UCL Covid compensation battle to go to High Court trial after settlement talks break down

5,000 students could win upwards of £5,000 each

A group of students seeking tuition fee compensation from UCL will take their case to trial after the two parties failed to come to a settlement out of court.

The current and former students are suing the university for compensation over breach of contract due to Covid restrictions and strike action.

Since talks broke down, the group of 924 claimants has been expanded to roughly 5,000 who will have their day in a London High Court.

Negotiations failed shortly after they began in January when it became clear that the two parties would not reach an agreement.

This latest comes after a judge ordered a stay of proceedings in July 2023, encouraging the two parties to enter direct mediation to reach a settlement out of court.

Attempts at mediation failed, with Student Group Claim (SGC), the legal team representing UCL students, saying: “Talks between the students and UCL took place during January 2024 but did not lead to agreement.”

In the original filing, SGC claimed that between 2018 and 2022, UCL did not provide the service that students paid tuition fees for, and therefore were in violation of the terms of their contract.

SGC explains: “In that period the university failed to provide its students with in-person tuition by cancelling classes or moving them online and denying or severely restricting physical access to campus facilities like libraries, study spaces and labs.”

They argue that this represented “a material difference between what students paid for and what they actually received.”

SGC estimates that if the claim is successful, “current and former UK-resident undergraduates who were at university during the pandemic could win compensation in the region of £5,000 each.”

They also anticipate that postgraduate and international students could receive “significantly higher” compensation to reflect the higher fees they pay.

With mediation failing, SGC has been able to add around 4,000 additional students to the claim, bringing the total number to roughly 5,0o0.

Many of these new additions signed up to the claim following news of the original case being heard in court. They were contacted this month to confirm their details in order to be added to the claim.

When the case was first heard in court in May 2023, UCL’s legal team tried to block the proceedings. The university argued that students must first navigate UCL’s internal complaints procedure and then take their claim to the industry Ombudsman, before being able to sue in court.

This process has been described by some as “designed to frustrate complainants into defeat,” with the court rejecting the argument over concerns that the number of complaints would likely overwhelm the university.

With the case going to trial, students from across the country will be watching eagerly with hopes of similar cases against their universities. SGC currently represents over 153,000 current and former students across the UK.

The team is preparing cases against 80 universities across the country, and has already sent letters to 17 other universities, pursuing similar claims for compensation.

The universities are:

• University of Birmingham
• University of Bristol
• Cardiff University
• City University of London
• Coventry University
• Imperial College London
• King’s College London
• University of Leeds
• University of Liverpool
• London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
• University of Manchester
• Newcastle University
• University of Nottingham
• Queen Mary University of London
• University of Sheffield
• University of the Arts London (UAL)
• University of Warwick

SGC argues that universities owe students compensation as they continued to profit during Covid and strikes.

It claims: “Unlike students, universities thrived financially during the Covid period and can afford to meet their legal obligations and make good their students’ losses.

“Many increased their income from student fees over the pandemic and boosted their savings, in some cases receiving millions of pounds in Government furlough payments.”

These arguments will no doubt be repeated to a judge in the coming months.

But for now, a court must convene to fix a timetable for the proceedings and set a trial date.

Professor Kathy Armour, UCL’s Vice-Provost (Education & Student Experience) said:  “We and the claimants’ lawyers have mutually agreed to lift the stay of the Court proceedings so that the litigation can proceed.

“Disappointingly, our Alternative Dispute Resolution proposal, where students could use our internal complaints procedure and, if not satisfied, refer UCL’s decision to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, was flatly rejected by the claimants’ lawyers.  This process was acknowledged by Senior Master Fontaine in the High Court as a “ready-made” proposal and we consider it to have been the most appropriate way for the Court proceedings to be resolved without further unnecessary expense. We are disappointed that this is unable to proceed.

“As further mediation has also been attempted, in good faith, and this was unsuccessful, we now await the Court to list a Case Management Conference, for further directions as to how the case should proceed.

“Unfortunately this will further delay any outcome for the students, something we have tried to, and were keen to, prevent. We know the last few years have been a very difficult time for many students. They have faced challenges and disruption from COVID and, in some cases, industrial action. Supporting our students, their wellbeing and their educational achievements is always UCL’s priority.

“Throughout the Covid-19 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.”

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