A recent High Court decision provides a useful reminder of the obligation higher education institutions have to follow their own procedures consistently and fairly, and to allow students with eligible grievances to exercise their right to complain.
R (on the application of AW) v St George's, University of London
In 2012, AW enrolled at St George's University of London (SGUL) to study medicine.
Three years later, AW failed her end of year exams at first attempt and at resit. AW began to retake the year but, after being diagnosed with cancer, she applied for an interruption to studies in order to receive specialist treatment in France.
The interruption request was approved but disagreements ensued between AW and SGUL regarding the sharing of AW's medical information, the conditions for her return to study and the requirement to attend Occupational Health (OH) assessments. AW submitted a number of complaints and eventually issued a County Court claim alleging disability discrimination and breach of the Human Rights Act.
When called upon to determine the basis on which AW could return to SGUL, a Registration Extension Panel required her to better engage with both staff and the programme. Following AW's unsuccessful appeal of this decision, she was sent a Completion of Procedures (COP) letter.
SGUL defended the County Court claim and arrangements were made for AW to return, including a further OH assessment. AW disputed the return to study provisions on the basis that her current interruption of study arrangements did not include any agreed reasonable adjustments. AW also continued to refuse to consent to the disclosure of her OH reports. SGUL warned AW that maintaining this approach would preclude her from returning to her studies within the extended maximum registration period.
In April 2019, SGUL terminated AW's registration due to her failure to complete the re-enrolment process (disputed by AW). As a result, AW was prevented from finishing a placement that formed a compulsory part of the course before her maximum registration period expired.
AW was originally informed that she could make a complaint against the termination decision. However, she was later told that making a complaint under SGUL's complaints procedure could not achieve her desired outcome and would therefore be futile. AW's complaint was not accepted and she was not issued with a COP letter.
The termination decision prevented AW from pursuing undergraduate medical studies at another British medical school. As a result, she sought judicial review of SGUL's:
- decision to terminate her registration
- failure to provide warning that her registration would likely be terminated
- failure to provide a COP letter in respect of the her complaint
What Was the Outcome?
The Judge found SGUL's termination of AW's studies was unlawful and that AW should have been permitted to submit an internal complaint. The termination decision was quashed but the Judge refrained from stating that a COP letter must be issued. AW is now able to resume her studies at SGUL or at another medical school.
What Can You Learn from This?
The judgment provides a number of general and specific points regarding what students are entitled to expect from their higher education institution (HEI):
- Failure by an HEI to warn a student that it is considering termination of their place or to take into account submissions and evidence in response is unfair and can render a termination decision unlawful.
- Published policies and procedures form part of the contract between a HEI and its students, who have a legitimate expectation that it will follow them in a consistent way.
- Students should not be precluded from submitting formal complaints if they meet the requirements contained in the HEI's own complaints procedure.
- Non-attendance at OH assessments is not in itself sufficient grounds to terminate a student's place.
- Students should expect their HEI to demand action from them in relation to important issues such as interruptions to study and registration extensions.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.