Pandemic-hit students in £500m court fight

(Chris Ison/PA) (PA Wire)
(Chris Ison/PA) (PA Wire)

Students bringing a £500 million compensation case because their education was wrecked by the Covid pandemic are set to face off this week in the High Court against one of London’s top universities.

More than 100,000 students have signed up to a group legal action, claiming universities across the UK should pay out damages for cancelled teaching days, tuition being moved online, and the shutdown of key facilities including libraries.

Many paid £9,250 a year in tuition fees and say they feel “cheated” out of the full university experience.

University College London students who are part of the mass legal action are set for a preliminary High Court hearing in their case on Wednesday.

Maiah Thompson is one of the students involved in the UCL legal action, having signed up to a three-year undergraduate sociology course in 2020.

“Almost from the first moment I started, I was unable to realise the full potential of the course that was offered to me”, she said.

“I feel completely disregarded and that my rights have not been respected.”

Ms Thompson, a Canadian, said she and her fellow students were told classes would be moving online due to the pandemic a week into the term.

“I was in London but had to go back home to Canada where I did my classes at 2am to 4am, saddened by the fact that the in-person and social aspect of university, an element so fundamental, was taken away from me and many others”, she said.

“For two years at UCL, I completed an online course, something I was not promised or advertised.

“Professors hardly provided any one-to-one teaching and re-used pre-recorded lectures.

“I met hardly any friends and not receive the teaching and assessment that was promised.

“I have not received what I was paying for and there has been little communication from the university.”

Students involved in the claim, being brought through solicitors at Asserson Law Offices and Harcus Parker, say lecturer strikes as well as Covid affected their studies between 2017 and 2022.

Amber Rogers, 26, said she missed the equivalent of a term’s worth of teaching due to strikes at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

She said: “I think the main reason I got a 2:1 instead of a First was because of these strikes.

“Academically it’s a brilliant place.  Before the strikes, the tuition I got was top notch and the library was amazing. It was the best place to go, but when the strikes began it was quite difficult.

“The issue with lecturers pay is a difficult one, but it is not the fault of students, and they are bearing the brunt of it.”

Shimon Goldwater, a partner at Asserson, said: “Students at UCL and across the country simply did not receive the service they paid for, and, like any other consumer, they deserve fair compensation for the loss they have suffered.” The law firm estimates that each student could win £5,000 in damages, with bigger potential payouts for international students who faced significantly higher fees.

Tia O’Donnell, a fine art student at Central St Martin’s, staged a protest at her graduation ceremony, wearing a board over her gown emblazoned with the words “I want a refund”.

Tia O’Donnell protested about her university education during graduation (Supplied)
Tia O’Donnell protested about her university education during graduation (Supplied)

Towards the end of her four-year course, she struggled to access a studio in Green Park due to Covid, and was dismayed when the traditional end-of-year show – an important springboard into an arts career – was moved to online only. Ms O’Donnell says she had sympathy with striking lecturers but students bore the brunt of the disruption, and by the time of leaving she felt “very empty” about her time at university.

“Covid was the thing that really broke me and ruined my experience”, she said.

“The whole concept of uni was to come out a much more confident and assertive person in who you are, and what your practice is, and I’ve walked away feeling like I’ve got hold of a fraudulent degree.”

Ryan Dunleavy, solicitor to the Student Group Claim, said during the pandemic students were given “cobbled together” and “sub-par” regurgitated zoom lectures, that were of “far less value than a distance learning course, say through the Open University.”

He added: “Universities have pushed the entire financial impact of Covid onto their students and made hay by signing up more students.

“They feel like they have just been commoditised and treated in an appalling fashion, and overcharged for something that was way under-delivered.”

At Wednesday’s court hearing, Senior Master Fontaine is expected to hear UCL’s argument that the legal claims should be paused.

The university argues complaints are more properly brought through internal processes and via an ombudsman.

Professor Kathleen Armour, Vice-President (Education & Student Experience) said: “We recognise that for many students, the last few years have been a disruptive and unsettling time.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, we followed UK Government guidance and prioritised the health and safety of our community. Our lecturers and support staff worked tirelessly to make our campus and all UCL premises as safe as possible and ensured that a high-quality academic experience was provided to students. We have also been fully committed to minimising the impact of industrial action, to ensure students are not academically disadvantaged.

“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. That is why we have a well-established and free complaints procedure. We believe the Group Litigation Order is unnecessary and premature as our easily accessible process is the most efficient and swiftest way for our students to resolve any issues with us.

“This gives students the option of complaining to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, if they are not satisfied with our response. This is the appointed Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) service for dealing with student complaints, with powers to recommend that UCL make awards of compensation to affected students where appropriate, and this is also free to use.”