Plastered in mock desperation to the windows of university halls, cheeky signs requesting alcohol and other student necessities were briefly entertaining. But for those involved, the novelty – if there ever was one – will surely have worn off. Even as new tougher restrictions on socialising are introduced across Scotland and the rest of the UK, students are experiencing uniquely strict conditions when it comes to COVID-19.
On September 24, Universities Scotland announced new rules for students living in student accommodation. Endorsed by the Scottish government, these latest restrictions were significant and included a ban on students socialising with anyone outside their household.
The announcement came with warnings of disciplinary action against rule violations, including a “yellow card/red card” system that could see students lose their place at university, as well as the intensified presence of staff and police on campus to monitor students’ compliance.
In response to signs of an exodus of panicked students from student accommodation, the Scottish government quickly updated the regulations to clarify that students can return home for “reasonable reasons”, including mental well-being and financial or family emergencies. But government ministers and university officials have also refused to rule out keeping students locked down over Christmas. These strict new measures have been justified as essential to breaking spikes in COVID-19 infection rates in student accommodation across Scotland since mid-September.
Blaming young people and students
Rates of COVID-19 have been rising in recent weeks across the UK and young people have been perceived to be at fault. While analysis has shown that infection rates for people under the age of 35 have increased over time, the suggestion is that this increase is down to young people disregarding social distancing regulations.
Missing from this commentary is the acknowledgement that young people have been found to have a high rate of compliance with regulations. They are also at a particularly high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to things like their over-representation in jobs dealing with customers face to face, and being more likely to reside in shared living spaces and rely on public transport than older adults.
So the suggestion that spikes are entirely due to reckless rule breaking and that young people are the root cause of a second wave of COVID-19 is problematic and unhelpful, particularly when used to justify the implementation of unique measures for students who are effectively living in isolation across Scotland right now.
Implications of student lockdown
The restrictions have been met with widespread concern, especially when it comes to students’ mental health and wellbeing. Moving to student accommodation can be a positive and formative experience, but can also be challenging at the best of times. Living with strangers, away from home, in the midst of a new and often stressful educational environment is demanding enough. Under COVID-19, students are not only locked down but also navigating an unfamiliar new life experience.
Most face-to-face teaching has now been suspended and replaced with online learning. So there has been a significant drop in contact time between students and teaching staff, which is particularly concerning for first-year students, who make up the bulk of residents in student accommodation.
Locked-down students have shared their experiences with journalists and on social media, where they have described feeling isolated, homesick, anxious and depressed – as well as unsupported by their institutions. Urgent questions have also been raised about the implications of these restrictions for students’ basic human rights, including their legal rights when it comes to tenancies.
The seriousness of COVID-19 and the importance of containing it is not in question. But these restrictions have been uniquely and unhelpfully couched in the rhetoric of blame and punishment. This has contributed to an image of young people as reckless and substantial risks to public health, with media coverage of parties in student halls focusing on a minority of rule breakers.
The role of government
The student lockdown and the focus on young people’s behaviour have also come at the expense of a consideration of other key factors. Students were encouraged to be physically present and resident on university campuses, just as they were encouraged to spend money in hospitality venues during the government’s “eat out to help out” scheme, along with everyone else.
Universities have received little governmental support during the pandemic, despite evidence of extreme financial hardship. These institutions rely heavily on income from student accommodation and students being present on campus to stay afloat. This can also be linked to the marketisation of universities around a “student experience” that has come to define university education, face-to-face teaching and campus living.
The UK and Scottish governments’ failure to intervene temporarily to support universities to work with a different model under COVID-19 has played a significant role in the crisis occurring in campuses across Scotland and the rest of the UK.
In this sense, students’ physical and mental wellbeing has been risked and traded against maintaining a higher education sector on its knees. It is imperative in the coming weeks that both governments reevaluate their support for universities and students, and clarify their positions on the student lockdown.
In the most recent update on COVID-19 restrictions from Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, there was no mention of students. Currently, there is no endpoint to these restrictions, which are posing significant risks to students’ health and wellbeing, not to mention their basic human and legal rights.