Niall McCluskey: Students’ wellbeing ignored in the quest to make money

Niall McCluskey: Students’ wellbeing ignored in the quest to make money

Niall McCluskey

Advocate Niall McCluskey considers the plight of students in lockdown in university accommodation.

Prior to the start of the academic year concern was raised in the media about the movement of large numbers of students attending universities. The coronavirus regulations include the power to impose restrictions or requirements in relation to persons or premises. The Scottish government in relation to universities could have regulated that the bulk of teaching required to be done online. They could also have regulated that there be restrictions in the number of students allowed in student halls.

A significant number of universities indicated that most of their teaching would be done online. As far as Glasgow University is concerned, however, in relation to certain courses the decision to go completely online was only communicated to students after deposits of £600 had been received for student accommodation.

Murano Street Student Village in Glasgow is a location which has suffered a significant Covid-19 outbreak. Murano alone houses just under 1,200 students. Given that for many students’ teaching can be done online, why are they there? Well fees to stay there are nearly £5,000 per annum. The revenue at Murano therefore is approximately £6 million. There is no academic purpose in the bulk of students being physically at university, so why did they choose to go? They went there to get the extraordinary social experience that is university life.

The Scottish government who are responsible for the oversight of education must have realised that students were mainly going in order to socialise. However they also understood that the student accommodation was big business.

Now since Covid-19 outbreaks have occurred many students are quarantined and effectively imprisoned in their accommodation.

The First Minister has said she would support universities expelling students “as a last resort” if they breach rules. University discipline is entirely an internal matter. Does that now mean the First Minister endorses any employer sacking an employee who flouts the rules? Should an SNP member now be expelled from the party if they break coronavirus rules? Implicitly Sturgeon supports greater sanctions for students than for the rest of the population.

Currently legal certainty is a major problem. Can anyone tell the difference between guidance, rules and regulations? Only regulations are law, but we constantly hear politicians talking about guidance and rules. In Scotland the guidance and regulations have been ever changing. I doubt most lawyers could explain what is prohibited. The regulations imposed by the Scottish ministers that now control and restrict every area of our lives are subject to no parliamentary scrutiny whatsoever. A significant democratic deficit has arisen.

Some of the rules are inhumane. Take the requirement to isolate for 14 days. Not such an imposition if you have a garden where you can get fresh air. But what about the students in their accommodation or indeed anyone who lives in flats where they are not even allowed out to go for a walk on their own. That policy potentially breaches people’s human rights.

Student accommodation is not similar to other types of housing. Halls like Murano are a collection of 4-12 person flats. Students are placed randomly into flats and may not know anyone before arrival. To call these flats a household is a distortion. These flats are not set up like normal homes. There are two bathrooms in the 12-person flats and a kitchen which is the only communal area. There are no facilities within the flat to wash and dry clothes. The students who are isolating are expected not to wash clothes for two weeks.

The Government has issued new regulations. Students can choose to permanently leave their accommodation and go home, however it is an offence for students to visit their family home temporarily unless it is a family emergency or for wellbeing reasons. At present unless a student meets that criteria they would be committing a criminal offence if they go home for the October holiday.

Some students who meet the criteria may not go home for fear of breaking the law. The edict not to go home is an affront to the right to family life and potentially a breach of human rights. Unsurprising Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner Bruce Adamson has raised concerns over the mental health of students. Remember some students are still 17 and legally defined as children.

The spread of Covid-19 amongst students was utterly predictable, however the Scottish government allowed the universities to continue to make money. The Scottish government has power to regulate premises but did nothing to prevent students going to their accommodation. The spread of Covid-19 is a threat to the health of students and the wider community. It is a potentially fatal disease. Again health is the Government’s responsibility and a failure to protect public health is also potentially a breach of human rights.

Covid-19 is a serious problem. We denigrate ourselves as a society when sections of the community are demonised to divert from the failures of the Scottish government and higher education institutions.

This article first appeared in The Herald.

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