The fate of several thousand current and former students of University College London (UCL) now lies in the hands of the London High Court, including dozens of students from India who faced disruptions in their studies and joined the collective lawsuit. These students who take major life decisions by arranging their tuition fees, sometimes by taking loans that have made them keep their homes as collateral, are anxiously pursuing compensation.
They are alleging a breach of tuition contracts due to the shift to online teaching with limited access to facilities during the Covid pandemic. The group, under Student Group Claim (SGC), sought approval from the London High Court for their legal complaint. Should the decision not be in favour of these students, one can only imagine the consequences that they may have to suffer, along with their families in a domino effect to face colossal financial loss and emotional damage which follows when families bet their entire life savings to educate their children.
The first hearing in the high court against UCL occurred on May 24, where they(UCL) urged that their own internal complaints procedures must be used, despite denying all liability to pay any compensation to the students. Subsequently, letters before action were sent to 17 other UK universities.
On July 17, the court instructed both parties to attempt an out-of-court settlement to resolve the claim without going to trial. The trial has been suspended for eight months. Additionally, the judge granted permission for either side to request shortening that period to four months under specific circumstances.
Students from more than 100 UK universities have joined Student Group Claim. Their cases will follow in the wake of the claim against UCL. However, many other universities are looking at the moment at what happens with the UCL claim and it will have a significant impact on those other cases.
If successful, the students could potentially receive tens of thousands of pounds in compensation, arguing that they were promised in-person teaching but were offered online courses instead.
“Not having practical experience is a hollow I will have forever”
Arunima Ghosh came to the UK for her MSc in Bioscience in January 2020 before Covid hit. One of the major reasons why she chose to do her degree in the UK and at her chosen university was to gain more practical experience in the laboratory. These skills are the major backbone of the degree she came to study and are very important for successful career progression.
She is one of the students who have signed up for their tuition fee reimbursement. Detailing her experience that prompted this decision, she said, “I had to design my master’s dissertation project which was supposed to be a laboratory-based work on chemotherapy resistance in cancer cells, early in Feb - March 2020. As the university shut down and labs were closed at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, I was given a few weeks' notice to switch to a dry project or literature review which I could do from home.
“The dissertation has the maximum weightage in the degree and not being able to do that in the laboratory and getting the opportunity to learn the skills I was supposed to after spending so much more money as an international student was a major disappointment.
“What was worse was that EU and home students were allowed to differ their dissertation to the time when labs opened however mine wasn’t as the university refused visa extension. I felt this to be extremely unfair.
“In general, my course was something that could not be done through distance learning and the university very well understood that. One cannot tell a doctor to learn surgery online and directly go to the operation theatre. Similarly, a scientist needs to learn their experimental skills to be able to secure jobs and conduct further experiments.
“When I contacted the university for some reimbursement, I was said that they have given me what was promised. However, the whole laboratory infrastructure was shut down and scientific reagents, consumables and machines were not in use. The university mostly profited by saving all the expenses that I paid my overseas tuition fees for.”
This experience was not only unfair to Arunima, who paid hefty fees in order to gain practical experience, it also affected her career. She said-
“Whether you are applying for a job or PhD roles, your master's research project is very important. Not having that is a hollow I will have forever which could have been, on the other hand, a major plus point in my career.
“I have progressed in new roles and landed in jobs but that is only due to the companies being lenient towards Covid impacted students. Otherwise, there is added focus on university experience when you are applying as a fresh graduate.”
While the teachers’ strike is valid, it is at the expense of the students
When Shovon Roy enrolled for his Journalism course at his university, the courses were being held online. He chose to defer with hopes that he would attend once offline classes started, but his hopes never materialised. Of the three modules in the course, two were delivered online.
Additionally, with the teachers going on strike, half the classes were cancelled. “Out of 11 classes in the module, we only attended 5 and this frustrated the students. Also, the assignments were based on all the classes, so the students had to resort to self-study for the six cancelled classes.
“On confronting the teachers about the strike, we were told that the teachers were not getting paid enough and there was discrimination within the faculty and the teachers of colour were devoid of a raise. However, as valid the reason was, this was happening at the cost of the students”, he said.
The university authorities at Shovon’s University refused to amend the fees structure, giving the reason that they “needed to pay the teachers”, while there haven’t been any reconsideration of salary since 2008.
Referring to international students, Shovon said- “While the local students pay around £10,000 for the course, the international students pay double the amount. Additionally, my course is part- time and is attended by professionals. While they might not really care about the fees regulation, international students come to the UK with the main aim of pursuing the course and have financial limitations.”
Another student, Anwesha Saha, also missed classes due to teachers' strike. While she only missed three-four of them, she has friends who missed months of classes.
She was able to cope with the missed classes, but Anwesha now faces problems in applying for jobs as her transcript is incomplete. “With the professors on strike, one of my papers have not been graded and that leaves my transcript incomplete. Due to this, when I now apply for a job, I have to write to the organisation explaining my situation.
UCL Vice-Provost’s reaffirms belief in the institution’s complaints procedure
Professor Kathleen Armour, UCL’s Vice-Provost (Education & Student Experience) gave the following statement:
“We know that the last few years has been a very difficult time for many students. They have faced challenges and disruption from Covid and, in some cases, industrial action too. Supporting our students, their wellbeing and their educational achievements is always UCL’s priority.
