Fees 'do not buy' a guaranteed degree

Draft 'contract' aims to spell out students' academic obligations, says Melanie Newman

January 10, 2008

A new student "contract" drafted by a national network of academic legal experts reminds students that payment of tuition fees does not guarantee a degree.

The draft agreement, produced by the Universities and Colleges Education Law Network, says: "It needs to be stressed that the payment of tuition fees is not a matter of 'buying' a degree ('results guaranteed'), as if purchasing a holiday or some other consumer service."

Rather, it continues, "it is a matter of the tuition fee giving access to teaching and other facilities, and of securing the opportunity to earn the degree by working diligently and consistently to meet the appropriate academic requirements".

Fee-paying students have become increasingly quick to complain about their universities and more willing to turn to the law. In response, universities have been seeking to minimise the risk of being sued or of having to pay compensation by drawing up contracts for students to sign, thus reducing their liability.

UCELNET directors Dennis Farrington and David Palfreyman drafted the agreement after other organisations produced versions of a student contract that they felt were too biased in favour of the institution and denied students their rights.

Unlike a version circulated last year by the Association of Heads of University Administration, the UCELNET document is not a formal contract but a "statement of terms" that students would be asked to sign.

The statement, which is out for consultation, explains that students are members of the academic community. "As part of the community, individual students are expected both to contribute to its academic work and also to behave in a manner consistent with being a member of it," it said. It also sets out where students can find the "small print", indicates where they can go with complaints and reminds them to read the university's policy on plagiarism.

The 2006 pay dispute raised concerns that universities could be held responsible for cancelled exams and graduations.

The UCELNET agreement says: "Sometimes things happen which the university cannot control ... In cases of industrial action ... the university will try to keep you informed and do what it can within reason to mitigate any effects on students. However, the university cannot guarantee that it will be able to maintain services at the level you would normally expect."

John McMullen, a partner with law firm Watson Burton, said: "The draft agreement contains rather too much description of the law for a relationship statement, but I would imagine universities would be more inclined to sign up to this than to a heavily legalistic contract like the AHUA's version."

Wes Streeting, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said that UCELNET had developed a balanced agreement "based on the principle that students have rights as well as responsibilities". "This is definitely a step forward from some of the earlier, more one-sided contracts that a number of institutions have introduced," he said.

"The NUS will be producing a Student Rights Charter this term that will outline what students are entitled to, and we will encourage student unions to use this as part of their discussions with their institutions over various policies."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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