Are Students Consumers Entitled to Protection?

By Arash Jazayeri

Time was when a university education wasn’t just a mark of distinction – it was something close to a guarantee of a good job.  Study hard, go to university, get decent marks, get a degree, get a good job at a reputable employer, and you were set for life – or so it was generally thought.

But as everyone knows, those days are long gone.  Even a casual observer of higher education over the past decade or so will be familiar with reports of countless students who have gone deeply into debt for their degrees, only to find themselves unemployed and perhaps even deemed unemployable by many employers who find them “overqualified” on paper and yet lacking in the specific technical skills and experience desired by most businesses.

Remarkably, this problem doesn’t just extend to undergraduate arts and science degrees, where it has perhaps been recognized for some time that a general arts degree is no guarantee of employment.  Increasingly in recent years, and especially since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a serious and growing problem with unemployment and underemployment of recent graduates of professional schools, colleges and universities in a range of programs and disciplines, from teaching to law. These students may find themselves burdened with enormous debt loads that can only be discharged in bankruptcy under a very limited set of circumstances, poor job prospects in their chosen profession, and the prospect of being dismissed as unqualified or, ironically, labelled “overqualified” by potential employers in other fields.  The consequences can be devastating, both for themselves and for their parents, as major milestones in life such as starting a career, buying a house, and getting married and having a family are delayed for years, if not indefinitely.

A question many students and parents might have is what role the schools themselves have played in producing the predicament of their students. For example, in the recent case of Ramdath vs. George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology, 2013 ONCA 468 (CanLII), the Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld a lower court ruling from the Superior Court of Justice indicating that the college was responsible for making a negligent misrepresentation in its promotional materials.  Specifically, the course calendar indicated that the program would make them eligible for certain business and industrial qualifications or certifications when, in fact, that was not the case, at least not without additional coursework and/or qualifying examinations.

Lawyers for George Brown tried to argue a “reasonable student” who did some independent industry research would have known the designations at issue didn’t automatically follow from graduation from the program. Yet crucially, the Court of Appeal agreed with Superior Court of Justice that the college owed the students a “duty of care” which it breached. It said the students were consumers whose rights were breached under the Consumer Protection Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 30, Schedule A, because the college had engaged in an unfair practice through its misrepresentations and so the students were entitled to a remedy.

Our American neighbours are already experiencing a surge in cases of this type.  For example, there have recently been a number of class action lawsuits against various US law schools, which students allege have misrepresented their career prospects in the face of a growing glut of lawyers and fading employment prospects for younger and less experienced members of the profession in that country.

So far, some of these American cases have met with frustration, as some courts have taken the position that, in effect, students should have known what they were getting into before they enrolled in the program, regardless of the content of any marketing materials by the school.  The George Brown case is therefore all the more interesting in the Canadian context, because it makes it quite clear that in Ontario, it is reasonable for students as consumers of educational products and services to rely on information contained in the program and course calendar (at minimum) as true.  The implication is that where schools publish information in a medium which they intend students to rely upon, they had better be sure that information is correct – otherwise, they may face the consequences in court.

How does this affect your own situation?  If you are reading this article, you might well be a student – or a parent of student – who faces the increasingly common dilemma of having spent years in a program you thought, and had been led to think, had good prospects of employment, only to find out that is not the case for you or for many if not most of your peers.

Is your school to blame in whole or in part for such a difficult and frustrating situation?  Well, that question can only be answered by looking carefully at the specific promotional and program materials of your college or university, in conjunction with reliable data about placement rates for its students and other relevant information. This is an evolving area of the law, so evaluation of the facts of your own situation by experienced and empathetic legal professionals is an important first step towards determining if you have been treated unfairly, either by way of a negligent misrepresentation, or by way of a violation of your statutory rights as a consumer of an educational product or service.

Everything you disclose to us is completely confidential and is covered by solicitor and client privilege, so you can speak freely and openly without fear of legal liability. Our lawyers are wholly independent, and will provide you the best advice in the wider context of your particular situation.

Ramdath vs. George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology, 2013 ONCA 468 (CanLII),

Consumer Protection Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 30, Schedule A

“George Brown students misled by course blurb, court rules”, CBC News – Toronto, June 10, 2013

“For new teachers, too little, too late”, Toronto Sun, June 9, 2013–too-little-too-late “12 More Law Schools Face Lawsuits Over Job-Placement Claims”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2, 2012