A legal partnership is acting on behalf of university students to claim compensation for learning lost due to disruption from periods of strike action and the pandemic. Business correspondent Tamara Kormornick reports on the issue.
Law firms Asserson and Harcus Parker claim that University College London has breached its contract with students and are using a “group litigation order” to represent UCL students at the High Court of Justice in London. The partnership, known as the Student Group Claim, are seeking damages on behalf of students on a no win, no fee basis, meaning that if the case is unsuccessful, the group will not have to pay a contingency fee for legal services.
According to the Student Group Claim: “This is a breach of contract case; students are like any other consumer. They deserve compensation when they do not receive the service that they paid for.”
To date, almost 1,500 students from King’s College London have signed up to the Group’s legal action. Following the significant number of sign-ups, Student Group Claim sent a letter of claim to the university on 19 October 2022. According to Student Group Claim, King’s College London did not respond to the first letter despite the court action deadline.
According to Student Group Claim, KCL eventually responded to Student Group Claim in a letter sent on December 7 in which they deferred responsibility: “KCL was reasonably restricted in these choices by decisions taken by the UCU and the UK government… KCL should not be held accountable for the circumstances it and its students found itself in.”
KCL argues that students who seek compensation should first pursue claims through the university’s internal complaints procedure and then escalate the claim to a third party facilitator: the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). The OIA would then issue a non-binding recommendation to KCL. KCL suggests that only then should the court entertain a claim if they are not satisfied with the outcome of this process.
KCL’s compensation procedure currently follows government guidelines. On 5 June 2020 the British government rejected a petition calling for a tuition fee refund which was signed by over 350,000 students at UK universities.
“If students are unhappy they should first complain to their provider and if their concerns are unresolved they can ask OIA to consider their complaint”, the government said in response to the petition.
The Student Group Claim highlights that the internal complaints procedure is not fair for students as KCL is both the defendant and the arbiter in the dispute.
The complaints processes are also lengthy for individual students to pursue with little evidence of success. Only 1,300 UK university students have so far received compensation for disruption to learning during Covid and strike action, which represents less than 1% of students.
Student Group Claim told Roar that they are optimistic for a successful outcome for students in their High Court case against UCL: “In general terms we anticipate that UK students at university in 2020-21 will be claiming damages in the region of £5,000 each, with international students claiming substantially higher sums.”
On February 13, Roar asked KCL students for their opinion through an Instagram poll. When asked “Should KCL compensate students for strike action?”, 96% of respondents responded “yes”. In response to “Will you seek compensation from King’s?”, 61% said “yes”, 26% said maybe and 13% said “no”.
Sunny Cheong, a third-year international undergraduate student, signed the petition after seeing a peer share an update of Student Group Claims’ progress with action against UCL on Instagram.
“With all the strikes going on at the moment, it feels like whatever you do, the administration won’t do anything.”
Sunny discussed the group claim action with peers and was met with a positive response, which led her to share a link to the sign up in her course’s WhatsApp group.
“They were happy to know about it. It’s nice knowing someone is trying to do something for us as it is difficult to combat the university administration as a small group of students,” Sunny told Roar.
Phoebe Smart, a third year undergraduate home student, was sent a link to the Student Group Claim on a student WhatsApp group. Phoebe has not signed a compensation petition and has not sought to claim damages directly from the university.
“Usually when I see petitions I think nothing will come of it because the university is too powerful”, she said.
Phoebe is considering joining the upcoming group claim action as she is concerned about missing classes in her final year due to intensified strike action. On 4 January this year the University and Colleges Union released a record 18 strike dates during the current spring semester.
“It is ridiculous we are having to pay so much when we are not getting any learning. I am already being asked to think about end of semester assignments because of the upcoming strikes when we have barely covered any content so far,” Smart told Roar.
The Student Group Claim and UCL had a High Court hearing due on 2 February 2023. According to the Student Group Claim, the hearing was postponed due to administrative reasons and the case has been moved to another part of the High Court.
UCL has declined to comment on the upcoming legal claim. In addition, the UCL Students Union does not endorse any law firms to assist students with legal claims. Instead, it refers students to the UCL Students Complaint Procedure with the option to escalate claims to the OIA.
In regards to claiming compensation during strike periods, a UCL Students Union spokesperson told Roar: “Students’ rights during industrial action are defined by the Office of Students, and we’ll make sure our students are supported to exercise these rights should they need to.”
Student Group Claim suggests that the outcome of the group action case against UCL might change compensation procedures at universities across the country.
“Ideally universities will start considering settling their own disputes by offering fair compensation sums to their own students and former students,” said the Student Group Claim.
The KCL faction of the compensation campaign “Scrap the Fees” started in February 2021 and listed demands which include refunds for periods of online learning. The student led action has not achieved court action or fee compensation to date.
If the group claims are successful in court, up to 35% of the compensation amount can be taken by Student Group Claims. According to Student Group Claim, this covers “solicitors fees and a financing agreement with a third party that is providing the funds to ensure that this court case can go ahead.”
Fees for international students have been raised to £25,290 per year for undergraduate students and £17,220 for postgraduate students, and the figure is even higher in some courses. Home fees were raised £250 per year in 2017.
International student Sunny is seeking compensation following disruption after starting a three year degree program in 2020: “Any money I get back would be really good. I don’t expect a lot of money. At the moment I don’t know where my fees are going.”
Student Group Claim argues that student fees were not lawfully obtained due to the breach of contract regarding consumer rights to a service.
“The university should be well-placed to repay some of the fee revenue back to the students it overcharged. KCL does not seem to be financially struggling at all,” said the Student Group Claim. The group further states that:
“The universities have had bumper financial years over the period in question, particularly during lockdown, where they often increased student numbers and tuition fee income, lowered overheads by teaching on Zoom, and on many occasions took furlough money.”
At the time of writing, any undergraduate or postgraduate student who has attended university between 2018 and now can sign up as part of a Student Group Claim via their website. When enough students sign up, the Student Group Claim can send a letter to the respective university to trigger group legal action.