Litigation and learning don’t mix

Financial disputes and litigation are lose-lose situations for universities and students no matter the outcome, says Ronel Lehmann 

April 15, 2018
Judge and gavel

Last month I was relieved to see a graduate who sued Oxford University over his failure to achieve a first-class honours degree have his claim dismissed by the high court. Faiz Siddiqui achieved a 2:1 degree at Brasenose College, but blamed inadequate teaching for the fact that he did not do better, and didn’t get into a top US law school. He sought £1 million in compensation but, ultimately, the judge was not convinced that the teaching was to blame.

Next we learned that university students facing a month of industrial action by tutors are to seek compensation for lectures that they miss, because they have paid out in tuition fees. The tutors are striking over changes to their pensions, and several online petitions have launched calling for universities to offer refunds to those affected.

And now we hear about the case of Pok Wong, who is suing Anglia Ruskin University for £60,000, despite getting a first in international business strategy, claiming that the university made misleading claims about teaching quality and career prospects.

It is a shame to see financial disputes and litigation in the world of learning, given how committed all our academics and educators are to the success of the young people they work with. There is sadly no money-back guarantee on offer when students pay out their tuition fees and embark on their courses, and on both sides, there needs to be commitment to hard work and to the pursuit of success.

We need to ensure that young people clearly understand what is expected of them when they begin their university life. Degrees should not be seen as a commodity that can be bought – and students have to understand that splashing out thousands of pounds in tuition fees is not a guarantee that they will walk away with the coveted 1:1 or 2:1 unless they put in a huge amount of hard work.

The contractual arrangements between universities and students must be strengthened to account for circumstances such as those set out above. Robust complaints procedures should be in place. Mediation and arbitration are surely better ways to resolve these issues as opposed to expensive court action, which can be detrimental to both the student and the institution.

I am delighted to see education in the spotlight, and it is pleasing to see students so passionate about their studies. But it is a shame that the introduction of tuition fees has led to students feeling like customers, willing to sue if they do not get the outcomes that they believe they paid for. The University and College Union has itself condemned “the monetisation of education” and warned that cuts to lecturers’ pensions will lead to a recruitment crisis.

As founder of an organisation that helps young people transition from education to employment, I strongly believe that we should be supporting the next generation to be the best that they can be. There is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to education but it is clear that litigation is not what we need in this arena – and we must communicate this to all prospective students.

Students study to achieve academic success, and clearly hope to find a pathway to employment as a result. But even if this proves challenging, being litigious against the institution preparing them for life will not cover them in glory. Employers do not want to take on graduate troublemakers, and the blame culture should not be extended to encourage such actions. Instead, those that feel aggrieved would be much better advised to pursue their complaints via the proper channels, take responsibility for their own actions and then to focus their efforts on preparing for the world of work.

There will always be mavericks who want to make some noise, and I can quite understand the frustration if, after three or four years of study, a student either does not achieve the result that they hoped for, or fares well but still fails to find a job. But perhaps this should be seen as the first hard lesson on the route to a sustainable career path… there will be knocks along the way, and hard work will not always bear fruit, but the answer is to dust oneself off and seek out the next opportunity. The employment market is a tough enough place for first-time jobseekers today, without the added distraction of litigation on their CVs.

It pains me to see lawsuits being bandied around between lectures, because I know how passionate all our educators are, from primary schools to top-flight universities, and I fully believe that teaching is a vocation to which not all are called. Let us remember that, and thank common sense that our less popular cabinet ministers cannot sue their places of learning and claim that they didn’t get adequate teaching to guide the country!

 Ronel Lehmann is the founder of Finito and governor of City of London School.

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