Our Education expert, Helen Rowland, looks at how legally binding contracts between universities and students already exist.

Why do we need a document referred to as a 'legally binding student contract', as suggested by Jo Johnson in the article below?

This plays into the hands of the idea that, unless the parties have signed a piece of paper headed 'Contract', there is no contract in place - which is wrong. A student contract already exists between every university and its students. In fact, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued guidance for Higher Education providers in 2015 requiring universities to make it clear to students the terms upon on which they are contracting.

As part of this process, all universities should've already reviewed their policies and websites to identify the contract they have in place with students. If they want to, students can, and already do, bring claims against universities if they feel that the institution has not complied with its obligations.

With the increase in tuition fees, students might expect that they'll be leaving university with a degree. But, paying to go to university doesn’t guarantee you’ll receive a degree - it provides students with the opportunity to get a degree. There are already concerns that the introduction of this contract could result in students bringing claims that they should have received a first class degree.

It’s easy to focus on whether universities are doing all they can to help students, but any contract places obligations on both parties.

Students would be under a legal obligation to attend lectures and seminars or read prescribed texts. So, not only would students be able to sue universities for any breaches, but universities could defend and counterclaim any actions brought by student on this basis or, even in theory, bring their own claims against students for non-performance.

While this is unlikely to be a regular occurrence, with the increasing focus on league tables and results, universities are understandably keen to maintain their reputations. So, if there are frequent examples of non-performance by students, universities may well consider taking action.

Jo Johnson’s suggestion of a ‘legally binding value for money student contract’ would give students no more rights than they already have, but would inevitably result in an increase in claims against universities.

In some ways, it may even reduce the basis upon which students can already bring claims against universities. At the moment, depending on how they are worded, certain policies or extracts on a university’s website, for example, could form part of the student contract.