Going to law to save your career

It's the latest in student protest: young people are suing their universities. Jonathan Green reports
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The Independent Online
Law student Christine Ifediora hadn't thought she would be standing in the High Court quite so quickly. Her hopes of going to law school were scuppered and her future career was in doubt, after South Bank University awarded her a third-class degree. "I was broken in two when I found out all the work I had done was for nothing," she recalls.

Christine, who is 29, took legal action. Her appearance in the High Court to challenge the award of her degree mark was the culmination of a year- long legal battle. She claimed that her final year project had been badly supervised. She had been away having a baby and had missed crucial instruction. It was a crushing blow to be awarded 0 per cent for the project, amid accusations of plagiarism. She maintains that because of her absence she had not been taught how to footnote her research sources .

Christine was granted leave to go to judicial review over the examination board's procedures, but the university backed down and agreed to reconsider its decision. She was allowed to submit a second project and a few weeks ago she was awarded a 2:2 - a high enough mark to get into law school.

"I felt vindicated. I can now go forward proudly and pursue my aim of becoming an educated black woman and lawyer," she says.

More and more students are taking legal action in order to pursue their grievances. Cases are beginning to flood into the courts, while universities and colleges brace themselves for an onslaught of litigation.

Jaswinder Gill, who represented Christine, is one of the few lawyers in the UK specialising in student litigation. He says he has about 50 such cases on his books. "Up until recently universities and colleges have had a formidable place in society, where they can make arbitrary decisions which affect whole careers and on which they could not be challenged," he says.

Several recent changes have brought about this tide of litigation. Under the 1993 further and higher education charters, universities and colleges are seen as corporate bodies, allowing students to sue as "customers". At the same time society is becoming more consumer-oriented, leading solicitors say, and we are all more aware of our legal rights. The most common form of student legal action is for breach of contract - for example, if a university recruits a student to a course and then closes it down.

Last year a male student in California tried to sue his university for $2.5m. He said he felt "violated" after a lecture by a radical lesbian activist which included instruction on female masturbation. Here in Britain, even the traditional bastions of higher learning are not immune to such US-style crusades of litigation.

Professor Sir David Williams, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, has heard the stories crossing the Atlantic from the US, and believes there will be an increase in these cases here. "There is a greater emphasis on accountability in the UK now which will ultimately lead to the courts," he warns.

Christine Ifediora says that the students of the Nineties are becoming more knowledgeable about their rights and how to pursue them. "Lecturers can make or break you," she says. "It's time for students to fight back with the law and use it to really prove that students' futures lie in their own hands."

A LOT OF TROUBLE FOR pounds 10, BUT THE PRINCIPLE WAS IMPORTANT

An award of pounds 10 may not sound like a resounding legal victory, but: "I had to take a stand because other students wouldn't," says Adam Bowden, 23. "In the end it benefited them, too."

While at the University of East Anglia, Adam decided to sue the university when it closed down the heating system in halls of residence for annual repair in June 1995.

"All we had was tepid water, which would cut your face to ribbons if you tried to shave in it. The whole thing was outrageous," he says.

Adam, now an English and philosophy graduate, claimed pounds 30 in the county court for loss of heating. They found in his favour but awarded only pounds 10.

However, the university agreed to reimburse several hundred other students with the same amount, "as a gesture".

"It was only after they had swallowed a very bitter pill," counters Adam with relish.

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