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Irish grads sting UK for college fees

Irish students who studied in the UK and who have failed to repay more than €4.3m in student loans are to be tracked down by private investigators hired by the British government, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Authorities have confirmed that Irish students who fail to pay face being brought to court in order to "honour their debts".

Official figures contained in documents released to the Sunday Independent by UK authorities under Freedom of Information rules reveal that students from European countries including Ireland and Greece, which are worst hit by recession, owe £52m (€61m) to the British exchequer.

The UK Student Loans Company (SLC) has been forced to take dramatic measures to claw back its money because the EU students have gone home and stopped repaying their tuition-fee loans.

According to the documents released, many more who are responsible for loans totalling €45m, have not revealed crucial information about where they are living, whether they are working, or how much they are earning.

The documents show that, in total, Irish students are in receipt of €10m in loans from the SLC, but of that almost half is now "in arrears".

Labour MP Frank Field said he would urge the UK's National Audit Office to investigate the system of keeping tabs on EU students. "This situation has turned the loans into a grants system for many EU students," he said.

Andrew Percy, a Tory MP, said: "With British students paying more in tuition than ever before, many people will not understand how it is possible that foreign students from the EU are able to turn up to the UK, run up taxpayer-backed debts and then leave.

"Many of these students will never contribute a penny in income tax to the UK and will be incredibly expensive to track down."

The SLC, a public-sector agency, confirmed to the Sunday Independent that it had appointed a tracing agency to locate EU graduates and claw back their debts.

"Customers with student loans who move abroad must inform the SLC. If they do not, we trace borrowers using international trace agents and can charge additional penalties which can be added to their loan balance and commence legal action to recover the full balance.

"We are currently in the process of reviewing accounts of both UK and EU borrowers who are known to reside overseas and are in arrears, with a view to issuing further legal proceedings against those who do not respond to us."

The SLC was set up in 1989 to provide loans and grants to students at UK universities and colleges.

It has paid out more than €138m to EU students in five years after it was obliged to offer them financial support following the introduction of tuition fees in the UK during 2006-07.

Irish Independent