Court rules that half of US student's fee must be repaid

Svea Hovrätt, the Court of Appeal, on 6 April endorsed the verdict in the lower court that Mälardalen University College has to repay tuition fees paid by an international student for a course that was found not to be of sufficient quality.

However, the court halved the repayment sum to SEK85,406 (US$9,400) plus the University College had to pay the student’s costs for bringing the case to court, SEK49,000 (US$5,400).

This ruling means that the Court of Appeal agrees with the district court’s conclusion that a university can be obliged to refund the tuition fee if the educational programme provided does not live up to educational standards.

“Even if the relationship between the student and the university college is within the realm of public law, the part of this relationship which is concerning the tuition fees is to be regarded as falling within the private jurisdiction and hence to be treated within the principles of contractual law with regard to price reduction,” Svea Hovrätt stated in the verdict.

“This is a verdict of great consequence for thousands of students,” according to the Centre for Justice, which assisted the US student Connie Askenbäck (formerly Connie Dickinson) to bring the case to court.

Clarence Crafoord, CEO of the Centre for Justice, said in a press release: “This is wonderful news and the judgment is very reasonable. The Court of Appeal has now clarified that individuals who pay for services provided by the government are not without legal rights. Moreover, it’s important that universities receive a clear message that the educational programmes they provide and charge for, need to live up to sufficient standards in accordance with the law.”

“It feels great,” Connie Askenbäck said. “It's a relief. Now I can finally continue my studies as I initially planned.”

In contrast to Västmanland district court, the Court of Appeal did not consider the programme completely worthless, and subsequently held that Askenbäck was entitled to a 50% refund. But the court did concur that the programme was of insufficient quality.

Disagreement in court

One of the four judges in Svea Hovrätt, Vibeke Sylten, was in disagreement with the others and argued that the college should not repay anything to Askenbäck. Her principal stand was that the quality assessment of the Swedish Higher Education Authority UKÄ and the evaluation of the course as being of insufficient quality were not of relevance in the disagreement.

“To treat the university as a producer and the student as a consumer is not adequate,” she said.

Mälardalen University College said it would examine the case closely before taking any decision on whether to appeal the case at the Swedish High Court. Even if they appeal the verdict, the High Court has to accept the case as a valid case before it is accepted for ruling there.

Mälardalen University College has four weeks to decide if it will appeal. Ann Cederberg, its CEO, told the Swedish university teachers magazine Universitätsläraren that she thinks it is of particular interest that the judges were not in agreement. “Thinking that the whole sector is following the proceedings with great interest, this is an important signal for us,” she said.

The case has been met with strong interest worldwide, hitting the headlines previously in Europe and beyond. One day after the verdict, a Facebook page on Swedish higher education issues, discussing the case, had attracted nearly one hundred comments, notably discussing if it is reasonable that educational courses should be subsumed under the definition of a commodity.

Västmanland district court in July last year ruled that Mälardalen University College had to pay back the SEK170,812 (US$18,800) paid in tuition fees to Askenbäck for the MA course in analytical finance, plus interest, and cover her court costs.

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