In recent years, the pandemic and lecturer strikes have severely disrupted university teaching – and now students are taking universities to court to get their money back
Last summer, Tia O’Donnell turned up to her graduation ceremony at Central Saint Martins (CSM) wearing not only the traditional gown and mortarboard, but also a thin piece of cloth spray-painted with the words “I want a refund”.
It was a bitter end to what should have been a dream come true. “The moment I got accepted into CSM was the most proud of myself I’ve ever felt,” she tells Dazed. “The first day of university was everything I expected it to be: nervous excitement, awkward icebreaker games and falling in love with the endless amenities.”
But, Tia says, everything changed in 2020. “I wish I could walk away from the four years I have invested in CSM stating that it was magical, however, my time at university felt very empty.” Instead of making full use of CSM’s studios and workshops and bonding with her coursemates, Tia spent two out of three years trying to study Fine Art online – an experience she calls “depressing”. Tia isn’t alone: as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most university teaching was either cancelled or moved online, while facilities such as studios, libraries and laboratories were shut down.
To make matters worse, university teaching across the country has been regularly disrupted by strike action since 2018, when lecturers first began striking in protest of reforms which would have drastically cut pensions. The strikes acted as a catalyst for wider discussions about working conditions among members of the University and College Union (UCU), and prompted further industrial action over pay and conditions. To this day, students remain impacted by the ongoing dispute: most recently, they’re currently facing the prospect of unmarked dissertations and postponed graduations as a result of a marking boycott. (It’s worth noting that 70 per cent of students support striking lecturers, and like Tia, are largely directing their anger at university management for not settling the dispute).
Tia says that her final piece of work nearly went unmarked due to a marking boycott last year. “I do totally understand why the tutors had no choice but to go on strike,” she says. “But it seems that students are treated as the lowest form of life in the university food chain and no one cares.”
Throughout the chaos of the last three years, students have continued to pay an eye-watering £9,250 a year in tuition fees – and international students have paid even more. Obviously, lecturers have the right to go on strike and the pandemic was – as it has been described countless times – unprecedented. But when it comes down to it, students have just not got what they paid for. It’s not rocket science: people whose package holidays were cancelled got their money back when the pandemic hit, so why not students?
“Students are treated as the lowest form of life in the university food chain and no one cares” – Tia O’Donnell
Tia was serious when she said, “I want a refund”. She’s signed up to Student Group Claim, an organisation helping students claim financial compensation for the disruption to their teaching due to COVID-19 and strike action. It’s estimated that students could receive compensation of around £5,000 each – with bigger payouts for international students who pay more in fees. The movement started in 2020 for claims from University College London (UCL) students, but has since expanded: now, it has amassed over 100,000 student and alumni members from over 100 different universities across the country, with lawyers poised to represent them on a no-win, no-fee basis. It’s set to be the largest ever mass litigation to be brought against Britain’s universities.
“I’d love to take my university to court because I feel that they have broken their contractual agreement with students. I have paid the full university fees over the COVID period – which was two years out of my three year course – for a service that has not been delivered,” Tia says. She adds that she hopes the movement will highlight underlying problems with the ways universities are organised. “Tutors are forced to go on strike due to their pay and pensions being cut, meaning students’ education is hindered [...] But universities should not be run as a business. Education should not be a luxury.”
The first case which has been set in motion is against UCL. On Wednesday (May 24), a High Court hearing saw a legal team representing nearly 5,000 UCL students and alumni fight for their right to sue the university, arguing that their clients felt “cheated” by their university experience and were entitled to compensation like any other consumer would be. A judge will now decide whether the students are allowed to pursue their claims in court – if it is allowed to proceed, it’ll set a precedent and similar claims will be brought against other universities across the country.
Lana Baker-Cowling studied Geography at UCL and graduated in 2021. Like Tia, she’s hoping to win compensation from her university to address her poor student experience. She first got involved with Student Group Claim after she saw an Instagram post from the group: “I read a bit more about it and I thought it made a lot of sense,” she says. “It was advertised as no-win, no-fee, so for me there was absolutely no drawback to put my name behind it.”
“There are a lot of things [UCL] could have done better around COVID,” she says. “They could have put students at the forefront of their decision-making processes more – what ended up happening is that students ended up feeling like an afterthought.” Now, Lana says she wants “some sort of compensation or acknowledgement of how UCL responded - just them taking responsibility in some way and owning up to things.”
In response to the hearing, UCL’s Professor Kathleen Armour, Vice-President (Education & Student Experience) said in a statement that the university “prioritised the health and safety of the whole community” during the pandemic and that they “respect the right of our students to complain and seek redress if they feel that they have not received the support they expected from us”.
Armour added that UCL believes the legal action is “unnecessary and premature” and recommended that students use their internal complaints procedure or speak to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE) instead. Some students have successfully won compensation by going through the OIAHE, with £1 million awarded in 2022 alone. But students have claimed that there would simply be too many cases to process – in 2022 the number of complaints sent to the OIAHE reached a record high – while lawyers believe students are well within their rights to sue anyway.
It’s not yet clear whether the court will allow the students to continue with their case against UCL. What’s more certain is that if the court judgement does allow the case to progress, UK universities will have a big storm coming.