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The High Court has dismissed a claim brought by a former undergraduate student of Oxford University for £1 million for losses allegedly caused by inadequate teaching. Siddiqui v University of Oxford  EWHC 184 is not the first such case brought in the English courts, but it is the first to be determined at trial. Given the national debate over increasing tuition fees and student loans, the case will be of particular interest to educational professionals faced with students that demand greater value than any previous generation.
The claimant, Mr Siddiqui, was an undergraduate student of Modern History at Oxford University between 1997 and 2000. He received an upper second class degree which was awarded on the basis of seven examinations taken in the final year. Siddiqui complained about the teaching of one of those subjects, “India, 1916 - 1934: Indigenous Politics and Imperial Control” (ISS), taught in 2000 and in previous years by Professor Washbrook. Siddiqui argued that Washbrook was seriously undermined in his ability to teach the ISS course due to sabbaticals of other staff members, requiring Washbrook to cover more classes. Siddiqui learned, in 2013, of a complaint made by another student, Ms Blackmore, in 2001, leading him to bring his claim.
Siddiqui also argued that the failure of his personal tutor to convey to the relevant authorities the impact of severe hay fever and depression that afflicted him over his examination period, which could have resulted in reasonable adjustments being made to his marks, also contributed to his results.
He claimed that the effect of all this was to bring his overall award down from a first class degree to an upper second class degree, causing his career to suffer. Not only did he attribute to his degree result both his failure to be admitted to prestigious US law schools and his inability to progress in his career as a solicitor in the UK, but also psychiatric injury in the form of exacerbation of his existing mental conditions, including anxiety and insomnia.
Mr Justice Foskett found that the ISS course prior to the 1999/2000 academic year was of an impeccably high quality and was taught by world-leading experts, which included Professor Washbrook. Mr Justice Foskett found that this very high standard was the only standard he could consider when determining what was the acceptable standard for that course. What is an acceptable standard at one educational establishment may not be an acceptable standard at another, and the relevant standard for this course was very high indeed.
However, Mr Justice Foskett examined the results of the other students on that course and found that there was no consistent pattern of underachievement on the ISS course when compared to their other courses. He emphasised that if there had been, this would not itself be evidence that the teaching was below standard, but it could be a starting point for reaching that conclusion.
Mr Justice Foskett found that had Siddiqui achieved the same result on the ISS course as the highest-achieving student received, it would not have elevated his overall grade to a first class degree. His claim for causation was further let down by the fact that he had not read all of the course materials, in circumstances where other students who out-performed him had done so. Professor Brown, a professor of Commonwealth History, stated in witness evidence that reading the course materials was the “absolute bedrock core” for the subject, leading Mr Justice Foskett to conclude that “any decision not to read all the texts seems to me to have involved an element of calculated risk by those students who chose to proceed in this way.” In other words, the Court found, Siddiqui had “simply coasted”.
Further, his hay fever had been taken into account; Siddiqui’s grade had been elevated from a lower to an upper second class degree. It would not have been reasonable for adjustments to have increased his score any higher than this. The Court held that Siddiqui's depression, whilst not brought to the attention of his examiners, would never have resulted in any adjustment being made because the true impact of this condition (unlike hay fever) could not be determined or remedied. His results in his six other examinations were roughly similar to his results in his mock examinations. He had never been predicted to gain a first class result.
Despite his claim that his upper second class degree had prohibited his admission to prestigious US law schools, Siddiqui attained excellent results in the GDL and LPC legal conversion courses and was offered a training contract to qualify as a solicitor with the “magic circle” law firm. During his time there and at subsequent employments with three other law firms and an accountancy practice he continued to be afflicted with depression and insomnia, but there was no evidence that either was caused by his result at Oxford University. Instead there was a common theme in his appraisals of lateness, poor behaviour, rudeness to colleagues, and inadequate IT skills. There was no reason to think that these same issues would not have afflicted his career had he been admitted to an American law school.
Had the circumstances been different, for example, if Siddiqui had been predicted higher grades, had his result not been impacted by depression, and had he performed all of the required reading, the Court might have come to a more favourable conclusion. Although Mr Justice Foskett made no explicit reference to the argument, Siddiqui’s claim was no doubt undermined by the fact that Ms Blackmore sat the same examination, made a complaint much earlier about the teaching of the course, but achieved an overall first class degree, went on to study at Harvard Law School and enjoyed a successful career at the London Bar.
Siddiqui's argument that the University's limitation defence should not apply did not succeed. Siddiqui had had sufficient knowledge to begin embarking on a legal claim no later than early 2001: he had already complained that there had been insufficient teaching, he was aware of Ms Blackmore’s concerns at that point (if not her formal complaint), he took no steps to investigate his claim any further upon being rejected by the American law schools, and he was already aware that his mental health issues had not been brought to the attention of the examiners. There had, further, been no fraudulent concealment of Ms Blackmore’s complaint because at the time that he complained he was merely requesting re-evaluation of his examinations so there was no duty on Oxford University to disclose that it had received a complaint about the standard of the teaching.
Although this case was never likely to open the floodgates to claims of educational negligence, it does stand as a warning to educational providers that in times of rising tuition fees, student perceptions of duty of care and value for money have never been more relevant.
We consider that there are likely to be limited situations in which a case of this sort could ever succeed at court unless the institution was obviously negligent i.e. evidence that grades across the board for that year were lower than in previous/subsequent years and as compared to other modules, teaching staff clearly inadequately qualified, non-attendance by staff to lessons etc. As was seen in the Judge's analysis of causation in this case, a whole host of reasons could contribute to why the student in question may have got a lower mark than they themselves anticipated. Further, even if that hurdle is overcome, how would damages be assessed on a loss of earnings basis as, again, there are many different considerations in play; one's degree level is not the only basis for a successful career.
That having been said, a case does not need to come to court to have an impact on an institution and its insurers. As competition increases within the sector, which will likely continue to do so as a result of Brexit, institutions may be increasingly concerned to maintain their reputation as leading providers and avoid any public allegations of negligence or sub-standard teaching.
Authors: Clive Brett and Owen Rees