Our Director, Alastair Sim, explains the context to our announcements relating to student socialisation and the management of COVID-19 over recent days:
“This weekend, we asked all students not to go out to pubs, restaurants and cafes. It was a request, not a ban. It was never a ban. But we know it was a big ask; one that asked more from students, for the course of one weekend, than is currently being asked of the rest of the general public. It was an appeal to a diverse student body that we know is caring, responsible and socially-minded.
It was not something we liked doing but we judged that it could be helpful in the fight against the spread of the virus, at this particular point in time. The number of positive tests for coronavirus has been rising steeply in the general population and we have seen several outbreaks linked to student accommodation over recent days. By mid-week, hundreds of students were being supported to isolate in their student accommodation in an attempt to keep people safe and contain further transmission of the virus. Universities have a responsibility to their students and the wider community they are part of. Universities take both responsibilities very seriously.
We saw the timing of this weekend as important. An opportunity to break the chain of transmission. In this first weekend of new laws on the mixing of households, we wanted to urge extra caution. We wanted to learn from the experience of the first universities to start back, where house parties and mixing across household groups by a minority of students in the first couple of nights of welcome weeks, gave rise to the first transmission, which rose quickly from there. We did move quickly, and we’ve learned lessons there too, but we felt pace was important, ahead of this weekend, given the speed at which the virus moves.
Students are not to blame. Student parties have been reported in the media, but we know from the experience on site at universities across Scotland, that students are showing very high rates of compliance with the rules and guidelines already in place. Those who needed to quarantine on arrival, did so, and those who need to self-isolate are doing so. They are mindful of the impact the virus can have on the vulnerable. This continues the spirit of altruism that students demonstrated at the very beginning of the pandemic in the spring, when final-year health students accelerated their graduation to serve on the front-line of the NHS and others made PPE and volunteered at food banks.
Universities have a duty of care to every student and we recognise that the pandemic is causing a whole range of new direct and indirect pressures for students. Supporting mental health and wider wellbeing has been a high priority for universities in the planning for the start of term. Universities’ programme of activities for welcome weeks are dominated by online wellbeing, introductions to support services and sessions focused on self-care. The student wellbeing teams in universities are dedicated and have the experience in the early months of the pandemic to draw on in terms of adapting the full suite of services to new formats and offering flexible online and in-person options. There is a real benefit, we believe, to offering the opportunity to meet personal tutors in person. This applies particularly to new students, who are just building those relationships. Yet we also know that students were enthusiastic to take up virtual models of support earlier this year; engagement levels and student feedback was very positive. Having to, or choosing to isolate whilst at university is not a barrier to receiving the full-package of support.
We strongly believe that Scotland is taking the right approach, in making access to education a priority, second only to public health, throughout this pandemic.”