The silly story about Christmas just got serious

The silly debate about whether students will be allowed home at Christmas masks a much more important and urgent one.

I posted earlier about Scotland and local lockdown areas everywhere else. Put simply, given visits to other households aren’t allowed, can students go home at the weekend?

It’s an important question generally because so many do almost every weekend. But it’s a vital question specifically because it’s a fair bet that these household visits rules will end up being UK wide, and may well be in place for much of the academic year.

It also matters because students need to know today what the rules are. And crucially, we have a moral duty to warn students.

Not all students are going to be able to cope with conditions like this – some distance from the mood music we were playing as a sector over the summer. But for some the prospect of not being able to see family again until Christmas (or if you believe the stories, beyond), will just be too much, and far, far beyond reasonable in terms of “you ought to have expected things would be a bit different”.

Earlier Jason Leitch, who’s the Scottish NHS National Clinical Director, tweeted:

If he’s right – and a similar interpretation is to be applied to “households” across the UK, we need to warn students now.

The interpretation suggests that any student whose family home is in Scotland or in a local lockdown area can’t legally go home this weekend, or indeed until the restrictions are lifted.

Morally – and who knows where we are legally – all four nations now have to do the following, in my view:

  • Clarify whether that interpretation is correct with a shared, UK wide definition – issued ideally properly rather than on Twitter
  • Warn all students from across the UK now – whether they have arrived or not and including international students
  • Allow any student who now wishes to drop out that has passed date for fee liability to have that liability waived
  • Allow any student in that position to abandon a private housing rental contract with no penalty and a full refund where payment has been upfront
  • Have a place at that university next September guaranteed
  • Put in place similar measures to ensure that any “away from home” student whose family home goes into a “no visits” restriction can benefit from the above

One other thing on this. As Scottish student finance expert Lucy Hunter-Blackburn points out, the mistake would be to see this as all about students wanting support. There’ll be some who are very anxious about the people they’ve left behind who they now can’t give support to.

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Well – we have an update here at 5pm. Just not the sort I was expecting.

This morning Nicola Sturgeon promised “further measures” for higher education given the widely reported outbreaks in halls across Scotland. This afternoon Scottish VCs met with the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead, to discuss what further measures and messages could be emphasised to stop the spread of the virus. And the results are really quite extraordinary. Universities have apparently agreed that:

All universities will make absolutely clear to students that there must be no parties, and no socialising outside their households – communicating and reinforcing these messages on a regular basis using our full range of media channels. Breaches will not be tolerated.

This weekend, the first of the new tighter Scottish Government guidance, we will require students to avoid all socialising outside of their households and outside of their accommodation. We will ask them not to go to bars or other hospitality venues.  We will be clear that this is a necessary step at this crucial moment of managing the virus in the student population, to protect students and the wider community.

We will increase the staff presence in student accommodation, to be vigilant against any breaches of guidance and also to offer welfare and practical support to students who are experiencing isolation.

We will engage further with private providers of student accommodation, especially those with significant numbers of bedspaces, to follow our lead and strictly enforce guidance.

We will intensify our institutions’ liaison with Police Scotland, to ensure vigilance about student behaviour off-campus and in private accommodation.

We will take a strict ‘Yellow Card/Red Card’ approach to breaches of student discipline that put students and others at risk. While we first want to advise students about breaches of discipline, we will not hesitate to escalate this to disciplinary action including potential discontinuation of study.

We will commit to further agile staff responses to immediately respond to cases, to help manage the pressures on the public health authorities.

We will require all students to download the Protect Scotland app.

It’s obviously the line in bold that’s the most striking. What this amounts to is basically the St Andrews voluntary lockdown being applied to all Scottish students this weekend, which is pretty shocking. As a reminder, this in theory means a student that’s away from home this weekend can’t go see their parents, and now and now unlike other Scottish citizens can’t even go to the pub with their own household. The fact that “mental health” isn’t mentioned once in the release is… surprising.

There are so many questions. What if they have a job? What if they work in bars or hospitality venues? Perhaps even in bars and hospitality venues on campus?! Can they go to work? Is the government picking up the tab for their cancelled shift on their zero hours contract?

Does this include PT PGTs? PGRs? Commuters? Distance learners?

Who are the ‘”university staff” who will have an increased presence in student halls of residence? On whose authority? What will their powers be? Will they follow the law? Won’t they potentially be putting students at risk by entering their accommodation?

Why can these staff members move from halls of residence to halls of residence, yet students can’t visit each other? Will the staff members also be banned from visiting pubs/restaurants/parties/their families in their spare time?

Will “red carded” students be ordered to leave the university and university accommodation? Where will they go?

And more broadly, once we start treating students’ civil liberties and freedoms differently to other citizens just because they’re students, without any real evidence to justify such an approach, we’re in a very dark place indeed.

The release says that:

Taking forward these actions, we will work very closely with the students’ association of each institution.

It will be interesting to see how associations and NUS Scotland respond to students being singled out fort treatment that is significantly more restrictive than other Scottish citizens – especially when students (for example) don’t enjoy the same income protections for self-isolation.

There’s also some text on testing, and again the line in bold is interesting:

Every student who needs a test is able to get one. To further develop the testing system we will continue to work closely with the Scottish and UK Governments on the roll-out of walk-through testing centres in major centres of student population. Where these have been established, they have been a great help to having fast and accessible testing and quick action to contain the spread of the virus.  We will are also in discussion with the UK and Scottish Governments about increased availability of home testing in universities.

We’ve had promises on students and testing before, of course.

In the end I think it comes down to this. Obviously there’s a surge in cases, and we can have a quasi national lockdown that either includes or targets students. But that probably isn’t compatible with residential HE. We can’t realistically trap people in halls or HMOs for 6 months.

Either HE goes (mainly) online and we figure out how to let students escape their accommodation rental contracts, or it remains (partially) F2F and we have to take other measures. But the idea that we’ll squeeze through the traffic by trapping students who can’t even see their parents – I doubt it’ll hold.

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It’s 7pm on Sunday (24th September) so here’s an update. First of all, Universities Scotland has published some significant rowing back from the Friday position – claiming that the pubs thing:

was a request, not a ban. It was never a ban.

That will come as some surprise to students who on Friday were told:

This weekend, the first of the new tighter Scottish Government guidance, we will require students to avoid all socialising outside of their households and outside of their accommodation. We will ask them not to go to bars or other hospitality venues.  We will be clear that this is a necessary step at this crucial moment of managing the virus in the student population, to protect students and the wider community.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government has published revised guidance on the “can I go home at the weekend” issue, which clarifies as follows:

As you have formed a new household within your student accommodation, this means that you cannot stay overnight at another household.

However we now get:

It is an offence not to comply with the restrictions on gatherings. However, it is a defence to show that there was a reasonable excuse in the circumstances. A reasonable excuse might include a visit home for a family emergency, such as a bereavement, or for wellbeing reasons.

To be fair, the “reasonable excuse” defence is in the legislation in Scotland and across the UK too. Whether the full gamut of reasons a student might pop home to their own bedroom where they are still legally allowed to vote is covered by “wellbeing reasons” is another question. Whether it will stop nosey neighbours from shopping a family who has a student back this weekend is another. And whether the governments in Scotland, Wales and NI share this interpretation is another again.

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