A SCOTTISH university has been accused of acting unlawfully in its treatment of students who incur debts.

Student representatives said Glasgow University may be in breach of consumer protection laws because it was applying academic sanctions to students who owed debts such as rent arrears.

The Students' Representative Council (SRC) said its advice centre had assisted more than 20 students in the last three years who had found themselves barred from registering for the following academic year until their balance owed to the university had been cleared.

Kate Powell, the SRC's vice-president for education, said that in some cases the finance department had ignored circumstances such as family bereavements, serious illnesses and loss of parental employment to collect "what are often very minor debts".

And she said the consequences for students were often out of proportion to the level of debt with some not being allowed to graduate and others having to give up their studies until they were in a position to clear off their debts.

She said: "We believe the university is currently penalising students unlawfully by applying disproportionate and unfair sanctions irrespective of any mitigating circumstances the student may have experienced."

Ms Powell said the law was "clear" and that, rather than delaying a decision until after the current registration period was over, the university should act immediately.

She added: "While discussions and negotiations with the university continue students are being unlawfully punished and denied access to education.”

However, a university spokeswoman said the care and wellbeing of students was its number one priority.

She said: "We look at every individual’s circumstances on a case by case basis aiming to assist and support them whenever possible to continue with their studies.

"The university is sensitive to the additional stresses placed on students around exams, for example, and our procedures are designed to be as compassionate as possible."

She said officials were in regular communication with the SRC and were open to further discussions on the issue.

In 2014 a report by the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) confirmed that any institution applying academic sanctions for what is known as non-academic debt was in breach of consumer protection legislation.

The report states: "We have found that a significant majority of UK universities... include provision... to use academic sanctions that have a direct impact on a student's academic progress or attainment when they owe any monies to the university, including charges for services such as accommodation and childcare.

"We consider that universities may be able to reduce the risk of legal challenge by reviewing their terms and conditions and practices and amending them, if necessary, to ensure terms and practices considered by the OFT to be potentially unfair are not being used."

In November last year University College London announced it was to revise its processes to ensure students would not be subject to academic sanctions because of non-academic fee debts after discussions with the Competition and Markets Authority, which replaced the OFT.