Students could sue universities over breach of contract, plans suggest

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Universities could face lawsuits in the future from students who believe they have not been given the education they were promised.

All institutions may have to draw up contracts with new students setting out what they can expect from their degree courses - such as the amount of lecture time, assessment and feedback, under plans being considered by ministers.

The move would give students more rights and protection - similar to consumers - over the university education they are paying for, it was suggested, including the ability to take action - including legal action - if they feel they feel this has not been provided.

Speaking at an event in central London, Universities Minister Jo Johnson said he will be asking the new Office for Students (OfS) to consult on introducing contracts between students and universities.

"These would set out what students can expect from their providers in terms of resource commitments, contact time, assessments, support and other important aspects of their educational experience," he said.

Contracts do exist in some institutions, but these are often light on detail or do not let students know what they can expect from their university, Mr Johnson said.

He said that he wanted the OfS to look at how these contracts can be improved and introduced across the higher education system and indicated that they could become a requirement for universities. 

Students who then find that there is a "material divergence" in their degree course from what they expected would be able to seek redress, which could include measures such as suing their university.

"Clearly it is in the nature of a contract that someone who feels that the benefits promised in the contract are not getting delivered would have some form of redress," Mr Johnson said.

"Clearly through the consultation options that we will be publishing in the course of time will see what those options will consist of, but legal remedies are certainly not excluded."

He later added: "I think we should always allow for universities to be able to make reasonable adjustments in terms of how they deliver courses, we don't want to tie people down in fine print that might be inappropriate but the general framework of how a course is going to be delivered should be clear to the student and where there is a material divergence from what's been promised, and that is what the consultation will explore and that is a first for the system."

The minister also took aim again at the pay of university bosses, insisting it is down to universities - which are independent bodies - to deal with the issue.

Universities should examine whether leaders' pay is value for money, and suggested that one of the areas they could look at is how the institution is performing in the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) - which measures the quality of teaching at every institution.

The essential principle must be that exceptional pay can only be justified by exceptional performance," he said

"Universities must justify the exceptional circumstances for pay awards that exceed the pay of the PM - and where there is no justification, they must exercise greater restraint."

Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, said: "Students are right to expect their university to provide a high quality learning experience and our members take their responsibilities in this area very seriously indeed. Many Russell Group universities have developed charters in partnership with student unions which outline the roles, responsibilities and expectations for student of their university and vice versa. Universities already have responsibilities to students under existing consumer protection laws too.

"We need a system that protects students but also is fair to universities. Higher education courses are challenging by design. They are intended to stretch students and take them out of their comfort zones.

"No one would want to see standards undermined by the risk of legal action. This is only a consultation at this stage but care would have to be taken to ensure that any new requirements on universities do not have unintended consequences."