,” Janet R Jurica, Senior Assistant Registrar at the University explained. “Whilst before students had to clear their fines at £10 they can now accrue higher fines before their accounts are suspended.”

Margaret Coutts, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said the decision was student-led. “The threshold was originally introduced in consultation with students to prevent their borrowing being blocked too rapidly when using our self-service lending facilities in the evening,” she said.

However, Katie McDougall, second year Theology and Religious studies student, thinks the change was for the worse. “I don’t think the threshold increase was a good thing,” said Katie. “It means people will keep books out for longer meaning others can’t because I don’t think fines deter people that much.”

To many students, however, the fines represent a hidden charge for using what are regarded as essential facilities.

Penny Walker, in her third year of studying English, said: “I’m shocked at the figures. It just seems so much money.” Penny thinks that incurring fines is ultimately inevitable. “If you’re using the library regularly it is unavoidable to rack up charges, she said. “I took out a primary text at the start of the year to use for my assessed essay and renewed it each time I was required to. But a week before deadline someone put it on hold and I was unable to renew it again.

“I desperately needed it for the essay so had to keep it and incur the charges. I was also blocked from taking out any other books.”


Aled John, another third year English student, reckons the large total is slightly misleading. “The grand total, in its accumulated form, sounds horrific,” he said. “It seems one ostensibly reminiscent of the sort of miserly and loveless revenue generation endorsed by councils all over the UK in the form of parking tickets we all have grown to despise.”

“Roughly speaking though, the current figure for the library fines works out at an average of 11 quid per head, deflating the shock of the hike in thousands that the statistics show.”

Aled says charges are necessary: “As long as the library’s punitive policy is relatively comparable to the costs of running such an institution, and at the same time feasibly repayable, I don’t think it is that problematic.”

Coutts explained the role of the fines. “The sole purpose of Library fines is to prevent individuals from keeping books for unreasonably long periods and so disadvantage others who need to use them,” she said. “We set the rates to make them a deterrent only, and not an opportunity to make money from our customers.”

Coutts added: “The money from fines goes into the Library’s general revenue account and is used to support collections and services for students.”

Universities such as Birmingham, Manchester and University College London adopt a similar approach when it comes to library fines, charging daily rates along the lines of those set by Leeds. Each institution levies around a 40p tariff for a seven day loan.

Ryan Mole, 4th year Physics student, suggested that the reason for Leeds’ huge lead over other universities might involve more than just the scale of the charges per day.

“As a physics student, I find that all the books I need are always in seven day loan, but there are always a dozen copies of each book and there is only ever one or two out on loan,” Ryan said.

“The higher charge per day for seven day loans, as well as the higher frequency with which they must be renewed, means I find it much easier to accrue large fines. The standard loan section for my subject seems to feature books that have very little to do with the modules taught, and they definitely aren’t on reading lists.”

Course matters

Rachel Garrard, a final year Accounting and Business student, thinks students doing courses dependent on loaning literature are more at risk:

“People that do subjects where you tend to take out a lot of books are penalised more. I’ve only taken out out three books all year, whereas friends doing Arts degrees have taken out doz­ens.”

Penny questioned why students received fines for books not on reserve: “Having to renew books that people haven’t asked for is irritating. Getting fined for not renewing them on time when no one else wants them seems unnecessary, especially if the fining system is only in place to act as a deterrent. You are clearly not being of inconvenience to anyone else.”

Aled saw the system as fair though: “My personal tracklist of fines has held rather steadily at around £27 for the last year or so. As long as there is no favouritism, and the rise in monetary retribution for slack students (like myself) gets injected back into the system and not the pockets of the ‘suits’, then more power to it.”

No fines at all

Other UK universities have adopted what many cash-strapped students might regard as much fairer approach to late returns. The University of Southampton doesn’t charge their users fines at all, instead suspending users’ borrowing privileges until late books are returned, and simply charging for the replacement cost of a new book if it is not returned within 56 days.

Coutts­ said that this year more students were returning books on time. “The drop in fines for this academic year is currently approximately 10%. Of course, we won’t know the final figure until the end of the year.”

She added: “The Library does carry out regular checks on the level of the fines charged, and this happened most recently in 2007.

“Currently, we are planning to introduce online fines payment next year. We believe that this will make it easier for students to settle their fines promptly, and not run up large sums which cause problems for paying back.”

Originally published in Leeds Student on March 13

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