A degree from one of the UK’s most prestigious universities comes at a price. Thousands of students invest financially and emotionally to compete for a top degree classification from the esteemed institution every year. But what happens when a student doesn’t meet their academic expectations? Can they successfully sue the university to the tune of £1,000,000? Mr Justice Foskett has firmly answered no to that question in the recent High Court decision of Faiz Siddiqui and The Chancellor, Masters & Scholars of the University of Oxford.
Mr Siddiqui was a final year student of modern history at Oxford University from 1999 to 2000. Part of his final year assessment was the completion of two papers in a specialist subject. One of those papers was a gobbets paper which involved students answering questions on extracts of texts from a reading list under exam conditions. Mr Siddiqui obtained a low result in the paper, which he argued resulted in him obtaining a lower degree classification than he would otherwise have achieved.
Mr Siddiqui raised a court action against the University of Oxford principally for alleged “negligently inadequate” teaching of the specialist subject, which breached his contract with the university. Mr Siddiqui argued that his poor result in the specialist subject damaged his health and his career. The university rejected his claim.
The court accepted that the university owed Mr Siddiqui a duty of care, but determined there had been no breach of duty. In its assessment of whether the teaching was negligently inadequate it considered the teaching standard in preceding years, which was deemed higher than reasonably competent. The court recognised that the university faced challenges in delivering the course in 1999 to 2000 due to staff shortages. However, it founded on the high calibre of academic staff who confirmed they had taught the course in the same way as previous years in concluding the standard of teaching had remained reasonably competent. Further, the overall results disclosed that students had not consistently performed poorer in the gobbets paper compared with their other papers. Although Mr Siddiqui obtained his lowest mark in the gobbets paper, he performed well in the mock exam.
Interestingly, the court also relied on the fact no student complaints were made contemporaneously even although one student had provided what was taken by the court to be formal constructive criticism at the end of the course in 2000. Mr Siddiqui relied on that student’s criticism, which he had only become aware of in 2013, in support of his claim. The court also rejected the evidence of other student witnesses for the defendant who, like Mr Siddiqui, had realised with the benefit of 10 years’ hindsight that the teaching was deficient.
The court concluded none of the evidence supported the claim that the teaching of the gobbets paper had fallen below reasonable standards and recognised that the under achievement of one individual is not generally of itself sufficient to prove negligent teaching.
Given Mr Siddiqui’s claim failed on breach of duty, Mr Justice Foskett’s analysis could have stopped there, but he continued to consider causation. Mr Justice Foskett concluded that Mr Siddiqui could not establish the necessary link between alleged negligently inadequate teaching and his low mark in the gobbets paper. His good performance in the mock exam indicated that his final mark was either a result of complacency on his part or a bad day in the exam room. Mr Siddiqui had obtained medical evidence to support the latter. The examiners re-visited Mr Siddiqui’s gobbets paper as a result and increased his mark. The court did not therefore accept that, even if the teaching had been negligent, it caused Mr Siddiqui to obtain a low mark in the gobbets paper and a low II.i degree.
The court recognised that if its analysis of this aspect of causation was incorrect, the next issue for determination would be whether the lower degree classification caused Mr Siddiqui mental health problems and damaged his future prospects of a successful legal career. Mr Siddiqui had pre-existing psychiatric symptoms related to his perceived underachievement at school yet he did not raise his examination results with the university for 6 months following graduation. It was held that his reaction could have been of disappointment, but was “insufficient to amount to any kind of “injury” known to the law in this context”.
Mr Siddiqui argued that his low degree result meant he failed to secure a place at leading US law schools. He said that his applications were rejected despite high scores in the entry exams and produced one such high result to demonstrate that. The court held that this could not be taken as conclusive evidence and his argument was rejected. Mr Siddiqui had unfortunately not set the UK legal market alight either. His career was peppered with short term appointments at leading law firms with his health being cited as the limiting factor. The court accepted that Mr Siddiqui suffered from bouts of depression but was not satisfied that his depression was connected to his degree result. The court therefore determined that there was no breach of duty and there could be no causative loss.
The reason behind Mr Justice Foskett’s comprehensive analysis may be to prevent an appeal or perhaps to appease a claimant who spent 4 years litigating. However, one point that clearly emerges is that this case turned on its facts. The court preferred the evidence presented by the University of Oxford. This underscores that the courts must approach this type of action on a case by case basis.
As Mr Justice Foskett himself recognises in his judgement, we are now in a climate where students incur significant debt to complete university education. This will inevitably result in greater scrutiny of the quality of education institutions are delivering. It also creates a culture of consumerism. Universities must strike a balance between protecting the student facing service and their other financial concerns such as pensions. A history student recently launched a campaign against Cardiff University to compensate their students for lost lessons as a result of the University and College Union’s strike action over academic pensions. Will such strike action result in history repeating itself, with claims like Mr Siddiqui’s being raised in courts? Can strike action result in negligence in addition to student disappointment?
We predict that claims of this nature will increase and that universities should have a rigorous system of evaluation in place to protect themselves from student complaints reaching the doors of court.