Introduction

A former Oxford student has recently claimed that the university was responsible for his failure to attain employment as a top tier lawyer in the case of Faiz Siddiqui v The Chancellor, Masters & Scholars of the University of Oxford [2018] EWHC 184 (QB).

The action was brought 16 years after his graduation and related to a poor mark received in a paper he wrote for the course “India, 1916—1934: Indigenous Politics and Imperial Control”. Among Mr Siddiqui’s allegations was that negligently inadequate teaching quality led to his poor mark, thereby preventing him from achieving first class honours and from later being hired by a top tier firm.

Although this particular claim was (somewhat unsurprisingly) rejected by the High Court of the UK, the possibility of future successful claims was explicitly left open, begging the question: could Australian students sue their universities where they fail to attain employment?

Background

Before looking at the possibility in Australia, it is worth examining the peculiar fact scenarios which have led to successful claims overseas.

In the case of Phelps v Hillingdon London Borough Council; Anderton v Clwyd County Council; Gower v Bromley London Borough Council; Jarvis v Hampshire County Council [2000] UKHL 47, litigants were awarded damages for the loss of wages they suffered as a result of the negligent acts of their schools. The schools failed to recognise and provide appropriate education for their special educational needs, and the court acknowledged that this failure directly caused their failure to find employment.

More recently, in the US, a lawsuit was settled when DeVry University agreed to pay $100 million to students affected by misleading advertisements relating to the employability and earning capacity of their graduates. It was found that the university’s assertions that DeVry graduates were more employable than their counterparts from other universities were false. Damages were accordingly awarded to students harmed by the deceptive conduct (though the definition of such harm was not made public, and settlement prevented the question being put before a judge).

It seems that negligence and misleading or deceptive conduct both provide potential avenues for redress.

Australia

In Australia, there have been no judgements to date relating to such educational negligence, and a handful of misrepresentation cases have been unsuccessful.

For example, in Fennell v Australian National University [1999] FCA 989, an ambiguous advertisement suggesting that graduates would be guaranteed work placement was deemed to fall short of misleading and deceptive conduct.

In Yee Tak On v Dr Linda Hort (ANU College) [2012] FMCA 391, a student was denied damages for failing a course where the homework requirements were greater than was foreshadowed in its course guide.

In Weir v Geelong Grammar School (Civil Claims) [2012] VCAT 1736, the mother of a student failed to establish that the school had provided a standard of teaching lower than advertised, and that the failure had caused her daughter to be denied entry into Law at Sydney University.

Conclusion

Despite the area being somewhat unexplored in Australia, these failed cases appeared to have largely turned on their facts. Scope may remain to hold educational institutions responsible where their students fail to attain employment and the circumstances are sufficiently clear.

Considering the current oversupply of university graduates to the legal market in Australia, it isn’t hard to imagine many of our own students finding themselves empathising with Mr. Siddiqui.