A claim by a former student against Oxford University for alleged negligent quality of teaching in 2000 was rejected this week, but the judge forecast that with students now incurring substantial debts to pursue their university education, the quality of the education delivered will undoubtedly come under even greater scrutiny than it did in the past.
As with all educational negligence claims, the outcome was highly fact-sensitive, but the judge made a number of useful comments of general application.
Mr Siddiqui studied Indian history as a special subject during his final year at Oxford University in 2000. Although he raised concerns about the course soon after receiving his results, only in 2013, after becoming aware of another student’s complaint, did he issue proceedings against the University, alleging that a lower than expected mark in that exam had resulted in his failure to obtain a place at a prestigious law school and caused depression which had blighted his career since then. Mr Siddiqui claimed a seven-figure sum for loss of earnings.
The University acknowledged that, due to a number of staff having been on sabbatical during the teaching year in question, the professor taking the course had to teach twice as many students as usual (though the size of each teaching group was unchanged), but denied that this had caused any reduction in the quality of the tuition provided to the students.
The University had unsuccessfully sought summary judgment of the claim both on limitation and substantive grounds.
The Honourable Mr Justice Foskett found on the facts that the professor’s teaching had not fallen below reasonable teaching standards. He commented that under-achievement by an individual (or even a group of individuals) generally speaking cannot constitute evidence of negligent teaching (and there was in any case here no evidence of under-achievement). A court must take care not to impose the equivalent of a ‘counsel of perfection’ on the teaching standard required. Even though it could not be ruled out that additional pressures on the professor had some impact, that could never be enough to show a breach of duty.
The judge then addressed the question of causation. Here, too, he referred to major difficulties for any claimant in cases of this sort, stating that it is difficult to see how a causal connection could be established, even on a balance of probabilities, between a particular level of tuition and an examination result, unless the tuition failed to meet even the most basic standards such that ‘simple operational negligence’ has occurred. This is largely because, as established in earlier cases, there are many reasons for under-performance apart from negligent teaching. The quality of tuition received is a part of what goes into producing a student’s examination result, but only a part. In this particular case, Mr Siddiqui’s claim failed on causation also in part because he had suffered from (and had his mark upgraded because of) hay fever, making it impossible to ascribe any underperformance to one cause or the other. In any event, Mr Siddiqui had achieved a good mark in a mock examination in this subject, making it impossible to conclude that his final exam mark was causally linked to that tuition.
Because Mr Siddiqui was claiming loss based on a career to date that had been adversely affected by depression allegedly caused by his unexpectedly poor exam result, the court had to consider also the question of a causal link between underperformance and psychiatric injury. The issue was clear-cut in this case, against the claimant, but the judge again pointed to the difficulty of excluding other factors as a cause of the depression.
Finally, the judge would also have ruled the claim time-barred, had it been necessary to make a finding on limitation, as requirements for a state of knowledge sufficient to prompt further enquiry were fulfilled already in 2001.
The outcome of this case will be welcomed by educational institutions and their insurers. Teaching must be of a reasonable standard; it need not be perfect. Claimants will find it difficult to overcome causation hurdles, particularly because there will often be many factors affecting academic performance – tuition is only one of these. Those principles apply to all levels of educational provision and not only to universities.
However, the judge’s warning is salutary – students today may become more willing to seek redress if they do not receive the quality of tuition that they believe they are entitled to by reason of the fees they are paying, despite the evidential difficulties inevitably associated with educational negligence claims.