Almost 40 students seeking about £1 million compensation after Oxford Brookes University failed to gain professional accreditation for their osteopathy degree course have been offered ex gratia payments of up to £5,000 each if they agree to waive their right to take legal action against the university.
The university has accepted a recommendation from its complaints committee to make payments to 37 students who enrolled on the BSc osteopathy course in 1998 and 1999. A complaint hearing for a group of 11 students who joined in 2000 is also pending.
The committee made no recommendation on how much the students should be offered, but the vice-chancellor wrote - on a "without prejudice" basis - to students this week offering £2,5 to the 1999 group, and £5,000 to the 1998 group - a total of about £100,000. This reflects the extra time it has taken them to qualify as practitioners because they had to sit additional exams, provided by an accredited body, on top of their Oxford Brookes' degrees before they could gain professional status. A representative of the students said they were unlikely to accept the offer when they had originally sought between £15,000 and £28,000 each for lost earnings.
The students have accused the university of "failing in its duty of care and contractual obligations" because it repeatedly failed attempts to gain accreditation for the course from the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC), which regulates the profession and registers all practitioners.
A 1993 law stated that all osteopathy qualifications leading to professional status had to gain formal accreditation by the GOsC by 2000.
This accreditation was not a requirement when the students enrolled, but the students say that the university had notice of the new requirements, and that there was a clear understanding that the accreditation would be obtained and the course would lead to professional practice. Oxford Brookes' application for accreditation was rejected in 2000, and its attempts to reapply in 2001 were scuppered after the GOsC made it clear that "more needed to be done" before it would succeed.
The university again deferred applications in 2002 before finally reapplying in March this year.
In a letter to students last week, the university complaints committee said it had rejected their complaints after a hearing six months ago. There had been no failure in the duty of care, the committee said, because "there was no evidence that the university had ever claimed that the course would lead to registration with the GOsC". It added: "There was evidence that the university had said that it would seek GOsC accreditation, which it had done and was continuing to do."
The committee also rejected the students' complaint that they had been kept in the dark about the failed applications for accreditation, but it concluded: "In future all staff should give a high priority to ensuring that students are fully aware of the issues that affect them and their course and, in particular, to acknowledge and respond to complaints from students."
But the committee accepted that the students' careers had been delayed - by 17 months for one cohort, and five months for the other - through no fault of their own. "The committee was very aware of the fact that the difficulties that the university had had in achieving recognised qualification status meant that, through no fault on the part of the complainants, it had taken them significantly longer to complete their course than both they and the university had initially expected," it said.
"Therefore, exceptionally, it recommended that the university offer an ex gratia payment to each complainant in the 1998 and 1999 cohorts, provided that before the payment is made in each case, the complainant agrees to relinquish any claims that they might believe that they have against the university," it concluded.
The university said this week that it had worked hard to gain accreditation and had already waived part of the students' fees and provided financial assistance for extra travel costs. It said it had reported to the students the conclusions of its complaint hearing, which had recommended ex gratia payments with no admission of liability, but whether to pay and the sums of money involved were "currently under consideration".