Can I sue my university?
May 16, 2012 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Can I sue my university?

I am currently studying for a masters degree at a particularly prestigious university in the UK. As I reach the end of my course it's becoming increasingly apparent, despite the massive amount of money I've spent on the course, that I've learnt practically nothing.

*The research component of the course (its main "selling point") is a complete sham; classes were poorly taught and there was no opportunity for one-to-one tuition.

*The lecturer for module - for me, this module was a major reason for choosing the course - had zero expertise in the subject being taught. Add to this the fact she was an alcoholic, turning up to lecturers drunk when she bothered to turn up at all.

*Furthermore, my thesis supervisor is completely useless. Since nobody in the department specializes in any of my research interests, I have been lumped with someone who specializes in, well, nothing at all.

My question is, do I have a case for suing the university as a result of all this? For what it's worth, despite having learnt nothing, I have got top marks in all of my assignments first and I expect to get a distinction for the course overall. Anyway, thanks in advance for any help.
posted by FuckingAwesome to Education (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You need to talk to a solicitor. Nobody here will offer you anything that is actual legal advice. Anyone here who says "yes, you can" or "no, you can't" or "maybe" is talking out of their ass.

Get a lawyer.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:44 AM on May 16, 2012 [12 favorites]

On the basis of what you wrote, I take it that you are upset -- quite probably rightfully -- about how little you have gotten out of your course. However, your feelings have kind of led you to describing your situation in terms that I am inclined to read as hyperbolic, and that makes it hard to assess your question as posed.

To get a useful answer, you will need to find a competent solicitor and bring to them as much of a factual case as you have. This means, instead of saying "my instructor had no experience in my field of study" you say, "here's my instructor's CV: as you can see, his academic and personal qualifications have no relation to the subject of the course of study in which he was instructing." Instead of saying "there was no opportunity for one-on-one instruction" bring facts that show that lack of opportunity: you visited your instructor's office on several occasions and she was never there. Her posted office hours were at unusual and inconvenient times and she refused to meet outside of those times. And so on. Good luck.
posted by gauche at 10:49 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You obviously need to talk to a lawyer in your jurisdiction that knows something about educational law and can give you advice based on your specific facts. That being said, students periodically try and sue their schools over educational quality, and rarely have much success. Here is an example from the US in which two students withheld tuition and sued their university over the quality of certain courses. The university counterclaimed for the tuition, and the case ultimately settled with the students paying some money.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 10:50 AM on May 16, 2012

We have no idea and can't really help you. There will be people who come into this thread with strongly held ideas, but anyone who gives you an answer other than 'talk to a competent solicitor', 'I am a competent solicitor, here are folks to contact', or 'these are thing to keep in mind when talking to a competent solicitor' is talking out their ass.

That said, the more failures on their part that you can document the better.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:52 AM on May 16, 2012

Wow. Your story is pretty scary and probably pretty normal.

I'm with talk to a legal professional, but universities don't guarantee anything. Did you complain to department heads, deans or ombudsmen during your tenure at your university? Do you have records of it?

Just out of curiosity, had you known, what would your plan b have been?

Frankly, I have a master's degree too, and after it was all over and done, I too felt really unprepared to put any of it to actual use. (Granted it was an MBA, and that's probably true of everyone who has one.)

How have you been harmed (aside from the expenditure of money). To sue someone you have to prove that you've been damaged in some way. Will the degree with distinction you hold prevent you from obtaining employment in your field. Are you unfit to start a career in your field, despite this prestigious degree? How so?

I suggest that you try to build your own case, how much evidence do you have? Get it together. What would your alternative have been? How was it better? THEN seek a legal opinion.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:53 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless someone comes here and says "I sued my university in 2009 and here's what happened" or "I attempted to sue my university and the court ruled that it was not possible under UK law and here's a link to the specific laws that were cited" or "If you look at your university's enrollment documents, you will see a section where you agree that accepting an offer of admission constitutes an agreement not to sue, and my solicitor said that that has held up time and time again in court" I'm not sure what any of us can tell you that will be useful.

See a solicitor and ask them what they think.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:59 AM on May 16, 2012

I don't see anything in your question about having filed complaints or attempting to withdraw or any of the usual things people would do before filing a law suit. You can talk to a solicitor, but without a paper trail, I don't see how you're going to succeed.
posted by empath at 11:03 AM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

You can talk to a solicitor, but probably you just have to move on. Have you ever heard of a case like this succeeding against a university of your school's caliber? Lots of people come out of programs unhappy; nobody's getting their money back.
posted by gerryblog at 11:05 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of my acquaintances in undergrad successfully sued our college (Iowa, USA, late 90's). She was an education major, and when it came time to graduate she had not completed one of the requirements. I don't know much about the program or its requirements, but basically when it came time for her to graduate she had a Bachelors of Education, but was not eligible to take the licensing exam. It was a total clusterfuck of a situation - she was married and her husband was graduating, they had been planning to move back to their home state and start working, but she suddenly found out that she could not teach and would essentially have to take another year of classes to be licensed.

Somehow she was able to prove that her Adviser and the head of the Education department had not made it known to her that she needed to fulfill the requirement, and got a heckuva lot of money from the school. I lost touch with her after I graduated, but I believe she completed her "extra year" at a university close to her and her husbands hometown...on our colleges' dime, of course.

