Oxford students are among a group taking substantial collective legal action suing UK universities for financial compensation after teaching time was lost due to recent UCU strike action.
Cherwell understands that 17 current Oxford students will make up part of the class action, which has the support of over 1,000 students from universities across the UK.
The law firm leading the litigation, Asserson, has claimed universities could pay up to £10m each in compensation over the UCU staff strike.
Oxford SU has criticised the action for its “consumer rights” approach.
One postgraduate student, who is taking part in the action, said they felt financial loss “particularly acutely”, in addition to “the loss of education and instructional time.”
The student, who is on a one year Masters programme, told Cherwell: “I took out a tremendous loan to attend Oxford this year…this was my one chance to receive the teaching of the experts from whom I came here to learn.
“As a result of the strike, I lost three of eight lectures for two courses. Feedback on assignments done during the term was delayed which then affected my progress on the the final paper.”
They added: “I understand why the professors decided to strike and I support their ability to stand up for their rights.”
A spokesperson for Oxford SU told Cherwell: “We appreciate the frustrations raised by students, due to strikes forced by UUK and university management.
“We believe, however, in the right to a free and accessible education, in accordance with SU policy, rather than the “consumer rights” approach on which this case predicates itself.”
Former Oxford University Labour Club Co-Chair and undergraduate finalist, Hannah Taylor, told Cherwell: “The marketisation of education is damaging to us all. Seeking compensation is thus not the most helpful thing to be doing to combat it.
“Our lecturers have lost pay by going on strike don’t forget, so we need to continue our support for their cause.
“Staff were out on the marches with us when we called for free education and students were out on their picket lines during the UCU strikes.
“Solidarity is key and should be central to any form of action. We are stronger united than we are divided.”
However, one of the Oxford students who has signed up, told Cherwell: “I honestly think the action might positively affect the student-staff solidarity.
“Throughout the strike, my fellow students were encouraged by striking professors to reach out to the administration regarding concerns such as the loss of tuition value/teaching time as a way of pressuring the administration to return to negotiations.”
More than 100,000 students across the country have already signed petitions protesting against the loss of lectures and other classes they have paid for through tuition fees.
Achieving 1,000 sign-ups means the collection action now has a sufficient number of students to apply for a Group Litigation Order. Asserson have confirmed that the University of Kent has the most students signed up overall to the action, making up 13% of those signing up to sue.
Students from Cambridge, Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham have also joined the action. 27% of sign-ups are “overseas students.”
Asserson also founded a website for students interested in reclaiming part of their tuition fees. Asserson aim to have actin committees in universities to inform people about the class claim.
A senior solicitor at Asserson, Shimon Goldwater, told Cherwell:: “You quickly realise there’s millions of pounds of damage here potentially, and universities won’t pay out millions of pounds on the basis of a few petitions, or letters, or dare I say even sit-ins and protests and all the other means by which students normally try to change their University’s view about something.”
Goldwater also said: “No other service provider would get away with charging for 25 weeks of a service and cutting that to 22 with no price reduction.
“There is no question that universities owe students fair compensation.”
He added: “With the UCU estimating in March that strike action affected a million students, with the loss of 575,000 teaching hours that will not be rescheduled, we’re expecting a surge of sign ups over the coming weeks.
“This is already one of the largest student group legal actions ever to have been launched in the UK.”
“If the class action is accepted, universities would pay out millions of pounds. Over 20,000 undergraduates attend each large UK university. Paying approximately £500 compensation each to 20,000 students would cost £10 million.”
Lawyers for those seeking compensation also claimed that universities have saved millions of pounds by withholding salaries for striking staff, and that no university has offered to pay any saved money directly to students affected by the strikes.
“Many students do not view this as acceptable,” they argued.
A spokesperson for the University of Oxford told Cherwell: “The University will not benefit from any monies accrued through this strike action.
“Any deductions from striking staff will be put to use for the benefit of students.”
The University did not clarify whether compensation for students has been discussed or suggested among university bosses.
Acting President of Oxford UCU, Terry Hoad, told Cherwell: “It is entirely understandable that the commodification of education represented by the tuition fees regime should have led to this kind of response to the recent strike action.
“We are grateful that students have supported our action in defence of decent pensions for university staff, and know that they share our view that the long-term effects for our universities if staff salaries and pensions are allowed to deteriorate will be even more damaging than the immediate impact the strikes will have had on students’ work.
“We are at one with students in wanting to secure the best circumstances for all who are engaged in and contributing to the processes of learning and research in our own outstanding university and in the country’s Higher Education system as a whole.”
Cherwell understands that the class action claim would likely be for a breach of contract. While some universities exclude liability for loss caused by strike action in their agreements with students, Asserson considers that these exclusion clauses could be voided under the Consumer Rights Act (2015).
Asserson will also consider a complaint to the Independent Adjudicator, as well as seeking to add several thousand more students to the group action.
By signing up on the dedicated website, students are instructing Asserson to act for them. Any decisions regarding the settlement of claims will be taken by the whole group attending the relevant university, the law firm says.