Two students are suing Oxford University over alleged mishandling of their mental health needs.
Catherine Dance, a 24-year-old Jesus College Law Graduate, is suing the university for “psychological harm” and a year’s loss of earnings, after completing her Finals a year late due to mental health difficulties.
Dance, who was diagnosed with chronic anxiety and depression in 2009, claims she was forced to rusticate for a year from her degree, after Jesus refused to allow her to sit collections in a private room using a laptop.
Dance told the Telegraph that Jesus’ decision meant: “I was one year out of a graduate job, plus the emotional damage and psychological harm”.
Jesus College denies the allegations, saying it made appropriate adjustments for Dance’s condition. The college added that it does not believe that requiring collections be sat in a large hall and be handwritten discriminates against students with anxiety or depression. College officials say they repeatedly encouraged Ms Dance to seek counselling.
Another student, Sophie Spector, who has dyslexia, ADHD and OCD, is suing the University over claims that staff at Balliol pressurised her to take medical leave from her PPE degree. Spector said Balliol refused her an extended deadline on essays.
Chris Fry, a disability rights lawyer who is representing Ms Dance and Ms Spector, said that the increase in lawsuits against universities is a result of students becoming more aware of their rights.
Fry told the Telegraph that, due to the 2010 Equality Act: “This is a generation of students who grew up with enforceable rights … It was rare to hear of anybody looking to enforce their rights in that way [before 2010], since then, we’ve had a constant stream of enquiries from students.”
He added that since the 2010 act, he has handled more than a 100 cases of students seeking to sue their university over discrimination allegations. With most students claiming that the “reasonable adjustments” for mental illnesses required by the act were not made by their respective universities.
He suggested the increase in annual tuition fees to £9,000 was also a factor driving the growth in lawsuits. “It’s clear to see why these students who need reasonable adjustments are not prepared to be pushed around or ignored,” he told the Telegraph.
Oxford University said it does not comment on legal proceedings, however it said it takes mental health issues “extremely seriously”.
A university spokesperson said: “We encourage all students in need to use our free and confidential counselling service run by professionally trained staff. Each college has its own welfare team which works very closely with the University’s Disability Advisory Service to put in place appropriate provision so that students can manage their studies successfully and are not disadvantaged by their disability.”
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that the number of students dropping out of university with mental health problems has more than trebled in recent years. 1,180 students experiencing mental health problems left university early in 2014-15, the most recent year in which data was available – representing a 210% increase from 380 in 2009-10.