I tell you this because she had to prove negligence by the professors in order for her case to be successful. It was a clear-cut "You did not make it clear that I needed these requirements, here's the proof that you did not make it clear, these are the results of your being unclear." It had nothing to do with the quality of the classes, it was 100% based on fulfilling the requirements and the Adviser/Dept. Head's negligence.

Your argument sounds a lot less...sturdy than hers. She had facts to support her claim, and it was still not an easy road. Do you have facts to back up your claims? "Poorly taught class" and "completely useless Adviser" probably won't hold water. Can you prove your professor was drunk? Does she not have the necessary education to teach the class?

But you know who would know for sure? A solicitor.
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:11 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to the overall probability of success for your claim, but I can tell you one part absolutely won't fly:

*Furthermore, my thesis supervisor is completely useless. Since nobody in the department specializes in any of my research interests, I have been lumped with someone who specializes in, well, nothing at all.

As a grad student, that's 100% on you. No one there specializes in your stuff, you go elsewhere. They're not required to cover your research interests with faculty.
posted by donnagirl at 11:22 AM on May 16, 2012 [11 favorites]

Along the same lines as empath...what did you do to rectify this situation? Your post seems to indicate that your entire course was a wash. Were you proactive in attempting to fix this? You have to be an active part of your educational process.
posted by AlliKat75 at 11:24 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's an article from the Guardian about the question of suing universities after what sounds like a lecturer's strike. At any rate, it appears your first stop is the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, though I think you have to have exhausted avenues within the university first (whatever those are).
posted by hoyland at 11:33 AM on May 16, 2012

I've only heard of one successful case of students suing their school (and winning) outside of a discrimination or personal injury case, and even that is sort of legend / hearsay.. but apparently my university was once sued by the student body for tuition reimbursement when they cancelled classes for ~20 days out of a semester due to heavy snowfall. To those in warm climates who are unaware, "snow days" are rare yet much treasured surprise vacations, but during this particularly nasty winter they had to have that many for safety reasons. Story goes, the school lost a class action suit, had to reimburse students for those days lost, and is now extremely strict about when to cancel due to weather (only 1 occurrence in the 4 years that I was there.)
posted by el_yucateco at 12:00 PM on May 16, 2012

Was the purpose of going there education or to get papers to get a job?

If it's a latter, take the papers, get your job, and be happy. Because if you sue them, imagine how lovely it will be when an employer calls them to validate your resume and they say "Oh, I'm sorry, that file has pending litigation on it, we can't discuss it".
posted by shepd at 12:56 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did you read this other article from the Guardian:

Can you get a refund if university fails to deliver?

Short answer is "yes", and there have been a few substantial payouts.
posted by roofus at 2:14 PM on May 16, 2012

I did this and won against a US based grad program. Have you been harmed emotionally or physically? This was really the clincher, and I could prove it, and I could also prove I tried to rectify the situation many times. My lawyer told me from the start he thought I had a good case, or I wouldn't have done it, so you may want to talk someone and see what they say.

Also, though the amount of money was a lot in some ways (enough to pay off my student loans, lawyers fees, and pay for a ton of therapy, with a little left over to sock away) it wasn't like, life changing money, so don't count on that.
posted by Rocket26 at 3:35 PM on May 16, 2012

Bearing in mind the particular university you're seeking to sue, I really think you don't have a chance. Please sleep on it, a lot, and consider what it's worth to try a losing battle that won't be fought fairly.

I'd move on, as shepd says.
posted by lokta at 7:51 PM on May 16, 2012

(It's still worth raising detailed complaint though - but that'll be for the benefit of other students, not yourself.)
posted by lokta at 7:53 PM on May 16, 2012

Along the lines of what donnagirl said, I would agree that you can't complain about the thesis supervisor or about no one in the dept specializing in your interests. It is expected at postgrad level that you will choose a university that is the right fit. The only way you can complain about this is if you have some sort of written correspondence with them where they represented themselves as being a department focussed on one of your interests, and then it turned out they were lying.

Also, this sounds weak to me:
The research component of the course (its main "selling point") is a complete sham; classes were poorly taught and there was no opportunity for one-to-one tuition.

A research component of a masters degree is not usually about classes. It's about you choosing a topic and writing a thesis, and MAYBE learning how to do research directly from instruction, but that is rare, and most institutions let you sink or swim in this regard. I'm not sure you have a case here. Even if they offer any classes in research methodology at all, that is quite rightly a selling point, even if they are bad, because most universities in the UK do not.

I think your strongest argument is about the lecturer having no expertise and turning up drunk to classes. This sounds like something you could reasonably prove, and maybe get a tuition refund on the basis of.
posted by lollusc at 8:03 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

How is it that you got top marks for your assignments without learning anything? Wouldn't that be the easiest way to prove your case? You must still have copies of your coursework, so you should be able to show that you wrote "I am a fish" over and over again and received an A++ for it.

I assume they have marking criteria that you can point to and show how "I am a fish" repeated 500 times does not adequately detail the hermeneutical problem of exegesis that you were set to answer.

Mind you, I'm as clueless as anyone but that's where I would start.
posted by tel3path at 2:03 PM on June 25, 2012

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