Court ruling backs rights of international students

The Supreme Court of Sweden on 17 April ruled that Mälardalen University College must pay back international student Connie Dickinson – whose surname is now Askenbäck – two-thirds of the tuition fees she paid for courses at the university college that were not of sufficiently high quality.

This verdict implies that Swedish universities are required by law to ensure that courses offered to tuition fee-paying students from outside Europe are of a high academic standard.

“I have fought for this over the span of four years. Now, I feel both joy and relief,” Askenbäck said in a press release from the Centre for Justice, which has served her in the case.

“It is right and proper that a university that has accepted payment for an inferior education can be obligated to repay the student,” says Fredrik Bergman, head of the Centre for Justice, who together with Johannes Forssberg, associate at the Centre for Justice, was Askenbäck’s legal counsel before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled that Mälardalen University College must pay back SEK114,000 (US$13,500) plus interest from 25 May 2015, plus court costs of SEK41,360.

Askenbäck had sought repayment of SEK170,812.

Against this, Mälardalen University College was seeking a ruling that no refund was due and Askenbäck should pay for their costs.

Connie Askenbäck, then Connie Dickinson, a United States citizen, had moved to Sweden to study an MA in analytical finance at the university college in 2011-12, for which she paid tuition fees of SEK55,000 per term.

The course was taught in English for both Swedish and international students and was marketed as being of “very high quality”.

But according to Askenbäck, 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.

She sued for repayment of the fees, arguing that there had been a breach of contract. The college argued that there was no legal basis for her demand for repayment.

The case went to the Västmanland district court with the Centre for Justice as an agent. That court ruled that the college was obliged to repay the fees. When the college appealed to the Svea Hovrätt – the Court of Appeal – it shared the district court’s assessment but considered that Askenbäck had still benefited from the education and so reduced the repayment obligation to half of the tuition fees.

Both the university college and Askenbäck then appealed to the Supreme Court of Sweden. Its judgment will be indicative for similar cases.

Compensation question

The 12-page Supreme Court ruling states that the key question is about whether the law commits higher education institutions to paying back tuition fees to a student who has attended courses that are not of sufficiently high quality.

The court discussed one of the essential points of the lower court proceedings – whether an agreement between a higher education institution and a student for access to a higher education where tuition fees are demanded falls under civil contractual law.

The Supreme Court, by referring to similar cases of fees having to be paid, for instance for day care where the services were not delivered due to the staff of the kindergarten being on strike, had ruled that payback compensation should be awarded.

The Supreme Court stated that the case related to an education course where the principle of all costs, including teaching costs, being covered by the tuition fees applied. The payment from the student therefore had to be regarded “from a civil law perspective” and from a ”contractual point of view… with regard to the content of the higher education provided and the way this is performed”.

Mälardalen University College held that it was not legally liable for the quality of its education, even in relation to foreign students paying tuition fees.

“The Supreme Court clearly rejects that view,” the Centre for Justice said in a press release. “The judgment clarifies that foreign students subject to tuition fees have not only obligations, but also rights.”