Students take legal action: We'll put the law on to you

A university faces legal action by students in what could turn out to be a test case.
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The Independent Online

Jonathan Williams was so keen to follow his dream of studying archaeology at university that he quit work, sold his house and moved in with his parents. For the first year the sacrifices seemed worthwhile. Then last year he found teaching time on the course was half what he expected.

This came out of the blue, he says. "There had been no consultation with students or professors."

It wasn't until Christmas last year that Mandi Hine heard teaching time on her second-year course in environmental management was being slashed and the course closed.

Teaching time on one module was cut to 14 hours, another to 16, and a third to 12 when she had been expecting 48 hours for each over the year. The university did not appear to expect any more than a few grumbles, she says. "I honestly think they thought we were just going to go away."

Instead, more than a dozen students are fighting back, taking steps to sue the University of Wales, Newport, for damages of more than £5,000 each for the stress and inconvenience that they claim was caused by the reduction in teaching hours. The level of education promised was not provided, they say. Therefore the quality of the degree could not be the same as that at other universities.

James Rudall, a solicitor advocate at Everett Tomlin Lloyd and Pratt, who is representing the students, says court proceedings are pending.

If the case reaches court, Rudall believes it will serve as a warning to other institutions. "I think universities must be taken to task over such issues," he says. The university owes a duty of care and/or a contractual duty to the students to give the level of education promised, he argues.

The test case comes as universities are making more explicit what they expect of students, through contracts spelling out students' obligations to attend lectures and abide by the rules.

The National Union of Students has complained that these contracts, which have so far been introduced at Oxford, Nottingham Trent, Bristol and Chester, are too one-sided, with universities making relatively few commitments to the students in return.

David Childs, who completed a degree in environmental management at Newport last year, argues that if students are not happy with their course they should be able to take it further, especially since the introduction of top-up fees. "We are consumers," he says, "and the system hasn't caught up."

The students have decided to go straight to law rather than the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education because they are confident that they can call witnesses to support their case and because compensation from the OIA is limited. "We are getting £5,500 in debt every year and we aren't being taught," says Hine. "Surely there has to be some compensation?"

The problems stem from reorganisation in 2005 of two university schools into a single school of health and social sciences. The university says it warned staff that the environmental management course was at risk unless numbers improved, and decided to close the course after they fell to single figures.

Some staff left and changes were made to the way courses were delivered. Students were told that extra weight would be given to their dissertations. But the contrast with the standard of teaching in the previous year was dramatic, says Childs.

While the university did not fully uphold the students' complaints, it did agree to lay on extra revision classes for third-years in environmental management. Second-year students in archaeology and environmental management claim they simply had to get by with far fewer lectures.

"In my second year I had half a course," says Williams, 44. "There is nothing I can do to get that back. They have devalued our degrees."

His fellow archaeology student, Juliano Phillips, claims to have been even worse hit. He is studying part-time so will have only just finished his second year when the course closes next summer. The university has so far failed to make any other arrangements for him, he says.

Hine and Karen Jones, who came straight into the second year of environmental management from an HND at a further education college, say they have had hardly any teaching in their course. They were told they would have to start by taking a joint honours degree, and would later be able to switch to single honours in the subject of their choice.

Before that could happen, they heard the subject was to be axed and that their teaching hours would be cut. "We know we haven't got enough knowledge," says Hine. "You cannot tell someone in 14 hours what they should have heard in 48."

Jones estimates the course will have cost her more than £26,000 in student loans and fees. The pair are now looking for another university where they can continue their degrees.

Jeff Evans, a former member of staff in health and social sciences, who resigned over the changes, says: "It's like paying for a three-course meal and then only getting two courses. If you have signed up to a programme and you pay money and you are going to be in debt for a number of years for that, it isn't your fault that the programme hasn't recruited. The university should ensure that if you have signed up to your part of the contract, they honour the other part."

The students have received backing from Michael German, a Liberal Democrat member of the Welsh Assembly. He has made representations to the vice-chancellor to reinstate some of the teaching hours and is also investigating with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales suggestions that money allocated to the environmental management course may have been diverted elsewhere in the university.

This is something the university categorically denies, along with the bulk of the other allegations.

Anne Carlisle, pro-vice-chancellor (academic) at Newport says that there were no significant changes made in archaeology compared with previous years and that the university has committed itself to seeing all students through to the end of their programmes, including those studying part-time.

She says students in environmental management had based their expectations of teaching hours on previous years, which had different numbers of students on the course. "If you are offering certain things you may offer them in a different format because you have six students as opposed to 16," she says. "Therefore you end up with a different teaching methodology - although not significantly different."

She claims that students were consulted about whether to give extra weight to dissertations, and accepted it willingly, and that changes were not implemented until the processes were completed.

A university spokesman said that teaching was a dynamic process and universities continually adapted their teaching strategies. The students' claims were thoroughly investigated, he added, and once the internal complaints procedure had been exhausted, the complainants were advised to go to the OIA.

"The experience they describe is in direct contrast to the vast majority of the 9,500 students who study here and to the thousands of satisfied students who graduated this September," he says. The university came first in Wales and fourth in the UK for student feedback in the 2006 National Student Survey.

But the students say they have to take a stand. "If any other institution is thinking of carrying out changes in the manner Newport did, I hope they will think twice," says Childs. "I wouldn't want anyone else to go through what we have."