Students may view themselves as consumers of education, but they too have contractual obligations, writes Gary Attle
The recent award of damages to a group of students against their college for breach of contract marks another step towards viewing students as consumers.
The six students from Rycotewood College in Oxfordshire argued that their higher national diploma course in historic vehicle conservation had failed to meet the claims in the prospectus and that necessary work experience and tools had not been provided. They had also missed the first term of the course because the college had not obtained approval from awarding body Btec.
Earlier this month, they were awarded £70,000 between them, including compensation for course fees, expenses and for "loss of opportunity". Sums awarded to each student included £2,000 for disappointment and "loss of enjoyment", the kind of award usually encountered in relation to claims against holiday companies.
Since a case brought against University College Salford in the early 1990s, it has generally been accepted that the relationship between an institution and its students is contractual. But this principle has, as yet, received little testing.
Last year, however, a student brought a claim for breach of contract against the University of Wolverhampton, alleging that his course had failed to meet the promises made for it by the university and that the course provided was of poor quality. The claim was settled out of court for £30,000, with no admission of liability.
The Rycotewood case is significant in that a claim against an educational establishment based on breach of contract has been brought, heard, liability established and damages awarded; and also that the "loss of enjoyment" principle now may be applied in an education context.
But it would be hasty to interpret this case as heralding a new era of institutional liability.
In terms of legal precedents, the award against Rycotewood was made by a county court, which is not a binding authority on any other court, even another county court. Each case will stand or fall depending on its own facts and merits. The Rycotewood case appears unusual at least in one respect, in that part of the claim was based on the institution's failure to obtain approval for the course from Btec.
Given the outcome of the claims against Rycotewood and Wolverhampton, it seems inevitable that these will not be the last claims for breach of contract brought by dissatisfied students - especially if students'
expectations rise in conjunction with their tuition fees. Universities will need to give fresh consideration to risk-management issues and to whether the reality of their courses lives up to promises contained in their literature. We shall also need to consider how the independent adjudicator proposed by the white paper will fit into this changing landscape.
But perhaps it is worth pausing to consider whether a student can be equated with a consumer in all respects. It is true that services are supplied to an individual, but the university-student relationship is not a one-way street: there are rights and responsibilities.
The student becomes a member of the university community, is required to live by its rules for an extended period, and is required to produce academic work for assessment. Having received the tuition services they have paid for, and performed according to the institution's requirements, students will be judged as to whether they have reached the institution's standards of academic achievement before an award is given. That is a rather different type of contract from the one entered into on a trip to EuroDisney.
Gary Attle is a partner in education law at Mills & Reeve, Cambridge.