Leeds housing win prompts call for fight against 'unfair' contracts

September 22, 2006

Students were urged this week to fight back against one-sided contracts that limit their consumer rights after it emerged that Leeds University's student union managed to rewrite an "unfair" accommodation deal.

Jaswinder Gill, an education law expert at law firm Omerods, said the success of the student union in tearing up a "one-sided" accommodation contract should be an example to all students.

His comments came in the week that the National Union of Students launched a major offensive on the emergence of strict new contracts governing student behaviour and attendance. The NUS said it would challenge such contracts in the courts as they unfairly removed students' basic legal rights.

Mr Gill told The Times Higher : "There is a need for real equality and fairness between students and universities.

"Universities appear to be going to extreme lengths to widen the gap on equality in their favour, in desperate attempts to halt complaints and claims and to disguise increasingly poor-quality education."

He added that universities in general were seeking to remove students' rights while avoiding "looking at the root cause of students' disputes". He cited the Leeds case as an example of what students and their representatives could achieve.

Andrea Kerslake, housing specialist at Leeds University student advice centre, said that the former accommodation contract at the university had been criticised for including "unfair contract terms" by the Office of Fair Trading, after a student made a complaint to the OFT.

She said the contract had included terms that gave the university disproportionate rights, including provisions to allow the university "access at all times" to student rooms and powers to terminate contracts without notice.

Ms Kerslake drafted a new version of the contract herself, which was largely accepted by the university. The university said: "We updated our contracts for student accommodation nearly three years ago following feedback from students and concerns from the OFT."

The Times Higher reported in August how Chester University had provoked anger with a new contract that effectively removed students' rights to sue over poor quality education, while placing many obligations on them to "study diligently" and to attend all lectures. Similar, although less sweeping, contracts are in place at Oxford University and elsewhere.

Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton this week, NUS president Gemma Tumelty said: "We intend to take a proactive stance on this. We're against contracts in their entirety. They have been brought in without sufficient consultation with student unions."

Wes Streeting, NUS vice-president for education, said: "We're organising a major consultation with members and researching the legal implications of these contracts. They may be in breach of OFT rules, in which case we will bring forward legal test cases."

But Paul O'Prey, vice-chancellor of Roehampton University, told the fringe: "I anticipate all universities going in the direction of a student contract. This one will run and run."

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