24 May 2021
Actions against public authorities
There is no denying that it has been a tricky year for everyone, least not university students who have seen busy lecture halls and hands-on tutorials replaced by learning from a laptop in their bedroom. Aside from their online timetables, thousands are also facing the reality of a subdued social experience, as many aspects synonymous with ‘university life’ such as attending gigs, going to the pub and playing sports are cancelled, closed or postponed.
While there is widespread dissatisfaction among the student population, with thousands signing petitions and calling for greater intervention from governing bodies, when it comes to receiving a refund due to the coronavirus pandemic, the odds are often stacked against you.
The start of the academic year brought with it a renewed tightening of lockdown restrictions, as Boris Johnson stated the UK was at a ‘critical moment’ in the crisis.
As thousands headed back to universities around the country and infection rates rose, the government highlighted the ‘pupil premium’ pot of £256million that was available to all disadvantaged students. In December 2020, an additional £20 million was set aside to support students with the financial pressures the pandemic entailed. With the hospitality sector still in limbo and many students therefore unable to source part-time work to support themselves financially, this additional funding was vital.
Meanwhile, universities were again working tirelessly behind the scenes to implement an online learning experience that would mirror, as closely as possible, the quality of in-person teaching. However, unlike in the 2020 academic year, in which the sudden onset of the lockdown measures had prompted an almost universal ‘no-detriment’ policy, many institutions felt that they had had adequate time to prepare and felt that provisions would be robust enough to provide an acceptable teaching environment.
Many universities allocated additional funding to tackle digital poverty, bolster mental health support services and assist with accommodation payments. Cardiff University, for example, created a ‘COVID-19 Student Support Fund’ to assist those struggling to meet essential expenses as a direct result of the pandemic.
After a turbulent year and a second lockdown implemented over the Christmas break, April 2021 saw the steady return of students, with those studying in Wales permitted to return to university, as providers offered a mix of face-to-face teaching to complement the existing online study.
On April 13th, the government confirmed that all students in England, not just those on practical courses, could return to university campuses no earlier than 17th May. This has been described as ‘hugely disappointing’ and ‘nonsensical’, with just weeks of the academic year remaining.
Negligent teaching cases are notoriously difficult to bring to a successful conclusion.
You must prove a causative link between the quality of teaching and any alleged ‘injury’, an area that has been described as “fraught with difficulty”.
As a student, you are protected under consumer law, which means that a higher education provider must meet certain obligations. This includes understandable, fair and transparent contracts and a mutual understanding of what can be expected in terms of teaching and support available. Failure to do so may result in a breach of contract.
However, while it may seem easier to evidence a breach of contract, rather than prove negligence, there are still a number of factors to consider.
While you may not have been able to sit in a lecture hall with your peers, the delivery of teaching in an online format means that the university have technically upheld their end of the deal.
Plus, the rules and regulations governing university-provided education have notably loosened in the face of the pandemic, making it even harder for you to prove that there has been a breach of contract.
The Office for Students, an independent regulator of higher education, issued a statement in March 2020. Within this, they stated their intention to reduce the regulatory ‘burden’ on providers during this period of ‘unprecedented disruption’.
This means that as long as your university has made reasonable efforts to provide an alternative and clearly communicated with you the ways in which teaching and assessments will be delivered, the reasons for doing so and the options available to you if you are unhappy, the OfS deems that they have fulfilled their duty to you as a consumer.
Furthermore, universities operate as independent bodies, meaning that they are self-governed (although subject to checks from third-parties). Unlike state-provided education, this means that there is no universal curriculum or examination process.
There have also been enormous disparities in the provision of online learning, with some students experiencing a fully interactive, blended-learning approach, while others have received just a few hours of lectures delivered via Zoom.
A lack of standardisation across both teaching and assessment makes it incredibly difficult to draw comparisons and prove that the institution has not provided a suitable learning environment for you.
Additionally, it is thought that the courts will be likely to look favourably on universities, who have been at the mercy of government-initiated lockdowns, implemented suitable alternatives at short notice and often led the way in the response to the coronavirus pandemic; conducting research, establishing testing centres and deploying staff and students to the front line of the NHS.
In the first instance, you should raise your concerns directly with your university. Each institution has its own procedures and many are time-sensitive, so it’s vital to move swiftly once you have decided to lodge a complaint.
You’ll need to give your university a few weeks to respond. If, after this time, you are not satisfied with the outcome, you can make a formal complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), an independent student complaints scheme for England and Wales.
You must prove that you have tried to resolve the problem directly with your university, or your complaint will be rejected.
If you are unhappy with the outcome of the review and feel your rights have been infringed or contract breached, it may be worth seeking additional legal advice. Here at Harding Evans, we can offer impartial, sound advice on your matter.
Get in touch with Craig today by calling 01633 244233 or send an email to email@example.com.
 Cardiff University Students Union 2020
 Foskett J at  Siddiqui v University of Oxford  EWHC 184 (QB).