So, you are not happy with your university experience. This can’t possibly be what you signed up for. Let’s take a closer look– what exactly did you sign up for?
The Terms and Conditions of a degree at UCL
The answer is contained in UCL’s Standard Terms and Conditions. This document spells out what UCL commits to provide its students.
What’s in a degree?
UCL’s commitment is set out in three key phrases:
- “Tuition and learning support…” This seems straightforward enough – but how should the “tuition and learning support” be delivered? What form should students reasonably expect it to take?
- The answer is…“More detailed information…is provided in UCL’s Prospectus for Undergraduates”. In other words, the kind of degree program described in the prospectus you read when you applied to UCL, is the kind of degree programme you can expect UCL to provide. One with in-person teaching and learning, plenty of social spaces, and all the infrastructure you need to flourish.
- UCL will “make available appropriate infrastructure and facilities to support your learning…teaching and learning space, UCL’s libraries and IT facilities”
Most of these services have not been provided since March 2020 – and yet students are still expected to pay full tuition fees. You have fulfilled your part of the contract, but UCL have not fulfilled theirs.
Hold on, isn’t there something about changes to the program?
Good point. UCL do make clear that they “need to retain the ability to alter aspects of individual Programmes”. However, where “changes are likely to have a more significant impact on your studies”, UCL would need to consult with you and take into account the concerns of ‘individual students’ before final decisions are taken. From what we have heard from UCL students, a consultation of this sort did not take place.
Are the terms fair?
There is another factor that affects how a court would look at the contract. Under English law, consumer contracts (like this one), need to be fair. If a Court deems a term unfair, it could strike it out of the contract. Government guidance to universities provides that a clause which allows a university to make wide ranging changes to its programs in any number of unspecified circumstances, as it alone decides, is unfair.
So UCL aren’t providing what they promised, and legally they shouldn’t be able to make such big changes – but don’t big institutions like UCL include wording which says that they are not liable for when things go wrong?
Another good point – many big institutions do include wording to try and stop them being liable when things go wrong. However, the particular wording UCL use is very limited, and in our view does not cover the kind of losses we are seeking compensation for. What’s more, any such clause would also be put to a ‘fairness test’. Something which works in favour of you, the consumers, because it does not seem fair for a large institution to say that if anything goes wrong and the promised course is not delivered, that risk is totally borne by the consumer, not the institution.
What’s the bottom line?
UCL have not complied with the Terms and Conditions they agreed to when students accepted their offers; they cannot change their degrees in such a significant way unilaterally; and, they cannot avoid liability for losses arising if they do go ahead and make major changes. All this means students have a strong case that UCL need to compensate them for their degrees going online.
Remember – this is not an attack on UCL – it is a legal claim to establish who should bear the cost of how Covid-19 has affected your education – UCL, or its students.
n.b. the UCL Standard Terms and Conditions examined in this post apply to students who started in the academic years 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20. Students who started before or after this date have a slightly different set of terms. We believe the case is a strong one under those terms too.
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