Course quality tested by law
FOUR disgruntled students are to sue a further education college over its alleged failure to provide adequate teaching and facilities on their computing degree course.
The case, the first of its kind involving the FE sector, will see the students seeking a six-figure sum in compensation from South Thames College.
The students enrolled on a modular degree course in computing, run by the college and accredited by Guildhall University, in 1995. They claim they were not given sufficient access to computers, that lecturers often failed to turn up and the college ignored all their complaints. When they discovered that they had been set an A-level question as part of their degree they left the course early.
The college, in Wandsworth, south London, denies the allegations and is defending the action. It said in a statement: "The college is confident that it is maintaining appropriate standards on the course in question."
But the students' solicitor, Jaswinder Gill, said: "The students have a number of allegations in terms of the tuition and general facilities."
"Despite complaints made by the students nothing was done when issues were raised about falling standards."
He said the final sum for damages would run into several hundred thousand pounds. "If you look in terms of loss of earnings and opportunities in the job market, clearly the damages are going to be substantial," he said.
The four will be supported in their case by the lecturer who set the A-level question and wh was later dismissed by the college.
Mr Gill, who specialises in representing university students, predicts that further education colleges could be caught in the growing trend for litigation over substandard teaching and facilities.
Mr Gill said his clients were "very aggrieved" and one of their motives for taking action was to let other students know there was a legal recourse if they were unhappy with their education. He believes that more cases will come to light as college students became aware of their rights and looked to get value for money from their course fees.
"This is the tip of the iceberg. A lot of students out there are not happy about the level of education being provided to them," he said.
"Students are at a distinct disadvantage because they do not have the financial clout and backing of the high-powered city lawyers to which universities turn when they have a problem with a student. There is a huge inequality in bargaining power."
The lawsuit, which comes to court in the autumn, could prove to be a test case.
Julian Gizzi, head of the education department at solicitors Beachcroft Wansbroughs, which represents the higher and further education funding councils, said the law was unclear over whether the relationship between a student and college was contractual.
"It's a moot point," he said. "It was quite clear, even before the introduction of tuition fees, that there was a contractual relationship in the higher education sector. But there is a different legal relationship at work in further education. It is by no means an open-and-shut case."