Students sue Oxford for discrimination amid surge in mental health claims against universities

Alaw graduate is suing Oxford University for loss of earnings after completing her degree a year late due to mental health problems, as experts report a surge in lawsuits from a generation of students who are “aware” of their rights.

Catherine Dance, 24, claims she was forced to take a year-long break from her law degree because staff at Jesus College refused to allow special arrangements for her exams.

She has sued the college for psychological harm and loss of earnings, claiming that she sacrificed a year’s potential salary from a lucrative graduate job.

It comes as lawyers report a sharp rise of cases from students who have accused their tutors of discriminating against them for having a mental illness. Several other elite universities are embroiled in the legal battles, with dozens of mentally ill students having sued their universities in recent years.

Miss Dance, who was diagnosed with chronic anxiety and depression in 2009, was allowed to sit her A-Levels in a private room and with a laptop. But Jesus College would not permit the same treatment, she claims.

She said that Oxford University’s approach to her mental health issues was “awful”, adding: “It meant I was one year out of a graduate job, plus the extra emotional damage and psychological harm.”

Jesus College denies the allegations, saying they did allow “appropriate adjustments” for Miss Dance’s condition.

It says that the main purpose of mock exams is to prepare students for their Finals, and since they would not be allowed to use a laptop then, the College felt it should adopt the same policy for mocks.

The College added that it made a successful application to the University for Miss Dance to sit her Final exams with “adjustments”, and she was able to complete her degree earlier this month.

Another student embroiled in a legal battle with her Oxford college is Sophie Spector, 24, who claims she was forced out after being denied extra time to hand in essays.

Miss Spector, who won a place to study politics, philosophy and economics at Balliol College, alleges that college staff “pressurised” her to go on medical leave due to her disabilities which included dyslexia, ADHD, and OCD.

Chris Fry, a specialist in equalities and human right law and managing partner at Fry Law, is representing Miss Spector and Miss Dance on a no win no fee basis.

He said that the surge of lawsuits against universities is driven by the changing attitudes of young people who are aware of their rights.

Since the 2010 Equality Act, he said has worked on more than one hundred cases of students looking to sue their university for discrimination.

Most have claimed that the “reasonable adjustments” required by the 2010 Equality Act to accommodate their mental illness were not made.

“This is a generation of students who grew up with enforceable rights,” he told The Daily Telegraph.  “It was rare to hear of anybody looking to enforce their rights in that way [before 2010], since then, we’ve had a constant stream of enquiries from students.”

He said that the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees was another factor. “If you’re paying £9,000 a year, you want to ensure that you are receiving a kind of service that allows you to maximise your outcome,” he said. “It’s clear to see why these students who need reasonable adjustments are not prepared to be pushed around or ignored.”

Official data showed earlier this year that the number of students forced to drop out of university due to mental health problems has trebled in recent years, prompting charities and counsellors to urge universities to ensure that proper support is in place.

Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, has announced plans to introduce a “contract” between universities and students, which critics fear could open the floodgates to a wave of lawsuits from students complaining that their university experience was inadequate.

Jesus College denies all allegations of discrimination, and does not accept that its requirements for mock exams to be sat in a large hall and to be handwritten place students with anxiety or depression at any major disadvantage to their peers. The College also says it repeatedly encouraged Miss Dance to seek counselling.

Oxford University said it does not comment on legal proceedings, but insisted that it takes mental health “extremely seriously”.

A university spokesperson said: “We encourage all students in need to use our free and confidential counselling service run by professionally trained staff. Each college has its own welfare team which works very closely with the University’s Disability Advisory Service to put in place appropriate provision so that students can manage their studies successfully and are not disadvantaged by their disability.”