Students sue for £100,000 damages from college which awarded 'worthless degrees'

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A group of students has been cleared to sue their former college for damages after a judge ruled they had been denied the practical experience needed to launch their careers.

The case is unique in that the students gained degree-level qualifications, but are suing on the basis that the award was meaningless without the "hands on" experience they had been promised.

Last week, a judge at Oxford County Court found in favour of Lee Buckingham and Jason England, two students who brought a test case to establish the college's liability. Four classmates who are also suing believe this sets a precedent that will allow them to ask for damages that could total more than £100,000.

The students had completed a two-year HND course of degree-standard in vehicle restoration and conservation at Rycotewood College, a small Oxfordshire college specialising in design and manufacturing courses.

They claimed they were promised that half the course would be spent restoring vehicles, including work at the nearby Heritage Motor Centre, which houses the biggest collection of vintage British cars in the world.

The judge ruled that the students had been promised a course with a substantial practical element but were given one concentrating on theory. The practical work that was provided was poorly taught,he said.

Mr Buckingham, 25, who had hoped to set up his own car restoration business, believes the college should compensate him for the two "wasted" years on its course. He now works for a telecoms company, but says he turned down a £16,500-a-year management traineeship to go on the course and wants to be compensated for loss of income.

He said: "Vehicle restoration is a very specialised career. I love old cars and was told this course would give us a very practical qualification that would allow us to go into the profession at the highest level and set up our own businesses. It should have made us the cream of the crop. As things turned out it was a complete waste of our time."

Mr England, 31, who left his £14,000 job as a council housing benefits officer to join the course, ran up debts of £3,000 while studying. He now sells advertising for an internet company. "We complained about the course almost right from the start. It was incredibly badly taught. We were taught how to repaint a car by being given photocopies of pages of a text book. We didn't get to do it for real. When we did welding they gave us two bits of metal to join together. We never actually welded a real car."

Stewart Hewitt-Hall, 27, is one of the four students who now hopes to be awarded damages because of the county court ruling. He said: "My father collects classic cars and I have loved them from an early age. My ultimate goal was to start my own business but that was completely impossible without any kind of practical experience. I ran up expenses of at least £10,000 while on the course. There is also the cost of all the lost opportunities during those two years, which is very hard to quantify."

Jaswinder Gill, the group's solicitor, said: "It has been a long battle but the students feel confident they will be ultimately awarded damages."

The course closed after two years. A spokesman for the college said the course had been approved by the examination board and had been independently checked three times a year. "The practical content that was provided fully complied with the course scheme in the amount, the level, content and quality that was delivered," he said.

The case is expected to be heard this year.