Blaming students is a cynical move to distract from the deeper causes of the recent outbreaks, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica.
This past week has seen mass outbreaks of Covid-19 at universities across Scotland. More than 1,000 were self-isolating in student accommodation in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.
Furthermore, NHS Lothian have said that 120 students at Edinburgh Napier University had tested positive. Cases have been confirmed at Queen Margaret University and the University of Edinburgh.
Although Nicola Sturgeon stated that students were not to blame, the actual measures passed by the Scottish government were incredibly draconian. Students have been told to stay put in halls of residence and there were no guarantees they could go home at Christmas.
Then there was the Scottish government’s joint statement with Universities Scotland, which was nothing short of shameful.
Almost all the measures announced put the onus on student behaviour and the policing of it: ‘[W]e will intensify our institutions’ liaison with Police Scotland, to ensure vigilance about student behaviour off-campus and in private accommodation’.
But no similar criticism of institutions has appeared. For instance, no demands have been placed on institutions to now test all students and staff regularly to prevent the disease spreading.
Moreover, no questions have been asked about why halls of residence were filled in the first place, when most teaching will be online. No questions were posed as to why the University of Glasgow held in-person Freshers’ Week events just before the start of teaching.
The reasons for this negligence must be obvious: blaming student behaviour releases those who made bigger decisions at the top of any responsibility.
Universities, subject to increasing market pressures over the last couple of decades, are desperate for income from students, especially from tuition fees and halls of residence rent. It is no wonder that the UK government, Scottish government and university managements went out of their way to continue attracting home and international students.
Was there and is there another way? Of course! Teaching is largely online in many institutions, and should be largely online across the entire sector. Government spending could be ramped up to ensure no institution is threatened by its reliance on the student market. Halls could have been made safer and drastically fewer students needed to be in halls in the first place, and this can still be corrected. Testing of all students and staff, not just those exhibiting symptoms, could have been and could still be routinely undertaken to prevent catastrophe.
No wonder there is an outcry from students, parents and the public at large. No wonder there are reports of hundreds of students breaking the rules and fleeing home from halls of residence across Scotland. No wonder there are demands for rent not to be paid. It may be a matter of time now before students drop out or demand fees to be returned.
What is therefore needed now is a drastic change of course. Public pressure has already led the University of Glasgow to reimburse students for one month’s rent, make a £50 food payment to each student and provide more visits from support staff. This is a clear indication what campaigning can achieve before it is too late.
It is time for government and universities to recognise that there is no simple return to the neoliberal market model that existed before the pandemic. The system is broken and needs fixing if we are to avoid this pandemic turning into pandemonium. What has happened now could be the beginning of a wave that hits England in coming weeks. A veritable tsunami may fall in winter.
Students and trade unions among staff should be making common cause to ensure that health and safety – and education – are placed above the race for profits.