Students at the University of Exeter have been banished from campus and sent home, as vice-chancellors across the country crack down on breaches of Covid regulations which are being blamed for fuelling infection rates.
Exeter confirmed it had suspended “a small number” of students for breaking the university’s Covid rules amid a surge in infections. Scores of students elsewhere have been fined following illegal parties, with one university threatening penalties of up to £500.
The National Union of Students (NUS) described the fines as obscene and called for a more “care-centred” approach to students, thousands of whom have either been infected in the first weeks of term or are self-isolating in halls of residence.
“Students have done everything they have been asked to do during this pandemic and have returned to university campuses in accordance with government advice,” said NUS president Larissa Kennedy.
Most students were obeying the rules, she said, adding: “We have seen many instances of universities using draconian measures including obscene fines, locking fire doors, private security and guard dogs. This level of campus securitisation is not only wrong but highly ineffective. Students deserve better.”
Aberdeen University – where 122 students had tested positive as of Monday – has taken disciplinary action against 29 of its students. While 22 were fined £125 for breaching Covid guidelines, seven others received warnings.
Manchester Metropolitan University – where staff have been told that 901 students have tested positive between 14 September and 4 October, and 27% of all first year students are self-isolating – has given 91 students £50 fines and written warning letters to 37.
These fines are separate from the fixed-penalty notices (FPNs) the police can issue for Covid-related breaches. Greater Manchester police said it had given out nine FPNs to university students between 23 and 30 September.
The level of fine varies. At Northumbria University, where 770 students tested positive in September, students can be fined up to £500 and can be kicked out of university accommodation and their courses. At Liverpool University the maximum fine is £200 and at Warwick it is £150.
The University of Reading meanwhile has had 53 cases of student misconduct so far, though not exclusively related to Covid rules. Sanctions have ranged from formal warnings to fines of between £50 and £400, some part-suspended, to encourage better behaviour.
In Exeter, where positive cases have jumped from 127 to 223, the university said students would only be suspended for more serious breaches where they repeatedly flout the rules. “Students are required to abide by our ‘Safe Community Charter’ and the vast majority of students have behaved impeccably but where students break the rules we will take action,” a spokesperson said.
“This action will start with cautions and fines, but for repeat or serious breaches, we will consider sanctions such as suspension and expulsion.”
Exeter’s Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, said students had been through a very difficult time, but backed the university’s disciplinary measures: “It’s often by taking tough and drastic action early and effectively, that you can ensure more freedoms are enjoyed further down the line.”
The University of Manchester, where 1,264 students have tested positive for Covid since 21 September, said it had referred 73 students to the internal university disciplinary channels for breaches of Covid regulations.
A group of students in halls on the Fallowfield campus were investigated after they held a “Covid positive party” on Saturday, where guests had to have coronavirus to gain access. A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “The University is aware of this incident and we strongly condemn this irresponsible behaviour and conduct.
“We are investigating this as a matter of urgency and will deal with the students responsible via our internal disciplinary processes. The universities are meeting daily with Greater Manchester police and Manchester city council to review incidents and respond accordingly.”
There are no publicly available figures showing how many students have tested positive at universities across the UK. But according to Public Health England, which monitors outbreaks in educational settings, between 7 and 27 September there were 53 confirmed clusters in English universities. London universities saw the most outbreaks (13) in those three weeks, followed by those in the east Midlands (nine) and the north-west (eight).
Other sources, however, suggest the number of universities with outbreaks is higher. According to @UniCovidUK, which is tracking Covid cases in higher education, 91 universities in the UK are now affected.
Northumbria and Newcastle universities announced they will move the bulk of their teaching online, following protests by staff and threats of industrial action after more than 1,000 students in the city tested positive for Covid-19.
They join Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan, Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam universities in restricting face-to-face teaching to a small number of courses such as clinical medicine in the last two days.
Staff at the University of Warwick have also voted in favour of a strike ballot over coronavirus worries, with a warning that industrial action is likely if the university’s management refuses to shift to online teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Queen’s University Belfast is monitoring an increase in coronavirus cases with reports that 166 students and staff at the south Belfast university have tested positive for Covid-19. At Birmingham University, 307 students and eight staff had tested positive between 30 September and 6 October, and Leeds University reported more than 550 cases.
Oxford Brookes University has issued more than 200 FPNs to students for breaches in halls of residence and privately rented student houses since arrivals weekend on 12 September. Other students have been through a disciplinary interview.
A spokesperson said all money from fixed penalties would go into the student hardship fund. “Our expectations of student behaviour during the coronavirus have been incorporated into our student conduct procedures, to which all students agree to adhere to as part of their enrolment.
“The university will consider any reports of non-compliance and if it is deemed that any misconduct has occurred, penalties can be issued such as fines, unpaid community service and/or exclusion from facilities and services provided by the university.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Universities are responsible for setting their own discipline and behaviour policies. The majority of students are following the guidance thereby protecting themselves, their local communities and ensuring campuses can remain open. Any action taken by universities is separate to action that the police can take in response to the breaking of social distancing rules.”