Students can sue UCL for compensation for Covid and strike disruptions, judge rules

UCL will face trial if it cannot settle with students involved in the case in eight months

A court ruled that University College London (UCL) students can directly sue the university for refunds for lost teaching and other Covid and strike disruptions.

This is the decision of the initial face-off between UCL and lawyers of Student Group Claim at a hearing in May. It came despite the university arguing that students can’t sue unless they’ve exhausted its institutional processes first, which has been described by some as “designed to frustrate complainants into defeat.”

The outcome also sets an important precedent for more than 100 UK universities, as Student Group Claim is preparing similar claims against them on behalf of around 120,000 students.

UCL now has eight months to settle with students involved in the current case if it doesn’t want to proceed to trial. 

Speaking to The London Tab, UCL students said the pandemic and strikes “tremendously impacted” their experience. They also thought the tuition they paid, anywhere from £9,250 to more than £40,000, were “a total waste” as it only got them virtual teaching, cancelled activities, limited professional development opportunities, and restricted access to campus facilities

Student Group Claim’s main arguments are that students should be refunded because the subpar experiences mean there’s been a breach of their tuition contracts with UCL, and that they have the right to take UCL to court to claim compensation. The University, however, tried to argue that court should not be an option “unless and until” students first completed its internal complaints procedures, and if that failed, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) ombudsman process.

One of the UCL student in the case previously told The London Tab that responses to their complaints within UCL’s internal process were “very underwhelming.” In court, Student Group Claim also questioned the capacity and efficiency of the OIA ombudsman process.

The judge sided with the students in the final ruling handed down on 17th July, saying “some of the Claimants’ concerns [about the processes] are valid.” The result means students can bypass the UCL and OIA if they want to directly sue the University for compensation. But the judge also encourages “in strongest possible terms” for the uni and students to resolve outside of court to “limit costs substantially.”

UCL is now given eight months to settle the disputes with students in the case before it proceeds to trial. If the trial does happen, Student Group Claim estimates they can claim around £5,000 each for home students involved in the case, with the number being higher for international students.

Ryan Dunleavy, a Student Group Claim lawyer, said: “The Claimants and their legal team will be delighted if UCL now does a volte-face and agrees to pay the students fair compensation, following settlement negotiations through appropriate alternative dispute resolution.

“We have been chasing UCL in writing for more than a year to join us in appropriate settlement talks, which we do not think should be via UCL’s own internal complaints procedure. It is good that the court has prompted UCL to join us in alternative procedures.”

Another lawyer of the campaign, Shimon Goldwater, added: UCL must finally take responsibility for the disruption caused to its students during the lecturers’ strikes and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are hopeful that UCL will now engage constructively in settlement discussions as students have been proposing for many months so that compensation payable to students can be agreed, rather than having to be decided in court.”

In response to the ruling, Professor Kathleen Armour, UCL’s Vice-Provost (Education & Student Experience), said: “We know that the last few years has been a very difficult time for many students. They have faced challenges and disruption from COVID and, in some cases, industrial action too. Supporting our students, their wellbeing and their educational achievements is always UCL’s priority.

“Throughout the pandemic we prioritised the health and safety of our whole community and followed UK Government guidance, working tirelessly to make our campus and all UCL premises as safe as possible so that a high-quality academic experience could continue to be provided.

“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. We still believe our complaints procedure represents the most efficient, cost-effective and swiftest way for students to resolve their complaints. We are pleased that the High Court has ordered that proceedings be stayed to allow for the parties to attempt to resolve the students’ claims without the need for further litigation, and that the Court has recognised the part our complaints procedure can play.

“We remain confident that our complaints process is the best route for our students. Should anyone be unsatisfied with our response to their complaint, they also have the further option of asking the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, the appointed independent body for student complaints, to review UCL’s decision.”

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