The Latest on Obligations of Universities Towards Their Students

Several days ago, the Ontario Court of Appeal released its judgment in a class action against Toronto’s George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology. The representative Plaintiffs were students in the school’s Graduate International Business Management program.

In this case, the school’s program description stated that the program provided students “with the opportunity to complete three industry designations/certifications in addition to the George Brown College Graduate’s Certificate”

As the Court found, the promise of these industry designations made the program very attractive to prospective students. However, when the students graduated, they found that they did not automatically receive the designations and were not automatically eligible to write the industry examinations necessary to obtain the designations. That was because the school had no agreements in place with the industry associations with respect to awarding these designations. Students would have to apply separately to each industry association, write the exam, pay the sometimes hefty fee, and take additional courses and/or submit proof of work experience.

At the trial of the common issues in the case, the judge found that graduates of the program reasonably expected that if they completed the program they would have fulfilled the necessary qualifications to obtain the promised industry designations even though they also understood that they would still have to write industry examinations and pay requisite fees to do so.

Because these reasonable expectations could not be realized, the trial judge concluded that the program description in the course calendar negligently misrepresented the benefits of the program and thereby breached the unfair practices provisions of the Consumer Protection Act.

The school appealed on a number of grounds.

Firstly, the school argued that the judge was wrong to find that the school owed a duty of care to its students. The school argued that a duty of care would only arise out of the finding of a special relationship which in turn would only be created if the students were shown to have acted reasonably in relying on the program description. The school argued that the students could have obtained all of the relevant information directly from the various industry association websites and had they done so, they would have known what was required in order to receive the designations.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. The Court felt that it was completely reasonable for the students to rely on the statements contained in the course calendars because they had been published with the intention that the students read and rely on them in deciding which academic program to pursue. As a result, there was a special relationship giving rise to a duty of care which the school had breached.

Next, the school took issue with the trial judge’s finding that the students were consumers, and therefore entitled to the protections available to consumers under the Consumer Protection Act.

The Court had little difficulty in determining that students are indeed consumers and that they had been misled. Although the school insisted that the promise contained in the calendar was only that the students would have an “opportunity” to obtain the designations, which was true, and furthermore there was ample information available elsewhere that would show the requirements for the industry association designations, the representations were misleading and it was unreasonable to expect students to conduct independent research to verify the accuracy of the statements made on the course calendar.

As a result, the case will now proceed to a trial on damages. In the meantime, this case provides valuable guidance for any institution of higher learning and students of such institutions. The information contained in course calendars is to be taken seriously and schools must make sure the information is accurate, because students do have the right to rely on it in planning their future.

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