Was your university experience impacted by COVID or strikes? You could win £5,000 in compensation – here’s how
It would be an understatement to say that anyone who has been a student in the past few years has had a shit time. Lecturer strikes have disrupted teaching intermittently since 2018, and to make matters worse when the pandemic struck in 2020, most university teaching was either cancelled or moved online. Most recently, a marking boycott left thousands of students in the lurch, with many not given degree classifications as a result of the action.
No one could have predicted the pandemic, nor do the majority of students resent their lecturers for striking for better pensions and working conditions. But the fact remains that students have had a rough deal, and have certainly not got what they paid £9,250 a year for – all while many vice-chancellors continue to rake in six-figure salaries.
Anger and dissatisfaction among students is palpable: protests at graduations across the country are becoming more commonplace, with one student brandishing a banner reading “I want a refund” at her ceremony in Liverpool in July, echoing a similar protest at a UAL graduation event last year.
Now this frustration is being channelled into action, with a total of 120,000 recent graduates and current students across the country signing up to Student Group Claim and planning to sue their universities. UCL has become the first university to face legal action for breach of contract: a recent High Court ruling gave UCL students the green light to go ahead and sue their university without needing to go through long-winded UCL and OIA complaints procedures. The ruling could pave the way for similar action against other universities across the country, and, if they win their cases, result in students receiving compensation.
“UCL’s contractual performance fell short of what was promised. Unlike, for example, many private schools in the UK which moved teaching online during the pandemic, UCL did not offer students a discount on their fees in recognition of its short performance,” explains Joshua Battat, an associate at Asserson, one of the law firms representing claimants seeking compensation from their universities in the Student Group Claim. “Instead, UCL has enjoyed bumper financial years, with tuition fee income increasing 41 per cent between 2018 and 2021”.
“We believe that students and former students have a very strong case against UK universities,” says Battat. Was your university experience impacted by COVID and strikes? Do you want a refund? Here’s how you can seek compensation.
STEP 1: GO TO YOUR UNIVERSITY
First, you should approach your university to see if they can resolve the issue through existing complaints procedures, as getting involved in a court case can potentially be quite a long process.
If you’re still at university or have recently graduated, try speaking to your personal tutor – they might be able to act on your behalf, offer guidance or direct you to useful resources.
Most universities will have information on their website about lodging a formal complaint too – if you google ‘[university name here] complaints’ you should be able to find what you need. You will likely have to fill out a complaints form – you should keep a copy of this for your own records.
While it is still worth filing a complaint with your university, Student Group Claim notes that generally universities do not pay students any compensation, unless it is a very limited sum. Plus, some universities have time limits on making complaints, so you might be unable to complain about an issue which happened several years ago.
STEP 2: GO TO THE OMBUDSMAN
You can then escalate your claim to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) – AKA the higher education ombudsman. Students can only approach the OIA once they have received a ‘Completion of Procedures’ letter from their university with its response to their complaint. They have 12 months from the date on the letter to approach the OIA.
However, if you’re complaining about the standard of teaching you received, the OIA might not be able to help you. They said in a statement on complaints relating to the pandemic that they can’t “look at a complaint that teaching was not of an adequate academic standard; that an online teaching session was just not as good as it would have been face to face”.
STEP 3: GET IN TOUCH WITH STUDENT GROUP CLAIM
If you’re still struggling to get anywhere – which is unfortunately pretty likely, especially given that the number of student complaints has reached record highs so universities and the higher education ombudsman are particularly stretched at the moment – or you want to skip all the hassle of the previous steps, you should sign up with Student Group Claim here. You can make a claim for anything that has happened within the past six years.
“When a student goes to university, they enter into a legally binding contract with their chosen academic institution. If they choose an in-person degree on campus, that contract promises them unrestricted access to certain facilities and in-person tuition, in return for the payment of an agreed tuition fee per academic year,” Battat explains. During the pandemic, though, “students essentially received an online degree yet paid full tuition as if their degrees were unaffected. In the meantime, universities profited hugely”.
“Students essentially received an online degree yet paid full tuition as if their degrees were unaffected. In the meantime, universities profited hugely” – Joshua Battat
Battat adds that they’re also representing students who were impacted by strike action. “Strike action meant that students were deprived of significant teaching hours due to cancelled lectures and seminars [...] and suffered as a result,” he says. “Just like the claims relating to disruption caused to teaching by the pandemic, we too believe that students should be compensated for lost teaching hours caused by industrial action.”
Basically, if your university experience doesn’t align with what you were promised, you can get in touch with Student Group Claim. You can still seek compensation even if your tuition fees were paid by the Student Loans Company, as the claim will be for compensation for breach of contract, rather than a tuition fee refund. The claims are open to international students too.
You don’t need to pay anything to sign up, either. “These group claims are ‘no win, no fee’ claims. Students would keep at least 65 per cent of whatever compensation they receive, with 35 per cent of the compensation being used to cover their legal fees and other costs,” Battat says. “In other words, if the claims fail, students pay nothing.” Plus, if your claim fails, Student Group Claim will make sure that suitable insurance or other cover is in place to protect you, should your university seek its legal costs from you.
How much could you win? It depends what course you did, what fees your university charges, and exactly how much your university experience was affected by strikes and COVID. “Many ‘home’ students could claim around £5,000 in compensation,” Battat estimates. But “international students, who pay higher fees, could be eligible to recover significantly more.”