‘We were so tremendously affected’: Students take UCL to court over pandemic disruptions

A hearing sees nearly 5,000 students trying to sue the uni over alleged ‘breach of consumer contracts’

A court hearing saw a legal team representing nearly 5,000 UCL students and alumni fighting for their right to sue the uni over Covid and strikes disruptions. The lawyers argued that there’s been a breach to the students’ contracts with UCL, which promised them better experiences.

The judge has delayed their decision for two weeks. But it’ll be decided whether students have the right to seek compensations through legal means or they have to go through UCL’s institutional procedures, which has been described by some as “designed to frustrate complainants into defeat.”

This hearing is the first for the campaign Student Group Claim. The results with UCL will set a precedent for the more than 100,000 current and former students trying to bring similar claims to 17 UK universities.

‘I ended up paying a full term of London rent to do an online degree’

Lana is one of the students represented in the court case. She recently graduated with a BA Geography from UCL, but how the pandemic has disrupted her academic experience made her think her tuition was “a total waste.”

She told The London Tab: “One disruption was the limits in terms of academic skill, research opportunities, and in person fieldwork, which I was completely unable to carry out. These changed my dissertation and completely changed the skills I was able to develop and offer to employers in job interviews.

“The other thing was I was supposed to do a year abroad at the University of Sydney, and that was completely canceled. So I ended up paying full term London rent to do an online degree.”

She decided to join Student Group Claim after her complaints to UCL via the uni’s internal procedures and external petitions were met with “very underwhelming” responses. Through the claim, she hopes for “a win with some sort of compensation and acknowledgement of what university students went through during the pandemic.”

“But I’m not overly optimistic given how UCL has responded so far. We were so tremendously affected, and so far, there’s been a complete lack of ownership and responsibility from the universities, even though a large part of our struggles came from them.”

‘It’s not about the compensation for me’

Another UCL student at the hearing was Daniel, who thought the pandemic has also impacted his social experiences as a student.

“Welcome week was a big thing for students, but it was fully online for me. You’d join in different breakout rooms where most people’s cameras were turned off. There’s very low engagement and it’s very hard to focus. I spent pretty much half of my university experience in my room,” he said.

But what the recent law graduate wants the most out of this court case is not getting back some of his tuition: “It’s not about the compensation for me. I’m not bothered about the money, it’s actually about the legal issues at stake.

“I think lots of universities try and avoid legal liability. They phrase their marketing in ways like, ‘you’ll have a good experience,’ but they don’t provide you with any concrete contractual terms. So what we see is that it’s hard to find things to bite upon when things go wrong, such as during Covid. We didn’t get the the in person educational experience, but where do you look? We look in the contracts, but where are the contracts? Well, there are no standardized contracts to educate. That’s a big issue here.”

‘I think it’s the only realistic way for students to get fair compensation’

Aside from students, The London Tab also spoke to one of the lawyers representing them.

Shimon Goldwater from the law firm Asserson said he was first intrigued by the issue in 2018: “When the very first round of UCU strikes [in the current disputes] happened, I was reading the newspaper and I read about a petition signed by about 100,000 students who wanted compensation for classes canceled during a strike action.

“Then two years later, Covid happened, an even larger number of students were impacted by that. And this time, it wasn’t just a few lectures being canceled because of strikes – it was a whole year of teaching. In some universities, the whole year was moved online. While in most universities, large parts of the year were moved online, and on-campus resources like libraries were closed. There were clearly a breach of contract.

“When you pay for something and what’s given to you is not what you paid for but something less valuable, you should be compensated for the difference in value between what you paid for and what you received.”

An argument Shimon says the lawyers will make in the case is that students have the right to seek the compensation they deserve through court, which he thinks is “the only realistic way for students to get fair compensation.”

“Things like protests and signing petitions – they won’t work because we’re talking about millions of pounds here. I don’t think the universities will pay that compensation unless they are forced to do it by the courts. They wouldn’t do it. They weren’t volunteer to do it by themselves.

“But UCL is trying to block our claim by saying that students should have to go through its own internal complaints procedure first and then to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). We say that will take much too long.

“Students, like anyone else, if they suffer a breach of contract, it’s their human right – Article Six of the Human Rights Convention – to have access to courts. And we think is it’s very unfair that UCL is trying to block students from from taking the university to court.”

A UCL spokesperson previous responded that they’re “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,  [going through legal means] is unnecessary and premature.”

Regardless, Shimon says what’ll be decided in the UCL hearing is “really important for all of our 100,000 Student Group Claim members.”

“If the court blocks students from going to court, other universities will obviously take the same approach. But if the judge delays by putting this on pause for six months or something like that, we will wait. We’ll go through that process and come back to court. We won’t be the end of the claim at all. It will just mean a very unfair delay.”

In response to Student Group Claim and the court hearing, UCL’s Professor Kathleen Armour, Vice-President (Education & Student Experience) said: “We recognise that for many students, the last few years have been a disruptive and unsettling time.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, we followed UK Government guidance and prioritised the health and safety of our community. 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 have also been fully committed to minimising the impact of industrial action, to ensure students are not academically disadvantaged.

“We respect the right of our students to complain and seek redress if they feel that they have not received the support they expected from us. That is why we have a well-established and free complaints procedure. We believe the Group Litigation Order is unnecessary and premature as our easily accessible process is the most efficient and swiftest way for our students to resolve any issues with us.

“This gives students the option of complaining to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, if they are not satisfied with our response. This is the appointed Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) service for dealing with student complaints, with powers to recommend that UCL make awards of compensation to affected students where appropriate, and this is also free to use.”

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