11th March. 2021

What is the Best Path Towards Tuition Fee Compensation? – Part 2

In our previous post, we looked at how the government have responded to students’ complaints regarding paying tuition fees. They have made their position clear: students are not entitled to compensation for their education moving online. If a student feels aggrieved by this, they should take it up with their university, and if still unhappy, with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (the OIA).

At first glance, this may seem reasonable. However, upon closer analysis it’s clear that this suggestion doesn’t solve students’ problems.

The OIA and Coronavirus

To be clear, this is not intended as a criticism of the OIA. We value the work it does on behalf of students. However, when it comes to this issue, it is not in a position to help.

In its guidance, the OIA has made clear the kinds of complaints it can look at:

“We can look at complaints about what was promised and what was delivered, but we can’t look at concerns that involve academic judgment such as the quality of academic provision”

In practice, this means they can look at things like:

“…a complaint that a provider did not cover subject areas that it said it would; a student’s supervisor was unavailable; a student didn’t benefit from teaching because they could not access it…”

But they cannot look at a complaint that:

“…teaching was not of an adequate academic standard; that an online teaching session was just not as good as it would have been face-to-face…”

In other words, the OIA will not consider the complaint that online teaching is just not the same as in-person teaching. In their reported decisions of complaints relating to coronavirus, the OIA have applied these principles consistently. As long as a university has ‘done its best’, communicated clearly with students and delivered what it said it would deliver as far as online education goes, the fact that education has moved online is not grounds for the OIA to recommend a university to pay compensation.

Let’s take a step back and think about this. Hundreds of thousands of students (and, it seems, large sections of the public) believe that an online education is just not the same as an in-person one, and should not cost as much. They take this complaint to the government. The government says, take your complaints to the university and the OIA. The OIA says it cannot pass judgment on whether an online education is the same as an in person one or not as this is a question of “academic judgment”. So students are back to square one, with nowhere left to turn.

To the Courts

In our opinion, this emphasises why a group court claim is the way forward. The English courts are independent of the government and the universities. They are not constrained in the way the OIA are. Therefore, they are able and obligated to undertake a strict legal analysis of the situation and determine as best they can whether students are entitled to compensation.

In our next part, we will look at what other options are available to students, and why we don’t think any of them preclude joining the Student Group Claim.