UK students seek go-ahead for lawsuit over COVID, strikes disruption

Signage is seen on one of the main campus buildings of University College London (UCL) in London, Britain

By Sam Tobin

LONDON (Reuters) -Thousands of university students asked London's High Court on Wednesday to give the go-ahead to a mass lawsuit against University College London (UCL) over disruption to their studies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and strikes.

More than 3,000 current and former students – who paid at least 9,250 pounds ($11,482) a year – are suing UCL for breach of contract, in a case which could be followed by similar litigation against other British universities.

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.

Lawyers running the case against UCL say around 100,000 students from 18 universities including UCL have signed up to bring legal action.

Universities across the United Kingdom moved to online learning during the pandemic, with students also being denied access to teaching facilities such as libraries.

Anna Boase, a lawyer representing the claimants, told the court on Tuesday that students were promised "in-person, on-campus tuition" under their contract with UCL, but they "did not get what they bargained for".

Students' tuition was also affected by industrial action between 2017 and 2022, when a total of 47 teaching days were "written off" as a result of strikes, Boase said.

"They want justice," she added. "They come to court to seek the difference between the eye-watering sums they paid and the actual value of the services UCL provided."

Lawyers for UCL argue there is no difference between the "market value" of in-person and online teaching.

UCL is asking the High Court to put the lawsuits on hold so students can go through its internal complaints process.

At the end of Wednesday's hearing, Judge Barbara Fontaine said she would give a ruling on whether the lawsuit should be put on hold at a later date.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin; Editing by Alex Richardson, William Maclean)