UCL students continue Covid lawsuit after talks break down

Parties to return to court having failed to reach agreement in case that could have wide-ranging implications for UK sector

February 21, 2024
Source: iStock / krblokhin

Students taking legal action against UCL over its teaching during the Covid pandemic and university strikes have said they want to proceed to a full trial after talks aimed at finding an out-of-court resolution broke down.

The case – which could have wide-ranging implications for the whole of the UK sector – has been paused since last summer when a judge, Barbara Fontaine, gave the parties eight months to attempt to find a compromise via “some form of ADR [alternative dispute resolution]”.

Ahead of the 17 March deadline for this order expiring, both parties have agreed to lift the stay in proceedings to allow the litigation to continue. The High Court is now expected to hold a case management hearing to determine next steps.

Student Group Claim – the organisation that is coordinating the legal action on behalf of 924 current and former UCL students – said talks had taken place during January 2024 but had failed to reach an agreement.

It said it was looking to add 4,000 new claimants to the action, which alleges the university breached its contract with its students between 2018 and 2022 when classes were cancelled or moved online and access to facilities was restricted.

UCL has argued that the complaints should first be considered by its own internal procedures and then by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) to avoid high legal fees.

The institution’s vice-provost Kathy Armour said that this had been “flatly rejected by the claimants’ lawyers” who have previously argued in court that the volume of grievances could overwhelm these bodies and lead to long delays.

In July, Ms Fontaine said that these processes appeared “ready made” but she shared some of the claimants’ concerns and did not order the parties to use them, instead encouraging them to settle the case via mediation.

One of the claimants, David Hamon, said it was a “real shame” that no agreement had been reached and there was “no sign of progress” so the students were now “really keen to have our claims heard by the court”.

“I hope that this matter can now move swiftly forward to trial so that UCL’s students can receive compensation for the education that was lost,” he added.

Matthew Patching, a partner at Harcus Parker, one of the firms representing Student Group Claim, said that “the door remains open for settlement at a fair level for students” before the case reaches trial.

Professor Armour said further mediation had been attempted “in good faith” but was unsuccessful and so UCL was awaiting further directions from the court on how the case should proceed.

“Unfortunately this will further delay any outcome for the students, something we have tried to, and were keen to, prevent,” she said.

“We know the last few years have been a very difficult time for many students. They have faced challenges and disruption from Covid and, in some cases, industrial action. Supporting our students, their well-being and their educational achievements is always UCL’s priority.”

Student Group Claim said similar claims are being prepared against more than 80 other universities, and has sent 17 institutions letters before action.


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Reader's comments (3)

There could be a quick and fair and sensible settlement on the basis that: 1) the OIA has already determined that the going-rate for a week of lost T because of strike action is c£150 (and perhaps more if hefty international fees have been paid?); 2) a few other Us have already awarded £500 per punter where degree results were delayed because of strike action; and 3) a few US Us have settled on payments of around £100 per student who did not get F2F T because of Covid disruption. Those kind of figures seem in line with the application of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to the B2C U-S contract to educate and also with CMA guidance that Us should not try to hide behind unfair force majeure clauses purporting to deny or limit liability for breach of contract. But a full review of the U-S contract in the context of consumer law by the High Court and probably the Court of Appeal is long overdue in terms of giving many millions of students who are incurring life-long fees debt the proper consumer protection that they deserve, so Good Luck to the Group Litigation!
I agree with David. As I was directly involved more than 20 years ago in the discussions which led to the abolition of the Visitorial role in student complaints, I can categorically state that the OIAHE was not set up to adjudicate on breach of contract claims, which are matters for the courts. Period, as they say. I wish the students well.
Where will this all end. Turning the UK in to the US with the obsession with litigation and grabbing "what you are due" is doom spiral. Many Unis are already strapped for money if more litigation comes how will they fund that? They can't get more foreign students, governments won't pay and tuition fees won't change. So what will happen? More cut backs, more redundancies, cutting the less profitable courses, dumbing down the content further and have it delivered by fewer and fewer people that are left in academia. None of this will end well. It's already happening just look at the recent articles on this very website. The trajectory is set, some universities will go bust in the not too distant future and not only is no one lifting a finger to stop it, it is actively being pursued by students, upper management and politicians alike.