Introducing Contracts Between Students and their University will Lead to More Litigation
The Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, has announced plans to introduce a formal contract between institutions and students. If the plans go ahead, universities would be required to issue contracts to new students which set out what they can expect from their degree courses, including the amount of lecture time, assessment and feedback.
Whilst contracts are already used in some institutions, Mr Johnson is concerned that these are not detailed enough and do not let students know what they can expect from their university. The new higher education regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS), which comes into being next year, will be consulting on introducing a standard contract to improve protection.
Such a move could give students more rights and protection over the education for which they are paying increasingly higher fees, but this could also lead to an erosion of standards if students claim breach of contract when they fail to get the degree classification they are hoping for and universities concede to students' demands to avoid the risk of such litigation.
Whilst students who are unhappy with their university education can already bring claims against their university, a formal contract would confirm the contractual obligations on universities and make it easier to spot potential breaches, as well as potentially emphasising to students the contractual nature of the relationship and their rights as consumers. These rights sit alongside the other protections already enjoyed by students, who can also bring claims for negligence if they feel that the university has breached its duty of care towards them, under the Equality Act if they feel they have suffered any kind of discrimination or under the Protection from Harassment Act if they have received oppressive and unacceptable treatment.
A concern for both universities and students alike should be who will pick up the cost of this litigation? Mr Johnson’s announcement comes amidst calls for an inquiry into vice-chancellor pay and concerns that student fees may have to increase given the news that the Universities Superannuation Scheme now has the largest pensions deficit of any UK pension fund. This has led some to question the value of introducing a standard contract at all and whether the Government's efforts should be focussed elsewhere. We wait the consultation with interest.
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