Student group claim against UK universities: weighing the cost of the pandemic
Nikolai Viedge – 13 February 2023
By Monday the 6th of February, 83,290 students had joined the Student Group Claim (SGC), taking action against at least 18 UK universities. “Essentially, the claim is based on the premise that students were charged full fees for a sub-par service” says Ryan Dunleavy, commercial litigation partner at Harkus Parker (who, along with Asserson, represent SGC). In a nutshell, the SGC and its lawyers claim that as a result of disruptions caused by the pandemic and widespread strike action, students were repeatedly denied access to both in-person lectures and university facilities; the two terms SGC’s lawyers claims universities have breached. Students “select a university [based] on its tuition and facilities,” Dunleavy notes, something that a large number of students simply didn’t receive.
It is important to note, Dunleavy says, that SGC aren’t asking for full refunds. Instead, the case revolves around the difference between what students paid for and what they received. “If you booked a five-star hotel, and they’ve had to put you in a two-star hotel for some reason, you’d expect to be paid back the difference in price.” The only difference, says Dunleavy, is “how universities are treating students.” It is on the strength of these arguments that the SGC are seeking a group litigation order against University College London (UCL) among others. Initially meant to be heard on the 2nd of February, the High Court Commercial Court judge, Mr Justice Foxton, transferred the application into the general King’s Bench list, which is due to be heard from the 20th of February. UCL is contesting this claim.
“We have a well-established complaints procedure,” a UCL spokesperson says, “which gives students the option of complaining to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education if they are not satisfied with our response.” The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education is an independent body tasked with handling student complaints, with the power to recommend compensation where appropriate. For UCL, this procedure “represents the best, most efficient and swiftest way for our students to resolve any complaints.” According to UCL’s spokesperson: “In proposing this, we are not suggesting that students should not be able to seek access to the courts, but given that they have not yet used appropriate and available ways to resolve their complaints through our established processes, the group litigation order is unnecessary and premature.”
Yet, as Dunleavy highlights, there are doubts about university’s capacities to process such a large number of complaints. Dunleavy points out that the ombudsman “typically only does a few thousand” of these complaints a year. “It’s not as effective as the courts,” he adds.
Of course, it’s important to note that university closures were entirely beyond the control of the universities themselves, as the UCL spokesperson notes: “During the Covid-19 pandemic, UCL prioritised the health and safety of our whole community, and followed UK Government guidance.” Furthermore, “our lecturers and support staff worked tirelessly to make our campus and all UCL premises as safe as possible and ensured that a high-quality academic experience was provided to students. We are also committed to minimising the impact of industrial action, to ensure students are not academically disadvantaged and are able to complete their studies and graduate on time.”
However, Dunleavy argues that “private schools discounted their fees,” as did many other service providers. According to legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg, it is a case that could have widespread implications: “If a judgment is given or an order made in relation to one or more of the specified group litigation issues, it is normally binding on all other claimants whose names are on the group register at that time.”