The 133 alumni are demanding reimbursement of their tuition fees because the programme is funded (receives funding from the government). The law stipulates that universities cannot charge more than the statutory tuition fee of around €2,000 for such programmes. EUR was asking around €17,000 a year for the two-year master programme.

In 2019, the Education Inspectorate already concluded that the higher tuition fees violate the Higher Education and Research Act (WHW). The Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) nevertheless maintained that the arrangement was legal. The costs were always clearly communicated, and moreover, the course offered more luxuries than a normal funded course. The academic director of the programme explained the higher costs by citing ‘catering, sandwiches, biscuits, lecturers teaching small classes in the evening and a trip abroad’, among other things.

Nevertheless, the university did already pay out a total of 3.7 million euros to alumni who had taken the master’s programme in the past three years, ‘out of goodwill’. Former students who had been with the programme for more than three years were excluded and therefore filed a lawsuit against Erasmus University.

Wrong court

With the Inspectorate’s conclusions in hand, some former students turned to the court. Those proceedings have been running for years and are now before the Supreme Court, but they started in 2021 in the civil court in Rotterdam. There, the students lost their case because that court ruled that it was inadmissible. According to the judge, they should have gone to the Higher Education Appeals Tribunal (now disbanded) instead of the civil court, and therefore he did not want to hear their case. They were ordered to pay legal costs.

Right court, but still no entitlement to reimbursement

Two years later, in an appeal, the Court of Appeal overturned the Rotterdam District Court’s ruling of the students’ inadmissibility. At the same time, the Court of Appeal ruled that the students were not entitled to reimbursement because the university had adequately informed them. According to the Court, the university had made it clear enough what the programme entailed, what the tuition fee was and why it was higher. The EUR could assume, according to the Court of Appeal, that the former students already knew or did not consider relevant that it was a publicly funded programme. However, the students did not give up and appealed to the Supreme Court.

Still misinformed

At the Supreme Court, things are looking more promising for the group of alumni. The advocate general (a kind of prosecutor at the Supreme Court) has advised the Supreme Court to dismiss the Court of Appeal’s verdict. The advocate general believes that the former students’ complaints are valid. The higher costs are in violation of the law, and unlike the Court of Appeal, the advocate general believes that the EUR did not adequately inform the former students that it was a publicly funded programme. According to the advocate general, the former students were under the impression that they were enrolling in a privately funded programme, which has different rules regarding tuition fees.

The advocate general argues this misunderstanding was partly due to how the EUR presented the programme. He refers, among other things, to the complex organisational structure of the university: the programme was not provided by RSM but by a commercial entity with the same name, RSM BV. Therefore, he argues, the students were indeed misled, and the Court of Appeal’s judgment cannot stand. Incidentally, the advocate general does agree with the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that the case belongs in the civil court, and not the appeals court for the higher education sector, as the court had previously ruled.

The Supreme Court will make a decision on the advocate general’s advice on 4 October. If the verdict is in the students’ favour, the Supreme Court will refer the case to another court for a new decision, and the students will be refunded the legal costs already paid.

In a written response, an RSM spokesperson let it be known that the advocate general’s advice ‘did not change the university’s position’. To other questions from EM, the spokesperson could not respond while the court case is ongoing.