Covid-19 claims trends

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Covid-19 claims trends

Published 3 agosto 2021

Our schools and higher education institutions have faced unique and unprecedented challenges throughout the Covid-19 crisis from a sudden lockdown, remaining open for the children of key workers, to swift preparations to re-open with rapid lateral flow testing in place. Now that restrictions are easing, most educational settings are looking forward to reopening and welcoming back pupils, students and staff in September 2021 . However, as we begin to see light at the end of the tunnel , the consequences may rumble on for some time yet. We set our below our thoughts on the likely issues facing our education institutions and how this may result in claims.

Independent schools

In April 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) wrote to representatives of private schools to warn that they are aware that “individuals at some schools may be in engaging in discussions with each other” as to the level of discount and reductions that can be applied to fees during the corona virus outbreak. The CMA accepted that it may be essential for schools to collaborate in times of crisis, but that it would not be appropriate for them to exchange commercially sensitive information as to future pricing information and strategy, even in circumstances where the majority of independent schools are charitable institutions.

The Independent Schools Council did, however, confirm that they were not aware of any evidence of collusion and that the matter had been resolved amicably with the CMA.

Nonetheless, given that schools have been unable to provide the usual level of educational services, and that parents may also face increased financial pressures, we are aware that school fees have been challenged and reductions asked for.

The approach to these requests has differed between schools. Some have offered fee discounts, fee freezes and/or credit for the next academic year. However, many have not offered a reduction in fees as educational services are still being provided and pupils being taught online. Instead some have offered refunds for facilities that could not have been offered, such as transport and meals.

Schools have had to balance remaining financially viable with being conscious that some parents will of course also be facing financial uncertainty. However, there will be a large variation in the way that schools have dealt with fees. Larger independent schools may have been able to offer fee reductions/discounts. However, smaller independent schools may have struggled to offer discounts and have instead opted to offer a credit system whereby additional costs for services that cannot be used this year, be deducted from fees payable in the next academic year.

Together with possible disgruntlement about the standard/availability of online teaching and the financial pressures faced by parents and schools alike, this may lead to claims for breach of contract claims where parents may feel aggrieved that the fees paid do not reflect value for money and/or breach of duty for failure to educate. Grades for GCSEs and A-Levels will of course also be based on predicted grades and whilst this will avoid the chaos caused by the algorithm last year, any dissatisfaction in grades will, this time, be aimed at schools. We deal with the issues we anticipate arising from predicted grades in a separate article here.

Higher education institutions

In a letter from the Office for Students to Higher Education providers it stated that it expected “that providers should make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies, for achievement to be reliably assessed, for qualifications to be awarded securely, and to enable a fair and robust admissions process for 2020-21 entrants.” It also confirmed that the key priorities should be

  • ensuring delivery of good quality teaching and support
  • vulnerable students and their support
  • closure of university buildings and facilities
  • student accommodation and how students can remain in their accommodation
  • students' mental health and support available for students' mental health and wellbeing

Research by the National Union of Students (NUS) estimates that around 20% of students have not been able to access learning online during lockdown, but only 65% believe that the quality of teaching is good and 74% are worried about the risk to their final qualifications. International students in particular feel much less confident that they have the information they need and are left with uncertainties around accommodation, visas and finances. It is clear that the majority of students from all backgrounds are concerned for the future.

With a third of students at critical risk of losing their access to education, the NUS has launched a campaign for a nationwide solution to ensure that students are treated fairly and that a safety net is in place. Speaking at NUS’ Student Safety Net campaign launch in April 2020, Zamzam Ibrahim, former NUS National President, said: “The current crisis has shown that students occupy the worst of all possible worlds – with the majority paying extortionate fees for their education and are treated as consumers but are left out in the cold when the product cannot be delivered as described.”

The NUS has therefore sought the opportunity for students to repeat a year of study at no additional cost and for anyone who has paid fees through the student loan system to have their debt this year written off. In the event that students had paid their fees upfront, that they should be reimbursed.  

Whilst the NUS has welcomed the government’s plans for a return for student on practical or practice-based courses, it emphasised the need for plans to be put in place for a staggered safe return to campus after Easter,  for those students who continue to access remote learning there remains deep concerns about the effect of digital learning on those students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is therefore a continuing call for “maintenance grants, rent rebates and no detriment policies” to tackle “deepening inequalities”.

University and college students were promised “blended” learning for the 2020/21 academic year.  Despite their best efforts, this was not always possible with some students still not having received a single hour of in-person teaching.  For those on practical courses, there has been serious disruption with lab time, for example, being seriously reduced.  Understandably, this has led to calls from a number of quarters for tuition fee refunds or some other form of recompense.  Claims are dealt with on an individual basis and there is speculation on student networks of the awards being made.  The Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which reviews student complaints about universities and other higher education providers in England and Wales, received 2,604 complaints in 2020, 500 of which related to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.  Case summaries published by the OIA include awards relating to coronavirus of up to £5000. The number of claims will almost certainly rise in 2021.

Similarly, there are vociferous calls for rent refunds from universities with students again complaining that they are not getting what they were promised.  With communal facilities closed, social activities cancelled and, for those in self-catered accommodation, food was provided in take-away boxes to be eaten in a bedroom.  Rent strikes have gained significant support costing universities substantial sums.  This is on top of the unexpected outlay that has been required where student blocks were put into lockdown.

Authors

Becky Lea

Becky Lea

Bristol

+44 (0)117 918 2739

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