Appeal heard against international student fee ruling

The university that was successfully sued by an international student over the quality of its provision in a course for which she paid tuition fees, has been to the court of appeal to try to have the verdict of the district court annulled.

Connie Dickinson from the United States – now Connie Askenbäck – won the case she had brought upon Mälardalen University College at the Västmanland district court in July last year.

The court ruled that Mälardalen University College had to pay back the SEK170,812 (US$19,200) paid in tuition fees to Askenbäck for the MA course in analytical finance, plus interest, and cover her court costs (SEK63,658 or US$7,200), as reported by University World News.

The reason for the court verdict was that an evaluation of the course by a panel of the Swedish Higher Education Authority, or UKÄ, found it to be of a poor quality, and the court questioned if Mälardalen University College had the right to graduate students in the main course of mathematics, which analytical finance belonged to.

The legal point applied by Västmanland court was that the agreement concluded between Mälardalen and the US student belonged to the sphere of private law, and that Mälardalen had not delivered a service product of the quality that Askenbäck had reason to believe she would receive when she ‘concluded the contract’ and paid the tuition fees for the course.

Consequently, the court ruled that Askenbäck had the legal right to be repaid the cost of the tuition fees.

The proceedings of Västmanland district court are outlined in a 13-page document.

Claim for redress

Mälardalen University College, in a letter of 7 July 2016, did not accept the verdict and brought a claim for redress to Svea Hovrätt, the court of appeal, in Stockholm, which read the Mälardalen complaint on 9 March 2017.

Mälardalen, in the claim for redress, asked the appeal court to annul the verdict of the district court, exempt Mälardalen University College from repaying the tuition fees paid by Askenbäck, and exempt Mälardalen from paying for her court costs, both for the first court proceedings and for the appeal court.

In the appeal claim, Mälardalen argued that the district court had placed the case under the chapter of private law in Swedish legislation on false grounds and that it should instead be addressed under public law legislation, which is different, notably with regard to contracts.

Furthermore, Mälardalen argued that the district court had wrongly concluded that the study programme in analytical finance did not meet the quality required by university law. The university argued that the weaknesses pointed out by the evaluation authorities were of such a nature that the programme was not without value for Askenbäck, as she would have been awarded a degree provided she had fulfilled the degree requirements and not withdrawn from the course.

Mälardalen also argued that the agreement between a higher learning institution and a tuition fee-paying student, as described in the rationale for the law outlined by the government in 2009, clearly states that this agreement shall be subsumed under public law enforcement.

In addition, Mälardalen claimed that the quality regulation of higher education courses in Sweden fell under the university law and that it was not the intention of government that it should be within the authority of the courts to challenge the content and quality of university education in Sweden.

Mälardalen also said that the current law does not give universities any grounds for making individual agreements with students (regarding refunding paid tuition fees if the student has started the studies), but that there is an option for students, whether paying fees or not, to change courses during their studies, where tuition fee-paying students would not have to pay the fees once more.

“It would seem very strange,” Mälardalen argued in the appeal letter, “if a fee-paying student, in contrast to a non-fee paying student, should have an option to drive forward a process questioning the quality of a course, based on a subjective opinion that the education in question was not of a good enough quality.”

Mälardalen is arguing that the district court, in its deliberation, had not taken into consideration the evidence of two witnesses heard in court, the head of unit in the department of quality assurance at the Swedish Higher Education Authority, Viveka Persson, and her colleague Loulou von Ravensberg, who stated in court that it was not the whole programme that was evaluated during the quality assurance procedure but the main field of study in mathematics.

Centre for Justice supports upholding the verdict

The Centre for Justice, an organisation which is advancing the legal protection of individual citizens’ fundamental rights and freedom, is proceeding with the case on behalf of Connie Askenbäck. In a letter to the Svea Court of Appeal it supported upholding the verdict in the Västmanland district court, since the court had “come to a correct decision”.

In a 14-page letter, the Centre for Justice refuted the claims of Mälardalen that the agreement between Mälardalen and Askenbäck should be regulated according to the principles in public, not private, law.

The Svea Court of Appeal will publish its verdict on 6 April.

Both Mälardalen and Askenbäck can then take the case to the Swedish High Court. Fredrik Bergman of the Centre for Justice told Radio Sweden that since the case will set a precedent, he thinks that it will go to the high court.

Ulrika Hersted, communications officer of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers or SULF, told University World News: “We can of course not comment on the actual case. But it is important that students are offered high-quality education. The leadership of the higher education institutions has a responsibility to create preconditions for the teaching staff and researchers to be able to provide students with teaching of a high quality.”