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22 October 2020

Tension between rights of teaching staff and students

4 mins

With a second Covid-19 wave fast approaching all regions of the UK, the importance of government guidance on the pandemic and its impact on both university staff and students has become increasingly relevant. University staff have expressed anger that advice from the government’s scientific advisory group, Sage, was ‘ignored’, and students have expressed their frustration at lockdown restrictions at campuses in those regions subjected to the tighter Covid-19 lockdowns.

As we discussed in our blog in September, many students have asserted their deep disappointment in university decisions to provide the majority of the teaching online, with higher education institutions only holding limited face-to-face lectures and seminars. However, as with schools, there is a tension between the rights and welfare of teaching staff to be safe and those of students wanting and needing to be educated. Understandably, students paying fees for their university courses feel that they are not receiving good value for money, while teaching staff are concerned for their and the students’ safety. An estimated 110 UK universities have reported Covid-19 outbreaks, according to the Guardian and University staff have lodged formal grievances over their leadership’s handling of the coronavirus outbreaks.

Scientific advice ignored

It was revealed that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee advised government ministers over three weeks ago to instruct all universities to revert to online teaching, a recommendation that was disregarded by ministers and not shared with higher education institutions. This has meant that some face-to-face teaching has continued, albeit on a limited basis, potentially fueling the exponential increase in campus infection rates. Teaching staff are angry that they have been put at risk by this failure to move all university teaching to remote learning and the general secretary for the University and College Union (UCU) described the situation on campus as ‘chaos’.

Covid-19 outbreaks in education settings are not limited to universities; last week, over a fifth of state secondary schools reported being partially closed. With the government issuing Temporary continuity directions under the Coronavirus act 2020, for the provision of remote education in schools, it may only be a matter of time before the government issues similar guidance on the provision of remote education for universities. You can read our blog on the temporary continuity direction issued by the Secretary of State for Education remote learning here.

Legal remedies?

Even if universities had received government advice to move all teaching online, there is no guarantee they would have followed that advice willingly. Universities are only too aware of the need to maintain teaching provision that students feel delivers value for money and they will be reluctant to give students cause for complaint. Universities have already suffered huge financial loss due to the pandemic and they will be concerned that disgruntled students receiving their teaching remotely will have grounds for demanding course fee refunds for breach of contract claims.

According to the Office for National Statistics, a record number of complaints were made to university watchdog, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in 2019, and with students becoming more aware of their consumer rights, 2020 could break that record. Students who can demonstrate their institution have failed to provide “different but broadly equivalent” course content could consider bringing private law contractual claims against course providers.

While there is no straightforward solution to the difficulties faced both by teaching staff and students in all education settings, transparency from government ministers on advice given to them by their scientific advisors would enable education settings to make decisions based on the best evidence available at the time. Students are likely to remain concerned that they are not receiving adequate teaching provision, with the impact on students with additional needs or disabilities being felt most acutely.

This blog was written by Louise Plumstead, Paralegal – Education Team.

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