UK and Scottish Governments under pressure on rules for university students

By Gareth Jones, Newgate Public Affairs

With university terms beginning, students have found themselves subject to increasingly tight restrictions on their movements and how they participate in their courses. About 40 universities across the UK have now reported coronavirus cases and thousands of students are self-isolating.

Last Thursday, Scottish universities banned students from all socialising outside their own households, saying that those who repeatedly broke the new rule would face “potential discontinuation of study”. Universities in England and Wales were following suit – with students at Manchester Metropolitan University told they could not leave their accommodation and Aberystwyth University moving all courses online.

With a significant proportion of the student population now under some form of restrictive lockdown, there are some serious questions about how university courses should proceed. There is clearly major concern that universities and student halls are the new focal points in spreading the disease. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said the university clusters in Glasgow and Dundee accounted for a significant part of Scotland’s new cases, while last week Matt Hancock refused to rule out banning students from returning home at Christmas.

While the issue of returning home for Christmas has been ‘clarified’ (Downing Street confirmed today that they “expect all students to be able to go home at Christmas”), there is a broader issue about whether keeping students in this type of lockdown is sustainable in the long term. Many students will now be facing the prospect of several months confined in small and cramped rented accommodation without access to face-to-face teaching or any social activities, while also paying their tuition fees and accommodation rent in full.

This has led to calls on the government and universities to think again.  Labour has called for the university autumn term to be delayed until an “effective” testing system is in place, while the NUS has said that students who wished to return home should be free to break accommodation contracts and tuition fees should be reimbursed if education was “severely impacted”. Such calls have, so far, been rejected by the government. Speaking yesterday on Andrew Marr, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden stressed that it was important for students to go back to university and “not give up a year of their life”. There is also recognition that any cuts in tuition fees will have a serious impact on finances of universities and higher education institutes, many of which are already in a perilous state.  

To date, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has not commented on the issue (although he did to speak today at the Daily Express Blue Collar Conservatism Conference 2020 on the issue of free speech and ‘no platforming’ at universities) – but is now expected to provide an announcement tomorrow. Whatever the government decides going forward, it is an important example of how restrictions can be managed and sustained in the long-term and who bears the cost.