“We 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. We still believe our complaints procedure represents the most efficient, cost-effective and swiftest way for students to resolve their complaints. We are pleased that the High Court has ordered that proceedings be stayed to allow for the parties to attempt to resolve the students’ claims without the need for further litigation and that the Court has recognised the part our complaints procedure can play.
“We remain confident that our complaints process is the best route for our students. Should anyone be unsatisfied with our response to their complaint, they also have the further option of asking the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, the appointed independent body for student complaints, to review UCL’s decision.”
Universities should be voluntarily paying compensation to their students
Ryan Dunlevy is a partner at Harcus Parker, the law firm conducting the SGC. According to him, the universities adapted to the Covid lockdowns and other restrictions due to Covid, while charging full fees to students but not providing them with what they had promised. “I say this because the first 18 universities we have engaged with to seek compensation for students made more than £1billion of profit, or “surplus”, over the main lockdown year, which was academic year 2020-2021.
“All of those universities also increased their tuition fee revenue, sometimes by nearly 50%. I can only see that they did this because if an “in person” course is turned into a distance learning or online one, universities are not constrained by capacity in their physical facilities, such as lecture theatres. Theoretically, an infinite number of students could be put on online courses, but only so many can fit into a building and its rooms.
“To top off the bumper profits that the universities made, most also took furlough money over the course of the Pandemic. Universities also saved money over the Covid years by mothballing facilities and paying much-reduced utility and other bills.
“These institutions like to present themselves as struggling charities and suchlike, but the reality is that they are businesses, sometimes with billions of pounds worth of assets, and students are consumers, as well as protected as such by the law.
“In contrast to the universities, students often had no income, no assets, and leave universities with a considerable amount of debt”, he said.
Of the authorities claiming pride in “how universities adapted and managed in adverse circumstances”, while the teachers are striking due to stagnant salaries and discrimination, he said, “I believe that UK universities have little or nothing to be proud of in relation to their reaction to the Pandemic and strikes. They should also question themselves about how they treat their own staff.
“While universities save money again by not delivering their services properly to students during strikes, and, I understand, by not paying their striking workers their full salaries, students are charged full fees for teaching that is not being delivered.
“They should be voluntarily paying compensation to their students for not delivering the services for which they were contracted. Instead, none of the universities we have written to so far has admitted any liability to pay compensation to our clients. That is why this dispute has moved into the litigation arena, with our first case against University College London.”
According to Ryan, “The opportunity of an out-of-court settlement is a fantastic development”. The claim has urge the UCL to engage in settlement talks ever since they sent it the first letter in April 2022.
“Hopefully this judgment will break the deadlock on that point and we can now proceed to settlement negotiations”, he said.
Sometimes settlement negotiations move quickly once they start. I would urge anyone who wants to join the claim to do so now rather than wait. Also, if the UCL claim settles, that is likely to focus the minds of the other universities when it comes to them settling out-of-court.
The SGC claim wants to help the students receive compensation, based on the difference in value between what was promised by the universities and what was delivered. “We all know what was promised, tuition delivered in person by world-leading academics and physical access to state-of-the-art facilities. The promise of these is what attracted students to certain universities in the first place.
What was delivered was quickly cobbled together subpar online, distance learning teaching, and limited or a lack of access to physical facilities”, Ryan explained.
Speaking of the potential damage settlement, he said, “we are estimating them at about £5,000 per student for domestic students, and much more than that for international students, depending upon how much an international student paid for their course.
“Domestic students paid £9,250 per annum in fees whereas international students paid up to £40,000 per annum in fees for the same courses”, he added.
A positive outlook amid claims
Asian Voice also reached out to Chamu Kuppuswamy, Senior Lecturer, Hertfordshire Law School, regarding the faculty operating remotely and providing a satisfactory experience for the students. She informed us that the faculty has been promoting blended learning way before the pandemic as a means to harness the power and opportunity technology presents, for learning and teaching.
She said that, “It was what students signed up for, and what they expected to receive. And so, as the pandemic struck, we were in a position of strength to move online. We ensured that the students were well supported with their learning, by remaining in constant touch with them through motivational videos as well as making sure our online learning portal was updated and accessible at all times. We produced a lot of extra materials, made adjustments to assignments and assessments, and received and responded to a lot of queries and concerns.
“Every week, there is a pre-recorded lecture, a face-to-face in-class session, and a facility to meet the tutors one to one, to clarify anything they are learning on the module. Yes, the experience has been satisfactory for students.
“We deliver our modules in a blended learning environment. While the lectures are pre-recorded in very high-quality recordings, these are not videos of a classroom-delivered lecture with uncertain sound and visual quality. Staff who lecture for blended learning are trained and provided the facilities to record lectures – right from the recommendations to write and design slides, fonts, colours, and the way to deliver (video on/off, diction, pace etc) to a variety of upload methods (video only, video plus slides).
“We constantly discuss this in team meetings, and with central university learning and teaching units, our blended practice is well-honed, and well-liked by students. We are rated highly at UH with a TEF gold. Students derive a lot of benefit from listening to lectures online, and have said so to us.”