Universities in the UK have spent the summer struggling to create socially distanced timetables and make their campuses Covid-safe. But as many thousands of students start to arrive this month, vice-chancellors admit they now face a much bigger challenge: can they persuade young people who feel they have been “locked away” for too long not to party and to stick to the rules?
As Boris Johnson announced the new rule of six, which will make it illegal for more than six people to gather either indoors or out in England from 14 September, invitations to “crazy” unofficial freshers’ parties in towns and cities including London, Gloucester and Northampton, continued to circulate on social media. One Facebook invitation to a freshers’ house party next Friday, posted by a student at the University of the Arts London and given to the Guardian, said: “Everyone deserves a fucking crazy intro to the new study year,” and added: “If you’re uptight about social distancing/masks etc then don’t show an interest.”
Meanwhile, local residents’ groups are warning that house parties are happening even before term has started. And with the latest government statistics showing infection rates rising fastest among young people, some are demanding universities step up to police them.
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Prof Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England in Bristol, says: “Universities have worked hard to mitigate as many of the risks as we can, but in the end our biggest challenge is that human behaviour trumps everything. There has to be an element of trust – trusting students to do the right thing. But it will need regular reinforcement.”
West has launched a campaign to communicate the new social distancing rules – and why they matter – to students, parents and staff. UWE is also asking neighbours to contact the university if they see any student behaviour that worries them.
But he is under no illusion that this will be an easy message to sell to students and, he adds, “finger wagging won’t work”.
“If young people catch Covid they may have no symptoms or nothing worse than a cold. And many are saying ‘we want to get on with our lives, we’ve been locked away for too long’,” he says. “We’ve got to get them to see that if you are infected you might not know it and you might infect someone’s parent or grandparent. And how would you feel if that were your family?”
Students have already returned to university for the autumn term in the US, and videos of mass student gatherings in parks and streets outside student houses have sparked fury on social media. A number of higher education institutions are already dealing with coronavirus outbreaks on campus. On Monday Northeastern University in Boston announced it had dismissed 11 students for violating public health rules.
West says “young people are young people” and Britain is unlikely to be different from the US. But UWE has been clear it will take “immediate action” if students break the Covid rules, and will suspend or expel repeat offenders. “It is an extreme sanction and we hope we don’t have to use it, but we can’t put lives at risk,” West says. “We will also work with the police and local authorities to enforce the law on social distancing and the rule of six.”
This message is being repeated at universities across the country and the government said this week that it wanted students who don’t comply to be disciplined. Many universities, including Oxford, Cardiff, Stirling, Bolton and Bath Spa, are asking students to sign up to a new Covid “community pledge” or “code of responsibility”.
Smita Jamdar, head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, says universities are mainly using these codes to help students avoid a disciplinary offence. “The idea of making them sign these agreements is more to secure a psychological commitment than a legally necessary step,” she says.
There is a limit to what universities can reasonably do to control behaviour, she says. “Just because a student becomes a member of a university doesn’t mean they forgo the freedoms we enjoy as individuals. Universities aren’t prisons and they can’t treat them like inmates.”
Jamdar worries that universities are being put in an “impossible position”, with competing pressures. “The government is pushing them to get on and open, and there is the brigade saying you must deliver exactly what you promised students or refund their fees. But at the same time, others are saying you shouldn’t open campuses full stop, and some local communities are feeling really anxious.”
A 20-year-old fashion student at the University of the Arts London, who asked not to be named, says she was angry when she saw the Facebook invitation and hopes universities will suspend those who break the rules. “Most of us are sensible, but there are still some students who are not, and it literally takes a few rogue students to spread the virus all over the place.”
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A spokesperson for the university, which includes the London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins art college, confirmed that the party had been shut down and the message removed from Facebook.
Elsewhere, news of a large unofficial freshers’ party on 23 October at an undisclosed venue in Gloucester is currently circulating on social media. The marketing for the party, called Demon Time Midlands, says it will involve students from 20 universities. A similar party, called Go Crazy Midlands, is planned in Northampton for the week before.
Kattie Kincaid, chair of the South East Fallowfield residents’ group in Manchester, says here have already been student house parties in her neighbourhood and local residents, many of whom are in high-risk groups, are feeling “very vulnerable”. “We understand that a lot of attention has been given to on-campus safety, but what about all the tens of thousands who live off campus in communities like ours? Are we regarded as acceptable collateral damage?”
Some residents are wondering whether they should shield indoors to protect themselves, and many are feeling exposed shopping in the local Sainsbury’s alongside some students who aren’t wearing masks, she says.
Jon Walklett, chair of the residents’ association in Cheltenham’s St Paul’s Road, a popular rental address for students from the University of Gloucester, says he has already had two complaints from neighbours about student parties but is reassured by the new national rules. “If you find there are lots of them there is always the option of the police now,” he says.
However, some experts are sure most students can be trusted to do the right thing. Dr Dominique Thompson, who spent 20 years as a GP at Bristol University and is now a student wellbeing consultant, says: “They aren’t the cavalier, selfish group they are sometimes painted as. This is a clued-up and compassionate generation. They are out leading the way on climate change and Black Lives Matter. And they are actually the most risk-averse generation for a long time.”
Thompson says that rather than using “apocalyptic approaches”, universities should remind students that this is about helping others and being kind. “That message will click with a cohort that volunteers, and that has signed up in record numbers in this crisis to do nursing degrees.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, says some students have remained in university accommodation over the summer and all the evidence suggests they have behaved responsibly. “Saying to students ‘Look what’s happened when students didn’t follow the rules in the US’ is a very powerful message.”
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