90,000 students to sue their universities over Covid disruption

Watch Nick Smith's report on the joint student refund claim

Nearly 90,000 students have now joined a joint claim to try and get some of their tuition fees refunded due to disruption to their education during Covid lockdowns and restrictions.

In what is thought to be one of the largest joint litigations ever in the UK, it focuses on students enrolled during the pandemic from 2020 to 2022, along with others who had learning affected by strike action from 2018 onwards.

UK students pay £9,250 per year for undergraduate courses and more for graduate courses; while international students pay up to £40,000 per year. Those leading the legal action say like any other consumers, they deserved compensation when they received substantially less valuable services than those for which they paid.

Many students who are part of the action, especially those on practical-based courses, claim they feel their quality of education was severely hampered by having to switch on online only learning, often for whole terms at a time.

Ryan Dunleavy, a Partner at Harcus Parker, one of the legal teams representing the students said: "People choose a university based upon its facilities and its tuition. So if they'd have wanted to be taught through an online course, there are plenty of distance learning courses out there.

"That's not what they paid for, and we're getting feedback from lots of graduates saying it's hampered their opportunities in the job market because the employers also know it's an online learning course effectively on Zoom and the equipment of YouTube.

"But the universities seem to think they're exempt from contract and consumer law in this country."

Grace Fletcher is part of the joint student claim group, aiming to recover some of the tuition fees they paid during the pandemic. Credit: ITV News

Grace Fletcher is a student at Northumbria University who enrolled in 2020.

She spent her first year effectively stuck in her accommodation doing remote learning on her laptop, claiming to miss out on the facilities her course had to offer, as well as the socialising and interaction that many people value from their university experience.

She said: "We ended up having around six hours of online lectures a week, which to me isn't a full time course at all, it was barely anything.

"To be honest paying £9,000 a year for six hours a week it's not good.

"For it to be online as well... we just didn't know anyone on the course we didn't get to meet the lecturers and there was a lot of technology problems which got in the way."

Northumbria University says they continued to deliver high-quality teaching in exceptional circumstances.

A separate case involving over 1,000 students who attended University College London is due to be heard in the coming weeks. This may well set a precedent for the larger joint claim involving many more institutions up and down the country.

So far, the following Universities have been issued with correspondence that they may face action:

  • 1. Birmingham, University of

  • 2. Bristol, University of

  • 3. Cardiff University

  • 4. City, University of London

  • 5. Coventry University

  • 6. Imperial College London

  • 7. King’s College London

  • 8. Leeds, University of

  • 9. Liverpool, University of

  • 10. London School of Economics and Political Science

  • 11. Manchester, University of

  • 12. Newcastle University

  • 13. Nottingham, University of

  • 14. Queen Mary University of London

  • 15. Sheffield, University of

  • 16. University College London

  • 17. University of the Arts London

  • 18. Warwick, University of

Universities UK says the those in higher education worked tirelessly to ensure students enrolled during Covid still graduated on time. Credit: ITV News

Universities UK is a body representing hundreds of higher education institutions across the country.

Prof Steven West, their President, said: "The universities were delivering learning and education and were providing support, uh, albeit in a different format. So the costs for the university were still there

"We were still paying staff. We were still creating the services and providing a service, and the students, let's remember, met the learning outcomes, graduated on time, and were not held back.

"The alternative would've been to close universities, stop all education and shut down. It would have had a devastating impact on those students having to defer for a year or more and also cause wider complications for the country as a whole."