Students suing schools over Covid complications

Over 1,000 students in the UK are suing the high-ranking university UCL over the poor standard of education during lockdown. This story has inspired a revolution among students as more dissatisfied scholars are taking action against their respective universities. These institutions include the London School of Economics (LSE), Kings College London, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Warwick, and Cardiff universities. We at Cybernews Academy acknowledge how coronavirus impacted computer science subjects across the globe, as universities had to redesign and reshape curriculums to fit the new mode of learning. So, it's no wonder so many students feel frustrated and lost.

But, why is this getting brought up now? In light of recent events, the England and Wales High Court afforded UCL four-eight months to agree on compensation with students outside the courtroom. But what’s really going on in this case, and how have so many students facilitated this uprising?

Who’s helping?

The Student Group Claim has been tasked with the matter at hand, and the organization has “brought together” two prominent litigation experts, Asserson and Harcus Parker, to help aid the fight. The claim has been brought forward, and the organization handles the claim on a no-win, no-fee basis. If the process is unsuccessful, those who lost won’t have to pay a penny. Seems reasonable, but is there more at play here than an act of charity? The Student Group Claim revealed on their website that “if your group wins its claim, with your contribution capped at 35% of the compensation.” So, there is something in it for this organization. The student claims group states that by their current estimate, “UK-resident undergraduates who were at university during the pandemic will be able to claim on average £5,000 in compensation. Graduate and international students could claim significantly higher sums.” The average undergraduate degree for home students is capped at £9,250, meaning that the Student Group Claim would receive approximately £3237.5 (35%), and students would receive up to £5,000 in compensation– leaving roughly £1,012.5 unaccounted for.

The claimants aim

A statement by Harcus Parker explained how UCL hasn’t been living up to its side of the bargain. “The student pays course fees, and the university agrees to provide in-person tuition, access to facilities and other services as set out in its contractual documents, prospectuses, and promotional materials.” However, the “universities breached their contracts with the students from 2018 onwards, in response to strikes and then Covid-19.” Due to classes being canceled and subsequently moved online, students missed out on learning that can’t be conducted digitally. Therefore, the students affected have taken action to gain some form of compensation. The aims are simple, most students want a refund or at least a portion of their tuition refunded or waivered.

The claims

The Students’ vs. UCL case was issued on the 12th of January 2023 “on behalf of 924 claimants.” There are an additional 2,147 claimants, although the application has not been amended. The following details demonstrate these claimants' dissatisfaction and discontent with their universities. The basis of the claim discusses the following issues with contractual obligations regarding adequate tuition and lays the claims for this litigation.

  • UCL owes a contractual duty to provide claimants with in-person, campus-based tuition, alongside physical access to facilities if required. These are the baseline requirements for supporting the claimant's academic progress in 2017-18, 2019-20, and 2020-21.
  • Exploration as to whether UCL breached its contractual obligations to provide the claimants with in-person, campus-based tuition by abandoning teaching during industrial action in 2017-18, 2019-20, and 2021-22.
  • Whether UCL has breached its contractual duty to provide claimants with in-person, campus-based tuition by canceling teaching, moving to teach online, and restricting physical access to facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic in one or more of the 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 academic years.
  • Whether UCL can rely on contractual clauses allowing it to cancel teaching, move teaching online, and restrict physical access to facilities without compensation.

Universities response

Cybernews Academy discovered a document released by BAILII regarding the case that states that UCL’s primary argument is that claimants should utilize the statute-backed ADR scheme to resolve student complaints without needing court proceedings. This was established by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA.) This scheme entails students filing a complaint with UCL. If their claim is not met, they can refer their complaint to the OIA.

UCL also claims that these complaints have been formulated at an inappropriately high level of abstraction. In addition, UCL state that there are too many small groups of differing students from separate modules with different university contracts. Therefore this disparity means that all students would have been affected differently. Moreover, UCL believes there is no written evidence in the group litigation order (GLO) pertaining to these groups. These are just a few examples of UCL’s response to the issue. Furthermore, the document states that “UCL seeks a stay for "a period sufficient for the Claimants to participate in the statute backed ADR process." If submitted at the hearing, eight months would likely be sufficient to allow for participation in the OIA scheme.”

UCL wants individuals to go through the UCL complaint process and potentially the OIA’s complaint process instead of taking legal action. However, this long and arduous process hasn’t gone unnoticed by officials.

Court opinion

Initially, the complaint process would be long and extensive, with many twists and turns set to deter young academics from progressing with their claims. That is until the 17th of July 2023, when UK Judge Barbara Fontaine, senior master of the King’s Bench Divisions, stated that students need not undergo this harrowing process. Instead, Judge Fontaine suggested that UCL and the claimants should settle this dispute “in the strongest possible terms” outside of court. According to the Financial Times, if these claims are successful, this “could result in a combined payout for the UK higher education sector running into hundreds of millions of pounds.”

What’s next?

The Student Group Claim released an update on its website regarding the latest developments in the case. They mentioned how the High Court “handed down judgment” following the hearing two months prior. As seen above, Judge Fontaine rejected UCL’s proposal to handle the issue internally. Now, both parties have eight months to make an arrangement and plan to attend settlement negotiations. They expect the case to go to trial if the claim is not settled within eight months. Keep your eyes out for more Cybernews Academy content surrounding this topic; we're sure there is more to this story than meets the eye.