'Like a prison where you are charged an extortionate rent' - Rite of passage becomes nightmare

Dan Sanderson
·6-min read
 Students from Glasgow University attend a pop-up coronavirus testing centre at Murano Street Student Village - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Students from Glasgow University attend a pop-up coronavirus testing centre at Murano Street Student Village - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

They arrived expecting the most carefree - and occasionally debauched - few weeks of their lives.

But for hundreds of students across Scotland, the rite of passage of freshers’ week and their first taste of freedom in university halls has become a living nightmare.

More than 1,000 have been ordered to self-isolate in "prison-like" student accommodation in Glasgow and Dundee alone, following a series of coronavirus outbreaks.

Meanwhile, all 250,000 students in the country, from first years to mature students and postgraduates, have been ordered not to visit pubs, cafes or restaurants this weekend in what has been described as an “astounding” restriction of their liberty. 

 Students have posted protest signs and messages on windows of their rooms in Parker House hall of residence at Abertay University  - Iain Masterton/Alamy
Students have posted protest signs and messages on windows of their rooms in Parker House hall of residence at Abertay University - Iain Masterton/Alamy

And while members of the public face £30 fines in Scotland for breaking rules, students have been warned that if they are caught flouting restrictions they could be expelled.

Emma Hardy, a masters student at the University of Glasgow, where at least 172 students have tested positive and 600 have been ordered to self-isolate in halls, described the situation as “ludicrous”.

“We were told to come back to campuses with the promise of some in person teaching,” she said. “I signed my lease believing that I would be able to go to the occasional class and spend time with my friends.”

 Students from Glasgow University attend a pop-up coronavirus testing centre at Murano Street Student Village - Getty/Jeff J Mitchell
Students from Glasgow University attend a pop-up coronavirus testing centre at Murano Street Student Village - Getty/Jeff J Mitchell

She said she was only told this month that all her classes would be delivered online, for the whole year. “I’m now paying tuition fees and rent to live in a city far away from my family and I can’t even see my friends,” she said.

Under Covid-19 rules in Scotland, people are banned from meeting up with people from outside their households in homes. Students were told on Wednesday that they would still be able to go home to their parents, only to be told the following day that this would not be the case.

Students have posted protest signs and messages on windows of their rooms in Parker House hall of residence at Abertay University in Dundee.  - Alamy/Iain Masterton
Students have posted protest signs and messages on windows of their rooms in Parker House hall of residence at Abertay University in Dundee. - Alamy/Iain Masterton

“These new rules mean that many students may be in halls where they are not comfortable or even safe, and they can’t socialise, can’t return home, and can’t really do anything outside of their small box room,” Ms Hardy said.

“I feel like the government and our universities are using us as a scapegoat to hide the fact that they begged us to return to campus for their own financial gain.”

At some halls of residence, students have been forced to wash their clothes in sinks, as launderette facilities would mean leaving their flats. At the University of Glasgow’s sprawling Murano Street student village, which urban legend has it was designed by an architect famed for prison design, flats with shared facilities are inhabited by up to 12 students.

The University said that it was hiring additional staff to “ensure isolation is observed universally”. 

Some Glasgow students are now attempting to organise a rent strike, which would see them withhold accommodation fees, which start at £4,944 per academic year. While the university has insisted it is providing support to residents forced to self-isolate, three students at the halls claimed the first they heard of their orders to quarantine was when a notice was slapped on their doors.

At the University of Abertay’s Parker House halls in Dundee, where all 500 residents have been ordered to quarantine, one staff member said she had encountered a Chinese student who was desperate to return home. They claimed police had advised that if he tried to leave to call 999. The University said it had not issued any guidance to staff about calling police, although the accommodation is run by a private company.

The staff member said the halls had been inundated with calls from frantic parents, with residents in some cases as young as 17, due to a lower university starting age in Scotland. “The students are supposed to stay in their rooms and to use the kitchen individually, wearing masks,” the employee said. “They are not allowed to leave their flats or to leave the building. I don't know how long we are locked down for. I don't know when the students will be allowed to leave."

Students in quarantine at Parker House - Abertay University -  Callum Moffat/Daily Record
Students in quarantine at Parker House - Abertay University - Callum Moffat/Daily Record

Jackie Bruce, whose 19-year-old son William is a resident at the halls, described the situation as “outrageous”. She said that fortunately, William had not been in when the lockdown was imposed, and had been among several students who had left their belongings behind and not returned.

“These young people's human rights are being completely trampled on,” she said. “They are at greater risk of serious mental health problems than of death or serious complications from Covid. 

“The rooms are barely big enough to stand up and walk around in. They won't be able to get any exercise or any fresh air. It is like a prison where you are also being charged an extortionate rent."

She added: “We were not warned that if there were a few cases in the block, the whole place would be locked down and the students' right to leave would be taken away. If you are in a private flat and the next door neighbors have coronavirus, the police don't bar your door if you try to go out for a walk."

Addressing the situation at her daily coronavirus briefing yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon announced a record daily number of cases in Scotland - 558. She said she was “so heart sorry” for students in university accommodation and said they were not to blame for the virus spreading. Some universities have blamed illegal freshers’ week parties for outbreaks.

However, she insisted tougher new rules had been necessary. The First Minister said: "Student services already have special arrangements in place including 24-hour helplines, support for food deliveries and additional mental health counsellors for those who might need that support."