Students attempt to sue UK universities over COVID disruption
Editor-in-Chief, Amélie Thompson, writes on how COVID disruption has led to students wanting to sue universities
Around 120,000 current students and recent graduates are seeking compensation for disruption due to COVID restrictions and university strikes, under a class-action lawsuit led by student group claim (SGC).
This reflects mounting discontent felt by many university-goers, as they feel their £9,250 per year tuition fee has not been fairly recompensed, through disruptions impacting both teaching and resources, through cancelled lectures, closed libraries and restricted access to laboratories.
The first lawsuit was brought against University College London (UCL) on behalf of around 5000 students. The centre of the case is that universities are in breach of contract as the disruptions meant that they were given an inferior experience to what they were advertised and were paying for.
The case reached the High Court, which ultimately ruled that there had to be direct negotiations between UCL and the student claimants, rejecting UCL’s argument that claims would have to be made via internal channels and complaints with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education first. This is significant as it could create a precedent for the 17 other universities that have been sent “letters before claim”, as the ruling facilitates a path for direct negotiations and/or legal action. Currently, universities with claims against them include key Russell Group universities such as the University of Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester.
Currently, universities with claims against them include key Russell Group universities such as the University of Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester.
Following the UCL ruling, the SGC is also planning to file new claims against over 80 more universities, demonstrating that this may just be the start of legal action. Many students are pleased with these outcomes, but see them as the starting point for full compensation, to prevent students from being treated as “commodities”.
However, this is not the first time students have attempted to sue their universities. In 2018, over 1,000 students joined a class action lawsuit for compensation for disruptions due to university strikes, with claims potentially costing universities £10m each. This did not result in the payouts students wished for.
Lawyers, including Charlotte Hadfield, head of education at 3PB barristers, see that there may be difficulties for the students in their claims. She asserts that “calculating the loss to a student in a higher education claim can be very difficult”. However, legal action has been bolstered by an investment of £13 million from TRPG Capital, a US litigation funding firm. Such backing could be crucial, both for the potential litigations themselves, and the threats to university reputations these litigations could have. Experts speculate whether this reputation aspect will be a key bargaining chip in negotiations, with universities aiming to maintain their image.
Whether compensation will be delivered on a nationwide scale or will remain on a more limited case-by-case basis, is yet to be seen, yet this appears the beginning of a wider legal movement.