Students attack introduction of 'one-sided' contract of duties

February 3, 2006

Trouble is brewing at Oxford. Claire Sanders and Anna Fazackerley report

As he faces renewed rebellion, John Hood, Oxford University's Students at Oxford University are opposing plans by the colleges to introduce a contract setting out what the university requires of them, writes Claire Sanders.

The contract is being introduced to protect the colleges from litigation by fee-paying students who feel their courses and tuition fail to meet expectations.

Michael Beloff QC, president of Trinity College, said the old days of a "gentleman's agreement" between students and their colleges were over and that both sides needed a contract to set out their obligations towards each other.

Emma Norris, president of Oxford University Students' Union, said: "We have no problem attending lectures or writing essays. But the proposed contract is one-sided. There is no provision for a minimum level of teaching, nor (anything) to stop the college charging higher rents or taking away first years' accommodation."

The union has written to the colleges requesting more consultation.

Julian Nicholds, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, said: "We are concerned by the one-sided nature of the contracts, which outline a number of requirements for students but remain very vague on what is required of the university in terms of standards of teaching."

He argued that universities' fear of litigation brought by dissatisfied students should not be allowed to override the basic right of students to complain and demand better standards. He also said that contracts could be unfair to students who are forced by their debts to work during term-time.

"These (working) students will often face a conflict between work and university schedules - 38 per cent of students who work are forced to miss lectures, and 21 per cent fail to submit coursework - and this will become only more common as student debt increases in line with variable fees," he said.

But Ruth Deech, the independent adjudicator for higher education, welcomed the move.

"Such contracts highlight the fact that education is a two-way process and are a healthy development. Students need to understand that higher education is not a passive process," she told The Times Higher .

She added that there was already a great deal of legislation and guidance setting out what a student could expect from their university.

"Contracts, by providing clear guidance, will make legislation less likely," she said.

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