• Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Students are taking their universities to court: here’s what it could mean for you

ByIssy Clarke

Oct 26, 2023

It’s an experience that most students who were at university in 2020-22 would prefer to forget.

Closed campuses, online lectures, and imprisonment in halls of residence.  No sooner had the lecture theatres re-opened after the pandemic when it was announced that the UCU would be balloting its members for strike action.  This was to set the pattern for multiple waves of industrial action, including a marking boycott in the summer of 2023 which left thousands of students graduating without degrees.

All the while, universities have continued to charge students full tuition fees – which is over £9000 a year for English students, and as much as £40,000 for international students. In addition, many providers earned financial surpluses during the pandemic.  

Now, thousands of students are demanding financial compensation from their universities in recognition of the disruption caused to their studies.  The Student Group Claim (SGC), which represents more than 140,000 students at over 100 UK universities, argue that students were sold an experience which they did not end up receiving.  The group anticipate that UK and EU students could be entitled to up to £5000 in compensation – for international students it could be significantly more.

“Imagine that you bought a Rolls Royce and you’re given a Ford Fiesta, and you’ve still been asked to pay the same price,” explains Joshua Battat, Solicitor at Asserson, one of the firms bringing the students’ case.  “There’s been a clear breach of contract.

Students have not been given what they were contractually promised by their universities – in-person tuition and access to campus and university facilities for a fixed fee per annum.  In return they received an online degree via Zoom and little or no access to facilities, and yet were still asked to pay those same tuition fees.”  

SGC’s legal team – law firms Asserson and Harcus Parker – has initially filed a claim against University College London (UCL) on behalf of 4,000 students, which was brought in January this year.  This was following an application for a Group Litigation Order (GLO) against UCL filed by the firms on behalf of UCL students last summer – a legal instrument which makes it easier for thousands of students seeking compensation to have their claims heard together as a single claim.  This application was heard by the High Court in May.  UCL applied for a ‘stay’ of proceedings in response – a pause on legal action where the two parties attempt to settle the dispute out of court.

In July this year, the judge hearing the case, Senior Master Fontaine, granted UCL’s request for an eight-month long stay in proceedings but reserved judgment on the SGC’s GLO application.  After four months, either party can apply for a termination if no settlement is within reach.  She expressed concern with UCL’s arguments but, given the volume of students who have signed up to the SGC, expressed that the parties should attempt to settle the case – at least for now – out of court.  

UCL’s lawyers argue that the students should be pursuing their grievances through the university’s own internal complaints process or, if that fails, the OIA (official body for student complaints.)  They reject that the students’ case is a matter for the courts.

However, the students argue that both the internal complaints procedure and the OIA have failed to provide justice.  

Battat continues;

“There have been many cases at UCL where complaints have been referred to its internal complaints procedure and students have received an inadequate outcome, then made a claim to the OIA and again have been rejected.

We don’t think that the OIA should be involved given the volume of complaints and that students should be able to pursue whichever forms of alternative dispute resolution they deem is appropriate. We have little faith in the OIA process, especially in circumstances where the OIA typically takes months to handle a single complaint. Reviewing over 4,000 UCL student complaints would take many more months and cause undue delay to students.”

The message of the group claim in that respect couldn’t be clearer – students did not receive what they were promised.  Their sphere of concern is also a narrow one.  

“We’re not saying that universities shouldn’t have closed down those facilities,”says Battat.  “They were abiding by government guidelines and regulations.  What we’re saying is that (the universities) are providing a drastically different service to that which was contractually promised to them.”

I mention the partial refunds offered by many of the independent schools during the pandemic.  Does this provide a precedent for establishing the liability of universities to compensate students?

“Universities have been considerably less reasonable and fair to students than private schools, but it is encouraging that private schools across the country recognised that pupils were entitled to compensation for cancelled teaching during the pandemic. Universities should do the same.”

The biggest obstacle to an agreement seems to concern the role of the OIA, with UCL “relatively fixed” on the OIA process.  Yet Battat is optimistic about the road ahead:

“We’re going to put all our effort into reaching a settlement in this time – but if we can’t reach a settlement, then we hope to be back in court by March at the latest.  And that is the really key point –  students have not been prevented from having their day in court, and the GLO may eventually be granted  following the expiry of the stay.”

To finish, I ask Battat: what advice would he give to students who feel nervous at the prospect of suing their universities?

His response is, once again, straightforward.

“There will be no fallout to any students who join the group claim.  They have a right, and should not feel afraid, to access justice and bring a claim against an institution where they feel they have been wronged.” 

Find out more about the Student Group Claim and sign up at: www.studentgroupclaim.co.uk

The University of Edinburgh declined to comment. 

UCL Portico Building” by LordHarris at English Wikipediais licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.