In our consumer society, we are familiar with complaints and claims being brought by aggrieved customers. With the introduction of tuition fees, students have joined the ranks of consumers eager to ensure that they get their money’s worth - and willing to take action where they feel they have not. A recent survey for the BBC suggests that four in 10 of the first students to pay higher fees do not believe their courses have been good value for money. Against that backdrop, universities and their insurers will no doubt be pleased with the recent decision in Glasgow Caledonian University v Lihe Liu. The Court of Session refused a student’s appeal, on the grounds that the student’s allegations about the university’s alleged breaches of the contract to provide tuition, were not sufficiently specific or relevant. Despite this outcome, however, there is little room for complacency.
The proceedings were initially raised by Glasgow Caledonian University (“the University”) against one of its law students, Lihe Liu (“L”), for payment of tuition fees. L’s argued that the University was in breach of its contract to provide tuition in law. L made various allegations including that one lecturer spent “half of his time at lectures…cracking jokes, nothing close to the contents or standard of a degree course”. Other allegations included that the same lecturer had “deliberately marked [L] down on his examination papers”, that the University failed to provide a professional reference for L and that the University attempted to prevent L from obtaining an entrance certificate for enrolling at the Law Society’s training programme.
The court quickly upheld the earlier determinations of both the sheriff and sheriff principal, that L’s allegations were not sufficient to found a claim for breach of contract by the University. The court gave a number of reasons for its decision; reliance on a single incident, or the conduct of a single lecturer, was not on its own sufficient to found breach of contract in relation to the delivery of a whole university course. There was no indication of why the University was obliged to provide a reference. Perhaps most significantly, the court made it clear that allegations of a university marking down a student, delaying the student obtaining a professional entrance certificate, and generally delivering a service that came “nothing close to the contents and standards of a degree course”, were “very serious” allegations against an educational institution which “would have grave repercussions” for it in the academic world. As such, those allegations in particular required “careful and thorough specification” to ensure a university had fair notice of the allegations against it.
At face value, the decision is a positive one from the perspective of universities and other educational institutions, and should fire a warning shot across the bows of disgruntled students who might underestimate the rigour of court proceedings. However the decision also contains valuable points for educational institutions to bear in mind: firstly, whilst the origin of this particular claim is not clear, one would ordinarily hope that dissatisfaction would be dealt with long before reaching the court room, through an effective system for dealing with complaints. Secondly, and importantly, the court’s decision was not that a valid claim could not have been made by L, only that L had not provided adequate detail and support for the claim to succeed in its current terms. A reminder, if indeed a reminder were needed, that students increasingly see themselves as consumers and will not be slow to take issue with their university if they believe they have been sold short.