UCL seeks pause in students’ Covid lawsuit at High Court hearing

Action could pave way for 100,000 students to sue, with cases prepared against 17 other universities

May 24, 2023
Source: iStock/peterspiro

Hundreds of students have begun legal action against UCL over the teaching they received during strikes and the Covid pandemic in what could become a landmark case, leading to tens of thousands of extra claims being brought against UK universities.

At a hearing at the High Court in London on 24 May, lawyers from the law firms Asserson and Harcus Parker accused the institution of a “breach of contract”.

UCL appealed to the court to put proceedings on hold because it believed such cases should be dealt with first by its own complaints procedure and then the ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). A ruling on its application is expected at a later date.

Claims have been filed by 924 current and former UCL students, and the court heard how a further 2,140 students had since come forward wishing to be added to the legal action. The case was being seen as a pilot that, if successful, could lead to further claims. Around 100,000 students have signed up with Student Group Claim - the coordinators of the action - with cases already prepared against 17 other UK universities.

The lawyer for the claimants, Anna Boase, said 47 days of teaching had been “written off” since 2017 because of industrial action and teaching was then heavily disrupted during the pandemic. She said that online tuition was not what was promised when the students signed up to study with the highly ranked institution.

Both international students, paying around £25,000 in tuition fees a year, and domestic students, paying £9,250, are seeking damages reflecting the losses they suffered after paying for a service they say was not delivered. Student Group Claim has previously said this could amount to each student being paid around £5,000, with more for those from overseas.

Ms Boase said any damages should reflect the difference between what the education received was actually worth and what the students paid in tuition. Should the case proceed, expert economists had signalled their willingness to give evidence as to the market value of both online and in-person courses, she added.

She said the case was not about judging whether UCL had had a choice in moving teaching online during the pandemic, or if the education provided was “shoddy”, but it was intended to redress the fact that the students “had not got what they had bargained for”.

Legal representation is being provided on a “no-win, no-fee” basis” and the students, if successful, would keep 65 per cent of their damages with the rest covering the costs, Ms Boase said.

In its submissions to the court, UCL said it had a procedure for resolving student complaints and there was “no justification for the wholesale disregard” of this scheme.

“Court action should be a last resort, and legal costs and court time should be proportionate and not be unnecessarily incurred,” it said.

The university also argued the claims were “formulated at an inappropriately high level of abstraction” and lacked detail. For example, claimants had not listed how strikes days had affected them, it said.

The disparities within the huge pool of students from different academic years, taking different programmes and modules meant there was no basis for bringing a group action, UCL argued.  

UCL’s lawyer, John Taylor, accused the solicitors for the Student Group Claim of focusing on “drumming up numbers” instead of outlining the particulars of its case.

He cited comments made in a YouTube video in which students were told to “tell their friends” about the action and that it “only took 30 seconds” to sign up.

UCL had “spent the last year trying to fob off the claimants”, Ms Boase said, and was trying to delay the action in the hope it would collapse.

She argued that it was not mandatory to pursue claims to the OIA before taking legal action and that these procedures were “woefully inadequate” in terms of addressing the substance of the students’ complaints.

Though the stated timelines for dealing with complaints were two months for UCL and three months for the OIA, Ms Boase said, the cases in reality took far longer.

The OIA, she added, would probably be overwhelmed if it had to deal with all the claimants itself, pointing out that the number was greater than the entire number of complaints the ombudsman dealt with in the whole of last year.

Furthermore, other students at other universities waiting to bring their own cases would probably begin OIA actions as well, she warned, asking “how will the OIA deal with that volume?”

The case continues.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles