Comment: Scottish Government has failed students with mixed messaging and blame game

The controversy around student-only restrictions was entirely foreseeable and completely avoidable

Friday, 25th September 2020, 4:45 pm
Updated Friday, 25th September 2020, 5:39 pm
Students have been the focus of strong narrative but weak action from the Scottish Government
Students have been the focus of strong narrative but weak action from the Scottish Government

The return of students to campuses was always going to be challenging, but the Scottish Government’s handling of the issue has been a collection of messy contradictions twinned with dreadful communication.

Up until now, Nicola Sturgeon has been praised for her communicative leadership style during the Covid-19 pandemic, outlining clearly and daily what the situation is, what will or is being considered as likely to happen, and then announcing what has happened.

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But since August as Scotland began to see the first signs of a potential second wave, the entirely foreseeable crisis of universities was kicked further down the road.

First, indoor hospitality such as pubs and restaurants – who often employ members of the student population – reopened their doors in July.

Then, blended learning, a model abandoned for schools, was put in place for universities.

The re-introduction of face-to-face teaching, some university union representatives say, was due to universities fearing a drop in income from students staying at home.

Mass testing and quarantine, long heralded as the way to success for foreign visitors and frontline staff in high risk areas such as care homes and schools, were also left on the sidelines by the Scottish Government.

Alongside this lack of action to prevent infections reaching the student population, the Scottish Government issued statement after statement condemning house parties, the subtext being that young people were to blame for Covid-19 cases rising.

Most bafflingly, no-one seemed to be aware of the very real and annual phenomenon of ‘freshers flu’, when students are afflicted with cold-like symptoms within days of arriving on campus.

Proof, if it was needed, of the potential for a virulent virus to spread out of control in universities.

Then, when the entirely foreseeable and preventable spike in cases came, students were in the firing line; told to stay at home in cramped, overpriced university accommodation and not to socialise with friends, but to go to work in the very same places they are banned from visiting in any other capacity, and, of course, continue to pay tuition fees. Do all of this or lose your chance at an education.

The failure to adequately plan was twinned with an abdication of responsibility by the Scottish Government, who passed on the responsibility of enforcement to universities themselves, leading to a chaotic mix of poorly communicated guidelines and laws.

The end result is students in the midst of one of the most serious mental health crises facing young people, left alone, in expensive but poor quality housing, unable to see family and friends, but forced to work in dangerous environments and feeling punished for the result of policy decisions out of their control.

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