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International student fee case goes to high court

Mälardalen University has appealed to the High Court to overturn the verdict reached in Svea Hovrätt, the Court of Appeal, which ruled that it must repay international student Connie Dickinson – now Connie Askenbäck – the tuition fees she paid for a course which was evaluated as being of 'poor quality'.

Mälardalen University is also asking for a refund of their legal costs of SEK668,750 (US$75,000) up to this stage, plus the lawyer fees for processing the case in the High Court. The main argument in its appeal is that even if courses were evaluated as being of poor quality in Sweden under the evaluation procedure used when Connie Askenbäck studied there, these courses are valid under Swedish university law.

Both the first district court and the second appeals court rulings stated that a university cannot claim tuition fees for an education that does not meet quality criteria.

“This is a logical and sound conclusion, and it is good that the high court now has an opportunity to decide on this important question of principle,” said head of the Centre for Justice Clarence Crafoord and chief lawyer Fredrik Bergman, who are going to represent Askenbäck in the High Court case, in a press release.

Connie Dickinson paid SEK170,000 in tuition fees at Mälardalen University for a course in analytical finance that was evaluated as ‘not satisfactory’ in four out of five evaluation criteria used by the Swedish University Chancellor’s office under an evaluation system that has since been scrapped.

Assisted by the Centre for Justice, Connie Dickinson brought the university to the Västmanland district court requesting a repayment of the tuition fees and the court ruled that the whole amount paid by Dickinson should be refunded since the education taken at Mälardalen University “in practical terms had no value for Connie Dickinson”.

When appealing to Svea Hovrätt in Stockholm, the ruling that the fee must be repaid was confirmed, but the amount to be repaid was halved, since the appeal court found that Dickinson, now Askenbäck, “had had some use of the education provided”.

In a 13-page note of appeal, Mälardalen is now urging the High Court to reject the complaint by Askenbäck, to relieve Mälardalen of having to pay for her costs for bringing the case to the courts and to pay for Mälardalen’s legal costs for bringing the case to the two previous courts and for bringing the case to the High Court.

Change of argument

While the core of the first two cases was whether the case of complaint should be subsumed under private agreement law or the sphere of public law, the argument in this Mälardalen appeal case has now shifted to questioning the evaluation system that labelled the course in question as being of ‘poor quality’.

Mälardalen University will argue that it was not the only institution to have a course marked down in this way. Out of 2,088 courses evaluated in 2011-15, 548 or 26% were evaluated as being of poor quality. After a year of improvements, 466 of these were evaluated as being of high quality, Mälardalen will say.

The university is arguing that a part of the evaluation procedure at the time involved including student exam results in the evaluation score, and that the academic standing of the students registered for many of the courses was weak, and that this contributed significantly to the score.

“On several of these courses students from foreign countries and students with lower marks from secondary school are overrepresented,” Mälardalen argues in the appeal note.

“It can therefore not be excluded that courses labelled weak are overrepresented by students with lower marks from secondary school and that the degree of parents having completed higher education is lower in these groups compared with the students who have followed courses that were evaluated as being of a ‘high quality’ or ‘very high quality’.”

Lena Adamson, director of the Swedish Institute for Educational Research and a specialist on quality assurance in higher education, told University World News: “The national QA [quality assurance] system that was used in Sweden between 2011 and 2015 caused Sweden to be excluded from ENQA [the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education]. ENQA’s experts did not even consider it to be a QA system due to its single focus on ‘results’, ie, student theses.

“The implementation of the system was also entirely uneven in between all the review groups, contributing even further to the total lack of reliability of these quality evaluations. Hence, in my mind, the legal value of the results from this evaluation would need to be thoroughly investigated in order to decide if it can be used as evidence in a court case.”

Mälardalen University is not the only party appealing to the High Court. Askenbäck is seeking to overturn the Court of Appeal ruling that she should only be repaid half of the tuition fee, requesting that full payment be made, as agreed in the first court. She is also seeking lawyer costs and rejection of Mälardalen's new appeal. But she asked for more time to develop her arguments.

Related Links
Court rules that half of US student’s fee must be repaid
Appeal heard against international student fee ruling
Foreign student sues university over course quality
MPs pass plan for new quality assurance system
Quality assurance regime fails to meet European standards
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