Students forced to sign 'I'll try harder' contracts

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Students forced to sign 'I'll try harder' contracts

OXFORD is to become the first university in Britain to protect itself from litigious students by introducing legally-binding contracts requiring them to attend lectures.

Undergraduates will be told that they risk being in breach of contract if they fail to attend lectures and tutorials in a move certain to be copied by other universities, worried that the introduction of £3,000 annual tuition fees from next September will usher in an era of student litigation.

They fear that the new charge will prompt a surge in complaints by students demanding better “value for money” from lecturers, backed up by threats of legal action for compensation. Universities also fear that, in the increasingly competitive academic world, they could be sued by students who blame poor results on failings at their university.

In 2002, the University of Wolverhampton paid £30,000 in an out-of-court settlement to a student who brought an action for breach of contract. He complained that lecture halls were overcrowded and that assignments set by tutors contained grammatical errors.

The proposed contract agreed by Oxford’s Conference of Colleges is believed to be the first of its kind in higher education in England. Its authors argue that the colleges will be able to defend themselves more easily against complaints.

Students admitted to Oxford this autumn will have to sign the document, seen by The Times, which states that they must “pursue such studies as are required of you by any tutor, fellow or lecturer, or other qualified person assigned by the College to teach you”.

This includes “activities such as practicals, the completion of written work, attendance in tutorials and classes and lectures, and the sitting of University and internal College examinations”.

The contract only commits a college to “make such teaching provision for undergraduate students as it reasonably decides is necessary for their courses of study”. This “may” include tutorials, classes and seminars.

It adds: “Given the variation in courses of study, it is not possible to specify a minimum amount of teaching for undergraduates in all subjects.”

College heads say that codifying both parties’ obligations was necessary to bring the university out of an age of “gentleman’s agreements” and into line with modern business practice. Michael Beloff, QC, President of Trinity College, who drew up the contract, said: “We took the view that we were out of kilter with the modern age. Fifty years ago no one would have thought of such a thing but we live in a much more litigious society.”

Mr Beloff wrote in a note about the contract to fellow college heads: “If (which is in the present climate a realistic possibility) a student seeks to allege a breach by the College of its obligations towards him/her, the College will find it easier to determine its course of action, if it can be confident that it can locate the document in which those obligations are contained.”

The colleges agree to provide library facilities and residential accommodation, as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner. In return, students must pay their fees and abide by the regulations in their college handbook.

A similar contract is expected to be introduced in 2007 between the central University and undergraduates. The documents could leave students without legal redress if, for instance, Oxford decides to reduce its one-to-one tutorials.

Oxford has already suggested that tutorials could be cut as part of a strategy advanced by John Hood, the Vice-Chancellor, to reduce chronic losses of nearly £100 million on teaching and research.

Students’ leaders complained about a lack of consultation. Emma Norris, President of Oxford University Students’ Union, said: “We don’t expect things to stay the same but we do expect a commitment to discuss changes relating to teaching courses, accommodation, fees and charges.”

Cambridge said that it had no plans to introduce similar contracts. A spokeswoman said that a student was bound by its statutes and regulations as soon as he or she signed a matriculation form.

However, a growing number of universities are examining the question of introducing so-called “service-level agreements” to codify their relations with students. Some also view it as an opportunity to “rebalance” the relationship by asserting the university’s right to uphold academic standards, arguing that students must not be allowed to believe that payment of fees entitles to a degree regardless of the work they do.

Exercises 1.3.

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