Newport spat could set legal precedent

August 11, 2006

Students brief law firm over cut in teaching-contact hours, reports Tony Tysome.

The University of Wales Newport could find itself fighting a legal test case over an alleged "breach of contract" for halving teaching time on a course at short notice.

The action would be the first of its kind to raise the issue of how many contact teaching hours students can expect - setting a precedent that could impact on all higher education institutions.

Solicitors acting on behalf of environmental management students at Newport told The Times Higher they were ready to take the university to court for allegedly failing in its "duty of care, and its duty to provide the level of education promised".

The students say their education and career prospects were ruined by 50 per cent cuts in teaching contact hours last year after a decision to wind down the course. They decided not to take their case to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator because they fear that even if their complaint is upheld they will not get compensation.

Newport said poor recruitment over several years had prompted the decision to close the environmental management course.

A spokesman said changes were made in teaching hours as part of a normal review, approved by external examiners. He added that the university had provided additional tutorials and lectures "as a gesture of goodwill" after students complained.

The spectre of a legal suit over teaching contact hours follows warnings last week from Baroness Ruth Deech, head of the OIA, that some legal firms are touting for business from students and fuelling false expectations over compensation payouts.

Although litigation from students is becoming increasingly common, James Rudall, who is representing the Newport students for solicitors Everett Tomlin Lloyd and Pratt, said this case could be the first of its kind to reach court. "The university promised the students a certain level of service prior to the commencement of their courses. It owes the students a duty of care to provide the level of service they promised and further owes a contractual duty to provide the agreed level of service."

The students claim that the university has failed on both counts.

Meanwhile, Michael German, Liberal Democrat member of the Welsh Assembly, called for an investigation into the case by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the OIA.

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