The UK students taking on universities over Covid disruption

Claimants say they received poor service and felt like ‘lowest form of life in food chain’

A student at her laptop during the pandemic
The claims could cost universities hundreds of millions in compensation
(Image credit: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Around 5,000 current and former University College London (UCL) students are seeking compensation, claiming their tuition contracts were breached after teaching went online during Covid with restricted access to facilities.

Lawyers acting for students have sent “letters before claim” to 17 other institutions including Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool universities. More than 120,000 former and current students have signed up to the legal action.

If successful, the claims could result in a “combined payout” for the UK higher education sector “running into hundreds of millions of pounds”, said the Financial Times (FT).

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What is the claim?

When Covid restrictions began in the UK lectures moved online, and it took more than a year for universities to return to predominantly in-person teaching. The “crux” of the students’ case is that the universities are in breach of contract because the service they received was “inferior to that which they paid for”, said the FT, comparing it to a holiday company that provides a “lesser experience than advertised”.

The pandemic was “unprecedented”, conceded Dazed, “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 have also claimed that UCL benefited from “bumper” financial years during the pandemic. Its income from tuition fees increased by 41% between 2018 and 2021 and its surplus more than doubled, rising from £53.5 million in 2019-20 to £128.3 million in 2020-21, the FT said.

Who are the students?

Shannon Barnes, who is graduating from UCL having done two years of her physiology degree entirely online, told Sky News that her university time was “meant to be the three most memorable years of my life and I feel like it’s been tarnished by so many things”.

In an eye-catching protest, Milly White “unfurled her graduation gown” on stage at a Liverpool University ceremony to reveal an “I want a refund” sign, said the FT.

The criminology graduate, who complained that much of her three-year degree consisted of pre-recorded videos despite paying annual fees of £9,250, said tuition fees are “crippling as it is” but “when it’s not even worth it – when you’re given such a poor service – it just makes it so much worse”.

“Students are treated as the lowest form of life in the university food chain and no one cares,” Tia O’Donnell, who studied fine art at Central Saint Martins and spent two out of the three years in online classes, told Dazed.

How likely are they to succeed?

Students “could face an uphill battle to win”, said the FT, noting that legal experts have warned that students could struggle to quantify the size of any loss. “To think of it as a price in the way you would a car or a holiday is quite difficult,” said Smita Jamdar, head of education at law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

Ane Vernon, head of education at Payne Hicks Beach, told the FT that these sorts of cases were not easy to bring. “Understandably students are aggrieved by their university years being affected by Covid and industrial action, but the challenge will be to prove liability for loss,” she said.

UCL has argued that its contracts with the students specified the university would not be liable for losses arising from “government restrictions and concern with regard to the transmission of serious illness”.

What happens next?

Students in the “closely watched” UCL test case have claimed a “partial early win”, said the FT. The judge, Barbara Fontaine, senior master of the King’s Bench Division, said the students need not follow UCL’s complaints procedure.

Instead she encouraged both parties “in the strongest possible terms” to reach a settlement and ordered an eight-month pause in proceedings. The “eventual outcome” is “likely to set a precedent for many other universities in the country”, said Sky News.

The consequences could be more than legal, as the cases could create a “reputational risk” for universities, said the FT. “The sight of dismayed students taking to the courts is damaging for a sector that has already been hurt not just by the pandemic, but also years of industrial action,” it said.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.