Why do students want to sue universities and how much could they be paid?

ITV News' Stacey Foster reports on the latest demands from university students who studied through the pandemic

Students across the country who studied through Covid could be due thousands in compensation, if a landmark case against University College London (UCL) is given the green light.

A High Court judge will decide if students can sue UCL over scaled-back education delivered over the pandemic after hearing their case on Wednesday.

The hearing concluded on the same day, with the judgement expected at a later date. If Judge Barbara Fontaine rules in the students' favour, it could pave the way for more than a dozen other universities to face similar action.

It is the first case of its kind and saw solicitors acting for nearly 1,000 current and former students, with thousands more wanting to join the legal action.

They argue their education was disrupted not only by the pandemic but also strike action dating back to 2017.

Why is this happening?

When Covid restrictions were enforced, lectures and seminars were either cancelled or moved online and it took more than a year for universities to return to mainly in-person teaching.

Despite these significant changes, students were still required to pay their fees in full – which can range from anything between £9,000 per year and £25,000.

Now more than 100,000 students are arguing they deserve compensation for receiving a sub-par experience, claiming universities breached the contract by failing to provide in-person tuition and access to facilities that are included in their fees.

What is the students' argument in court?

Anna Boase KC, representing students, told the court “they entered into a bargain with UCL for which they had to pay handsomely”.

“They didn’t get what they bargained for and they seek justice,” the barrister said.

In written arguments, Ms Boase said: “These consumers, many of whom are young people, have had enough.

“Their contract with UCL was, for many, the first substantial contract of their lives and, justifiably, they feel cheated out of their bargain."

Students tuned in to lectures online.

She added: “The claimants’ case is that, on all versions of the student contract, UCL owed a duty to provide in-person tuition and physical access to facilities.”

She said some 924 students had issued claims against UCL, with 2,147 more wishing to have their cases added to the legal action.

UCL has more than 40,000 students a year, which “gives a sense of the total potential number of claimants”, Ms Boase told the court.

The university had “enjoyed bumper financial years”, meanwhile, with tuition fee income increasing 41% between 2018 and 2021, the barrister said.

What's UCL's argument?

John Taylor KC, for UCL, said in written arguments that “the denigration of UCL... is unwarranted” and that alternative complaint procedures were “fair, transparent and accessible”, and could save time and money.

He said the claims against it needed more detail and had been “formulated at an inappropriately high level of abstraction” given “the disparity of contractual terms, the thousands of programmes and modules, years of study, different strike dates and different effects of Covid-19”.

Mr Taylor said there could be “several thousand different permutations” of how strikes affected its 440 undergraduate and 675 graduate programmes.

UCL spent more than £5 million making Covid-19 adaptations and “made clear” that teaching and facilities would be impacted in affected academic years, the court was told.

“Quite how those claimants can say they were contractually entitled to in-person teaching and unrestricted access to facilities in breach of government guidance is unclear,” Mr Taylor said.

How much could students stand to claim?

These so-called lockdown students could be paid thousands of pounds if their case is successful.

Those who studied between 2020-21 would be estimated to win around £5,000 each, while international students could be paid significantly higher fees.

Anyone affected by strike action from 2017 onwards would potentially also be due payment.

Millions of students are affected and the total value of compensation could reach into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Which other universities could face action?

Similar cases are expected to brought against:

  • University of Birmingham

  • Cardiff University

  • City University of London

  • Coventry University

  • King’s College London

  • Imperial College

  • The University of Warwick

  • University of Leeds

  • LSE (London School of Economics)

  • Newcastle University

  • UCL

  • University of Manchester

  • Queen Mary University of London

  • University of Liverpool

  • University of Bristol

  • University of Nottingham

  • University of Sheffield

  • Ual: University of the Arts London

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