Thousands of UCL students set for High Court showdown with university over pandemic disruption

Stock images of UCL students (Alamy Stock Photo)
Stock images of UCL students (Alamy Stock Photo)

Around 5,000 students are set for a High Court showdown against University College London over claims their education was damaged by the pandemic and lecturer strikes.

Students say in a group legal action that their tuition contracts were breached between 2018 and 2022 thanks to cancelled lectures and disrupted learning.

Last July, a High Court judge urged the two sides to mediate to solve the dispute. But lawyers for the students say talks have now broken down, settingthe stage for a full High Court trial. The number of students involved in theclaim has also grown from under 1000 to around 5000, it is said.

The students claim they were failed when lectures and classes moved online or were cancelled altogether, while they were also denied physical access to libraries, study spaces and labs in the Covid pandemic.

“It is a real shame that agreement was not reached with UCL”, said lead claimant David Hamon.

“After a delay of nine months since the hearing last May and no sign of progress in mediation, we are really keen to have our claims heard by the court. I hope that this matter can now move swiftly forward to trial so that UCL’s students can receive compensation for the education that was lost.”

UCL vice-provost Professor Kathleen Armour previously acknowledged that students had faced “challenges and disruption” and said supporting their education and wellbeing was “always UCL’s priority”.

“We and the claimants’ lawyers have mutually agreed to lift the stay of the court proceedings so that the litigation can proceed”, she said, in a statement on Wednesday.

“Disappointingly, our Alternative Dispute Resolution proposal, where students could use our internal complaints procedure and, if not satisfied, refer UCL’s decision to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, was flatly rejected by the claimants’ lawyers.

This process was acknowledged by Senior Master Fontaine in the High Court as a “ready-made” proposal and we consider it to have been the most appropriate way for the Court proceedings to be resolved without further unnecessary expense. We are disappointed that this is unable to proceed.

“As further mediation has also been attempted, in good faith, and this wasunsuccessful, we now await the Court to list a Case Management Conference, for further directions as to how the case should proceed.

“Unfortunately this will further delay any outcome for the students, something we have tried to, and were keen to, prevent. We know the last few years have been a very difficult time for many students. They have faced challenges and disruption from Covid and, in some cases, industrial action. Supporting our students, their wellbeing and their educational achievements isalways UCL’s priority.

“Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we prioritised the health and safety of our whole community and followed UK Government guidance, working tirelessly to make our campus and all UCL premises as safe as possible so that a high-quality academic experience could continue to be provided.”

The students’ claim against UCL is part of a wider movement for compensation from more than 80 universities, with around 153,000 students being represented in the claims by solicitors Harcus Parker and Asserson.

UCL asked for, and was granted, a stay in the legal proceedings last summer, and says its internal complaints process should be used by students to seek compensation and raise their concerns.

A case management court hearing is now expected to be held, to determine the next stage of the dispute and set a timetable towards a civil trial.