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Colleges worried as students go to court

Threats of legal action against colleges are escalating with increasing numbers of dissatisfied students turning to the courts for compensation, leading education lawyers have warned. One top law firm said the number of cases involving colleges had doubled in the past year. And aggrieved students are increasingly demanding compensation if they feel courses have turned sour - raising the prospect of a hefty potential burden on hard-pressed colleges.

John Hall, head of education for Eversheds solicitors, which represents 200 FE colleges nationwide, said the firm's London office alone was dealing with 30 complaints. Last year the whole firm handled only 30 cases across Britain.

And Jack Rabinowicz, chairman of the Education Law Association, said his office now dealt with several inquiries about colleges and universities a week. Complaints range from racial and sexual discrimination and harassment actions to breach-of- contract cases involving abandoned courses or claims that courses have been incorrectly described.

Fears have been raised after several cases of pupils suing schools after achieving exam results that were lower than expected.

Labour has pledged to change the law to prevent pupils suing over disappointing exam results, but fears are growing over the possibility of colleges being open to actions for breach of contract and health and safety problems.

It is still rare for cases involving colleges to reach court, but legal experts are concerned about the rising numbers of students threatening action.

Mr Rabinowicz, who has represented students in numerous high-profile cases, said: "Everybody is saying that education is the most important thing. If you miss out at whatever stage, especially if you are ready and willing to go to university, you can lose out in the job market and in your career.

"Partly it's the politicians' fault because they created a presumption of right - if things go wrong then there must be a remedy."

Mr Hall said: "There's a worrying development. There's no avalanche of writs, but the development which is of concern is the fact that complainants apportion blame and follow it up with a claim for compensation.

"There are more mature students whose livelihoods depend on what FE delivers and there's a great consumerism and expectation of what FE can deliver.

"The one thing to note with FE is that there are very good practices in colleges for dealing with complaints internally, and there is always the option of appealing to the Further Education Funding Council. What colleges may have to do is to further develop their internal procedures."

John Brennan, policy director of the Association of Colleges, said principals were aware of the possibility of legal action, but stressed that the reality was that litigation was still very rare. Colleges had been opened up to litigation by incorporation, he said; but now that they are independent entities they face more direct challenge. At the same time there has been a great willingness to go to court.

"It's still a grey area in legal terms but I feel there are still very few cases where it has been shown conclusively that a provider has failed to meet their obligations," said Mr Brennan. "The cases are so few and far between that they attract quite a lot of publicity."

David Croll, principal of Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton, added: "I think the chances are that it's going to become more and more of an issue as we tend to follow the American culture."

Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, Lancashire, said: "I take some comfort from the concept of reasonableness and can't see how someone who has failed their A-levels could win a case until the college has really fallen down. But if someone won a case, colleges would be worried. "

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