With university students returning to university, many have voiced their frustration and concern about how their course content will be delivered in light of continuing Covid-19 restrictions. In an article published by the Guardian this week, four university students shared their thoughts on what university education might entail this year. Many students have expressed their disappointment that the majority of the teaching had gone online with “even tutorials being pre-recorded ” and access to library spaces having to be booked in advance, putting students who cannot access course materials and study space at a disadvantage. With teaching ordinarily being delivered through lectures and face-to-face seminars and tutorials, this begs the question: are universities managing to provide value for money for students, who are paying up to £9,250.00 per year?
Could the OIA intervene?
The pandemic has inevitably affected the way that university courses are being delivered during the last and forthcoming academic year, but what should students expect as a minimum from their course provider? The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher education (OIA) is an independent body set up to review student complaints about higher education providers in England and Wales and it has offered some general advice for students entering the 2020/2021 academic year.
It states that “…providers should be planning to deliver what was promised – or something at least broadly equivalent to it”. This seems to suggest that students should expect that fundamental aspects of teaching such as course content and contact hours (albeit virtually) should still be provided by universities. Students must first try to resolve these issues with their course provider, making a complaint directly to the university. Students have the option to complain to the OIA who are able to look into complaints about anything a provider has done or failed to do, which may include teaching provision and facilities.
Possible breach of contract?
Universities who have failed to deliver “different but broadly equivalent” course provision are at risk of having private law contractual claims brought against them by students who believe that the course provider has breached their contractual obligations. The OIA has advised that it may be possible to have their tuition fees refunded if a university has not offered teaching in a way that a student can access. This might include work or teaching that can only be undertaken in person, for example laboratory work or course placements. A university will need to ensure that this type of in person provision is put in place subsequently.