Friday 25 September 2020

Sturgeon is at fault for Covid at university


University accommodation is rather similar to prison except there are no locks on the doors and there are fringe benefits. Students want to live in such places not because their tiny rooms are comfortable, but because halls of residences give them the best chance to meet other students and make friends. Without that they might as well be in prison.

From March until the summer holidays universities were pretty much locked down. Libraries and lecture theatres were shut, and everything was done online. It wasn’t ideal, but many subjects can be taught completely without any face to face contact.

Subjects in the Arts and social sciences are entirely about reading books and writing essays. Many other subjects can be studied quite successfully with a little adaptation virtually.  Some science subjects require work in laboratories, but even here some of this work could be replicated using videos.

Universities have since March been accelerating the process of moving towards virtual learning. This has been going on gradually for the past twenty years. Physical books and journals used to be essential for study, now it is perfectly possible to finish some degrees while never opening a physical book and never stepping foot in a library.

It would have been possible for most students this year to study entirely virtually. Many of them will be attending virtual tutorials and lectures anyway.

The question we need to ask the Scottish Government is why didn’t it advise all students to stay at home and study virtually?

Why have students moved into tiny rooms in halls of residences across Scotland with predictable results, when it was entirely unnecessary for them to do so?

From March to the summer most students returned home and continued their studies virtually. This prevented the spread of Covid amongst the student population. Why didn’t this policy continue?

It is blindingly obvious that if you put thousands of new students into tiny rooms in a new town that they will want to meet other students. Anyone who has been to university will remember that making friends was a top priority.

There have been appeals to students to isolate from each other. But this is going to be very difficult to police. Students are not stupid. They know that they individually are very unlikely to die from Covid. The temptation to meet others rather than sit alone in a tiny room must be enormous. What would you do? I would sneak out.

The only way to keep students in their rooms is to patrol the corridors of each and every hall of residence. But this really will turn such accommodation into prisons without locks. This is going to be hugely damaging to the mental health of young people.

The Scottish Government then has a choice. Either it can continue coming up with ever more severe measures to prevent students from meeting each other. These measures if successful will damage student mental health by keeping them locked up in tiny rooms, or the measures will be unsuccessful and Covid will continue to spread in the student population.

But this was completely unnecessary. Nicola Sturgeon controls education in Scotland. She could have insisted that university education would be entirely virtual. Instead of students travelling from all over Britain and the world to places like Aberdeen, Sturgeon could have told them to stay at home and we will bring Aberdeen to you.

This would have been better for the students. They could have remained comfortably at home. Their education would not have been much different from what it is now. But they would not have been held hostage in tiny rooms or else spreading Covid to each other and the wider community.

Why did Sturgeon make the mistake of not insisting that university education continued to be virtual as it had been before the summer? I suspect that both she and the universities were scared that the students wouldn’t go to university at all if they didn’t get to go physically.

The educational side of university is in my view no worse for most subjects when teaching is virtual. The books are the same. The ability to write essays is the same. Discussions can be done just as well online. But I think a lot of students go to university for the experience first and foremost. They go in order to leave home for the first time. They go to a place where they can go to bed when they please, drink as much as they like and meet who they like without anyone telling them that they can’t. That is the purpose of university for many students.

The problem is that if students are stuck in tiny rooms with only their studies to keep them company and they are not especially interested in studying, the idea that they are going to continue sitting there when their main motivation for going to university is unfulfilled is unlikely at best.

Sturgeon has got herself in a huge mess here. Is she really intending to keep students locked up for the next six months unable to meet each other and unable to go back to their parents for Christmas? How would she enforce this? She could send the students home now, but what of the accommodation they have paid for and what about spreading Covid up and down the country with them?

Perhaps the solution is for each student to be tested and if clear sent home. But that would involve admitting that Sturgeon has made a huge mistake with university education and she won’t do that. So, we will continue with university as prison.

It was completely unnecessary to keep students locked up in halls of residence. Sturgeon should have been able to see what would happen when thousands of young people came together in a new town. It’s hard to think of a more ideal way for Covid to spread.

Students should have stayed at home and learned there.