The view of the student as customer is driving up legal costs, reports Phil Baty
Universities are spending at least £15 million a year on lawyers to fight off an increasing number of legal challenges from students, according to an Oxford University-based think-tank.
The Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (Oxcheps) formally launched its mediation service for academic disputes this week with a warning that higher education institutions are too ready to resort to expensive lawyers in the face of a seemingly unstoppable growth in the number of legal complaints from students.
David Palfreyman, Oxcheps director and bursar of New College Oxford, said:
"Litigation is expensive in terms of legal fees and management time and, if the university loses, perhaps also in terms of reputation.
"Now that 'UK HE plc' is effectively a consumer-driven, service industry higher education institutions should think hard about legal risk management before incurring 'blank-cheque' legal costs. In some HEIs nobody seems to be properly in charge of the litigation juggernaut once it begins to roll."
Oxcheps estimates that universities spend an average of £100,000 a year on legal fees, most of which is spent defending legal claims from students and staff.
Bills have been far higher at some institutions. Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor at London South Bank University, said his institution had so far spent about £250,000 fighting one case over the past eight years, involving claims of race discrimination by former student union offices.
Professor Hopkin said: "We have won comprehensively on all charges, but nonetheless the case continues on appeal. We are unlikely to recover anything near the costs we've spent at the end of it all.
"I'd say that £15 million for the sector is at the low end of the scale. The figure is no doubt going to get higher with increased tuition fees when students will be demanding more from their universities and will find more grounds for fault."
Professor Hopkin said the Oxcheps service was a helpful development.
"Anything that helps to head off expensive litigation has to be a good idea," he said.
"Of course, there will always be people who want their day in court, but in many cases it is a needless waste of public money as universities are obliged to defend themselves and pay for expensive lawyers."
The mediation service was jointly founded with Gill Evans, a history professor at Cambridge University. She said the service would complement plans in the higher education bill to establish an Office of the Independent Adjudicator to deal with student complaints.
Professor Evans said: "Nothing is on offer in the bill to help resolve disputes involving staff, and the mediation process can anyway assist both the institution and staff or students outside the formality of the normal complaints or disciplinary procedures, whether the OIA or the employment tribunal."
Professor Evans estimates that Cambridge spent between £1 million and £2 million fighting legal claims she had brought in a decade-long dispute with the university. The dispute was settled after mediation last year.