Flood warning: prepare to be sued by students

February 14, 1997

Thames Valley University became the latest university to receive a summons from a former pupil this week. And lawyers called for urgent clarification of the legal basis of universities' contracts with students predicting that growing numbers of dissatisfied students would demand compensation through the courts.

Thames Valley says there is no case to answer and is resisting the claims by a former HND computing student.

Ivan Walker, a lawyer specialising in education at Surrey solicitors firm Lawfords, warned universities to tread cautiously when making promises about courses in advertising material which formed a contractual document.

"While I have seen a lot of students looking for an excuse for their own failures I have also seen a growing number of genuine cases where students have argued a clear case of breach of contract."

Mr Walker is currently investigating the case of a Btec student suing a college because her course was allegedly too theoretical. "The issues are difficult," he said. "Who made the mistake? Did the college provide the wrong type of course or did the student sign up for an inappropriate programme?" Proceedings are also being issued against a London university by three discontented students, according to education lawyer Jaswinder Gill, who warned that damages could be "very substantial". "There is a trend now for students seeking to challenge universities in the courts if they do not fulfil their obligations to provide appropriate programmes of study."

Mr Gill said there was clearly a legal contract between student and university. But Dennis Farrington, an academic lawyer at Stirling University, said a breach of contract of this nature was highly unusual in higher education. "I would like the courts to establish clearly that any contractual relationship exists."

Clive Booth, vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, argued for a quick-fix arbitration service to settle disputes. Dr Booth, chairman of a Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals working party reviewing student complaints procedures, said the London case exemplified the problem he was addressing.

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