Consumer rights laws applying to ruined holidays or disastrous wedding days have been extended to higher education in a landmark legal ruling.
Oxford County Court last week awarded six students up to £14,000 each in damages, including £2,000 each for the "disappointment, stress or loss of enjoyment" they suffered on a badly run Higher National Diploma course at Rycotewood College in Oxfordshire.
The "disappointment" remedy, established in case law, has never before been applied to education. Student leaders say a precedent could prove awkward for universities that decide to charge top-up fees for courses.
Jaswinder Gill, the students' solicitor, said: "This was a test case breaking novel ground, so the ruling is an historic legal development in education. This is a real recognition by the courts that the student really is now established in law as a consumer. It has massive implications."
The THES first reported in 2001 that the six students claimed that their HND in historic vehicle restoration did not provide them with adequate skills to equip them for professional careers, even though some of the group successfully completed the course.
The students, led by Lee Buckingham, who gained his HND, and Jason England, who withdrew from the course, said that the college broke promises made in its prospectus, had failed to deliver work experience, and could not even provide basic tools for the practical work.
The students won their case last March, but Judge Charles Harris QC delivered his verdict on their damages late last week.
"For the first time this recognises that people invest their time as well as their money in education, and expect to gain not only a paper qualification but an enjoyable and rewarding life experience," Mr Gill said.
He said the judge applied the same principle as for holiday-makers who found their overseas accommodation did not meet the expectations raised by promises made in brochures.
NUS president Mandy Telford said: "Students have the right to expect a high-quality learning experience when at university. It is important that students have material they can rely on to make an informed choice before they start any course.
"It is the government's insistence on talking about education in purely fiscal terms that may lead to more and more students being disappointed with the result of years of study."
She added:"If a graduate does not earn the £400,000 graduate premium, should he or she sue the Department for Education and Skills, which has constantly used that line to try to sell students and the public its ridiculous student funding proposals?"
Judith McIntyre, principal of Rycotewood College, said in a prepared statement: "The judge rejected the claimants' claim for damages for substantial loss of earnings and instead awarded damages based on the perceived value of the course to the students, a small amount for loss of expectation, distress etcetera, and incidental expenses."