LONDON: Thousands of current and former students of University College London (UCL) are seeking compensation, claiming their tuition contracts were breached after teaching went online during Covid with restricted access to facilities. These include dozens of students from India who suffered disruption in studies and joined the mass lawsuit. The group has urged the London High Court to give the legal complaint its go ahead. According to news agency Reuters, these students have paid at least 9,250 pounds ($11,482) a year for studying at UCL.
If successful, the students stand to win tens of thousands of pounds in compensation saying they were offered online course instead of what was promised – in-person teaching.
Lawyers running the case against UCL say around 100,000 students from 18 universities including UCL have signed up to bring legal action.
The problems Indian students faced
The legal action has been mounted by those who studied in the UK between 2017 and 2022. Among them is Arunima Ghosh, an MSc in applied bioscience student.
Ms Ghosh said she paid full fees for the in-person experience at the university by offering her home as collateral against a loan. According to Times of India, she was researching the effects of chemotherapy on cancerous cells but the university closed the labs during the pandemic. So she doesn’t have anything to show as experiment.
“I have nothing. I paid all this money and received nothing that was promised,” she said
Universities across the United Kingdom moved to online learning during the pandemic, with students also being denied access to teaching facilities such as libraries.
“I have come out with a very lacklustre degree. It’s not worth what I paid for. It is not of the same value. I don’t have the skills that were promised. So, no, it was not worth it,” another students Tia O’Donnell, told Channel 5 News.
What UCL has to say?
UCL says it did not breach its contract with students. The university argues it was permitted to change or cancel any part of its courses due to circumstances beyond its control, such as the pandemic and consequent lockdown.
What the Indian student faced?
Law firm Harcus Parker, which has taken up the case of the Indian students, said 300 have returned to their home country but several thousand more Indians in other countries are taking part in the claim.
“These Indian students spent an awful lot of money and got very little back for it and feel very disgruntled. In 2020 to 2021 teaching was shunted online in a haphazard manner and physical facilities were largely removed, yet they were paying these huge international fees to be given a correspondence course,” the firm’s Ryan Dunleavy said.
The first hearing in the high court took place on May 24 against UCL. Later, 17 other UK universities were sent letters before action.
On July 17, the court asked both the parties to settle the claim out-of-court without the need for a trial, and has put the trial on pause for eight months. The judge also gave permission for either side to ask the court to cut short that period to four months in certain circumstances.
The students’ body, on studentgroupclaim.co.uk said that they will try to find an out-of-court solution but will move ahead with the case if it is not settled during the given timeframe.
“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,” Professor Kathleen Armour, UCL’s Vice-Provost (Education & Student Experience)
Can the students succeed?
Students “could face an uphill battle to win”, according to a report in. Legal experts say 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,” Smita Jamdar, head of education at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, told the outlet.
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.