Education: Hard lessons in litigation

Colleges that don't deliver what their prospectuses promise are likely to get sued by students with the help of a new breed of specialist lawyers, says Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online
Students, like the rest of society, are becoming more litigious. They are suing their universities for relatively trivial things, such as their rooms being kept insufficiently clean, and over big issues like failure to provide teaching.

According to Julian Gizzi, head of the education department at the City solicitors Beachcroft Stanleys, which acts for the English higher and further education funding councils, the number of cases brought by students has increased fourfold in the past year. He thinks there are now several hundred such cases in a year, and that the increase shows no sign of levelling off.

The UK's 180 higher education institutions appear to be worried. Yesterday, Beachcroft Stanleys held a seminar for colleges and universities, telling them how to avoid lawsuits and, if they received them, how to handle them. Gizzi says institutions should review what they promised to students to ensure it could be delivered. "A detailed signed contract is becoming advisable."

Students have always sued, or tried to sue, over issues involving discipline and failure to be awarded degrees. What is new about current cases is that they touch on all aspects of student life and come from students alleging that the teaching or facilities are not up to scratch.

Commonly, a promised module will be withdrawn or will be of poor quality, often because of staff changes, says Gizzi. For example, the most recent case on which Beachcroft Stanleys was contacted was of a student on an environmental science course who was unable to do a promised module in pollution. As a result, he doubted whether his degree would be any use in obtaining a job.

Undergraduates are also bringing cases based simply on a failure to teach. They claim that tutors were missing, tutorials were cancelled or work was not marked. Gizzi knows of one case in which a PhD student is threatening legal action over the failure of a supervisor to speak to the student for more than a year.

The campaigning lawyer Jaswinder Gill, who is acting for many of the new litigants, says he is snowed under with complaints. Last week, for example, he talked to a mature student who gave up a pounds 30,000-a-year job to sign up for a four-year degree in Spanish and computing.

"By the time she was halfway through her degree she had got no Spanish out of it," he says. "She realised she would end up with a degree in computing, but that wasn't what she wanted or had enrolled to do. The university have failed in their obligation to provide a proper programme of study for her."

This student, along with many other cases he is bringing, would have a claim for damages, according to Gill. She has wasted four years of her life and has jeopardised her career path, so she would be entitled to loss of earnings.

Why are lawsuits on the increase? The answer is complicated. Students, in common with the general public, expect more these days. "They have become more consumer-minded," says Ivan Walker, of the City firm Lawfords, which also handles education cases.

That is because they're having to pay more towards their education. The value of the grant has declined, loans have been introduced and it is quite likely that in future students will be asked to contribute towards tuition fees. In addition, they are being made more aware of their rights through the existence of student charters produced by the Department for Education and Employment and through individual charters drawn up by universities themselves. Quite a few cases are brought by American students, which suggests that if British universities want to continue to attract overseas students they will have to be better catered for.

There have been big changes in higher education: the squeeze on the system has led to less favourable staff-student ratios, and modular degrees mean students are choosing from a cafeteria-style menu in which there isn't the same degree of accountability - or contact - with lecturers as if they were studying in one department.

At the heart of the matter lies the fact that higher education is now a marketplace. Cash-strapped universities cannot rely on decent levels of funding any longer. They have to persuade students to sign up, with glossy prospectuses and new programmes. Sometimes they can't deliver what they advertise, according to Michael Mawle, legal adviser to the National Union of Students.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is attempting to put its house in order. A working party chaired by Clive Booth, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, is proposing that all universities set up an independent appeal mechanism for students, as recommended by the Nolan committee. At present only some institutions - mainly the "old" universities - have appeals arrangements, and these involve a visitor who may be the Queen or Privy Council.

About 60 higher education institutions have responded favourably to a consultation exercise. But legal champions of students are divided. Some are against the idea of appeals being dealt with by binding arbitration within universities, the route favoured by vice-chancellors. That is because it would tie students into an appeals process and prevent them resorting to the courts. But others, such as Jack Rabinowicz, a partner with the solicitors Teacher Stern Selby, who specialises in representing students, believe that arbitration is a good thing. It is quicker than using the courts and preferable to the visitorial system in use in the old universities, which has been criticised for being slow and denying students justice.

"I am not sure the visitor's system will last too much longer because I don't think it can cope with the volume of complaints, which are increasing year on year," he says. "At some point - not too far off - universities are going to have to provide a better system of appeal."

Whether that will stem the rising tide of student litigation is questionablen

He won a pounds 5,000 grant for a student in his first case. 'Everybody said I would get nowhere'

Jaswinder Gill is one of a new breed of solicitors who has set up in business to represent aggrieved students. His firm in Southall, Middlesex, has been going for two years and business is brisk. Gill's diary is full of appointments with undergraduates seeking redress against higher education institutions for alleged breach of contract and local authorities claimed to have denied grants to would-be students.

Gill, 31, says his own higher education was problem-free. He studied law at the former Birmingham Polytechnic, now the University of Central England, and has no complaints about it.

He fell into higher education law by chance when he brought a case against an education authority which had denied a grant to an Oxbridge student who had disabled parents and wanted financial help with studying for his Bar finals. "Everybody said I would get nowhere," Gill says. "I refused to accept that. I said there were exceptional circumstances in the case, and the local authority should recognise them." He won pounds 5,000 in grant money for that student, and has never looked back. Since then, he says, he has made between pounds 80,000 and pounds 90,000 for students around the country.

Students are customers, he says. They are no different from people who buy a car that doesn't work and are demanding their money back. "I am looking at the quality of the service, at what the university is promising and what the students expect," he explains. "They have legitimate expectations of receiving a high-quality service."

In the past, universities were allowed to be too powerful, he believes. They take decisions which affect people's careers and livelihoods and they sometimes make those decisions too lightly.

"Nobody was able to question them in the past," he says. "Now that is changing"n

Student action

A group of overseas students at the London School of Economics are suing the college for allegedly failing to give them the same level of academic support as domestic students. They say this is why they did not do as well. The students, who are specialists in statistics, have carried out an independently verified statistical analysis to back up their argument.

A group of overseas students on a Master's degree in business studies - at the School of Oriental and African Studies - claim to have received insufficient teaching of business studies. They say three to four segments of their degree were missing. They will sue if they get bad marks in their examination results.

Four students on a diploma in social work course at a new university in London say they did not pass their examinations because the university failed to provide them with suitable work placements. This meant they were not able to carry out required assignments. They are suing and seeking compensation for loss of future earnings.

Up to 50 students are reported to be taking legal action against Westminster University, alleging that they lost teaching and study time when they moved into the new Harrow campus before it was ready. The university maintains that lost time will be made up.