Foreign student sues university over course quality
It is the first case of its kind since tuition fees were brought in for university students from outside of the European Union in 2011.
The student, Connie Dickinson, is seeking repayment of SEK182,500 (US$22,000) for tuition fees paid for MA studies in Analytical Finance in 2011-12.
The course was taught in English for Swedish and international students and marketed as being of “very high quality”.
But, according to Dickinson, the professors had poor English skills making communication difficult, there were not enough computers for parts of the course, the room was too crowded and the professors were not very helpful in their contact with the student. Several times she raised these issues with the college, but to no avail.
Under the quality assurance system introduced by the Alliance government – amid opposition from Swedish higher education institutions – the University Chancellor’s office evaluated the course and in September 2013 awarded the grade “not satisfactory” on four out of five elements that were evaluated.
The college was given one year to redress the shortcomings pointed out by the evaluation committee to avoid the course being stripped of academic recognition. However, the system of regular checks on courses was discontinued in October 2014 and the next evaluation system will not be launched until 2016.
Connie Dickinson approached Mälardalen University College and asked for a refund of the tuition fees. The claim was rejected on the grounds that the college did not have any legal provision to refund the tuition fees and it was stated that this decision could not be appealed.
Centre for Justice in Sweden
Dickinson then approached the Centrum för Rättvisa or Centre for Justice, a Swedish organisation working for peoples’ rights particularly with respect to public and private organisations, to take up her case.
Three lawyers at the Centre for Justice wrote an op ed article in Dagens Nyheter on 20 April, arguing that public services have the same claim for delivery of quality services as the private sector.
“If you go to a swimming pool and pay the entrance fee and the pool is not filled with water, then you are entitled to have your entrance fee refunded, even if there is no law that explicitly is dealing with this,” they argued.
“Individual students are without rights’ protection when the public sector is claiming fees for courses that are not of sufficiently good quality,” they said.
They said Connie Dickinson was one of several thousand students coming from outside Europe each year to study in Sweden, each of them paying several hundred thousand Swedish krona – equivalent to nearly US$35,000.
When Mälardalen University College told Dickinson it was not possible to repay tuition fees she was left in a legal vacuum, they said. “Hence we are suing Mälardalen College in the district court of Västmanland.”
In a press release addressing the claims of the Centre for Justice, the Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson said: “At the same time as I regret the situation Dickinson is in, I welcome the debate on quality in higher education.
“It is not right for me to comment on this case while the court is handling it, but I want to be explicitly clear on the governmental position, that all higher education in Sweden shall be of high quality.”
She said the government is channelling special resources to strengthen quality and said in future higher education courses would be better quality assured than in today’s system.
The minister also lamented the fact that the number of international students had fallen significantly since the previous government introduced tuition fees. This was unfortunate because internationalisation of higher education needed further expansion for Sweden to become an attractive knowledge economy.
“Internationalisation of the higher education sector is contributing to new contacts, enriching knowledge exchanges, and increasing diversity and understanding between countries and societies. It builds strongly needed networks with foreign students and researchers,” she said.
Lena Adamson, associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University and former secretary-general of the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, who is a higher education expert working for, among others, the Knowledge and Innovation Communities, or KICs, of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, said the Connie Dickinson case does not really relate to the quality assurance system.
“It is related to the former government’s complete disinclination to listen to anyone but themselves.
“I attended a meeting at the ministry, where also a number of vice-chancellors were invited, some time during 2008 or 2009. Many of us warned what would happen if student fees were introduced – that the number of international students would drop dramatically and that we would receive students coming from cultures where suing for liability belongs to the normal system and how would this be handled here?”
She said it was outrageous that this was not thoroughly investigated and resolved before study fees were introduced. This is what happens when education is transferred from “public good” to “consumer goods”, she added.
“I think we all feel really sorry for the student, but at the same time Mälardalen University College is doing the right thing by letting this now pass through the legal system, as this must be solved on a general, not individual, level.”