Lawyers have advised all universities and colleges to review their legal position in the light of the Human Rights Act, which received royal assent this week.
The act, said to be one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation for many years, could lead to more aggrieved students and academics starting litigation against institutions. It may also allow universities to take funding councils to court if they believe they have been unfairly treated.
This will mean more work for university administrations worried about facing legal actions from students over tuition fee charges. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has advised all institutions to carry insurance to protect governors and members of university councils from dissatisfied students.
It emerged this week that almost 30 Oxford University colleges plan to pool resources to take joint insurance against such actions. Oxford's domestic bursars' committee is considering an insurance policy, worth about Pounds 15 million a year, to guard against "legal liability for any claim against the insured for a wrongful act". This would include claims of poor teaching against tutors employed by the college and health issues.
Clendon Daukes, the bursar of St Peter's College, said: "The fact that students are paying for their education is something that all universities ought to consider." It is sensible for colleges to work together to get a better deal, he said.
Under the Human Rights Act, due to come into force early in 2000, students should have the right to a fair and public hearing. This may threaten internal disciplinary processes such as the visitor or arbitration, which is favoured by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.
The act stresses proportionality, which would mean, for example, that students not given a degree for failing to pay fees could argue that future damage to their careers was disproportionately harsh.
Nick Saunders, director of the education law group at legal firm Eversheds, said many are likely to test the terms of the act in its first few months. "Students are most likely to use it initially. But it is conceivable that universities may be able to use the act if they feel, for example, that funding decisions have been reached by a process that treated them unfairly."
Clauses on freedom of expression could affect how maverick lecturers are treated, and institutions could come under more pressure to explain decisions over degree results or rejecting applicants.