Uncertainty over student return to Scottish campuses in January 'completely unacceptable'

The Scottish Government has been warned it has not learned the lessons from the chaotic return to campuses in August that led to the initial spike in cases prior to the start of the second wave of Covid-19.

Universities Minister Richard Lochhead appeared before MSPs at the education committee in Holyrood and admitted there was no agreed plan as to whether all students will return to campus in January or not.

His response, to questions from Scottish Labour and Scottish Green MSPs Daniel Johnson and Ross Greer, was labelled “completely unacceptable” and “staggering”.

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Mr Lochhead said ministers were “looking at various options” around students returning and “minds are turning to after new year and what that might look like”.

The return of students to universities in January is concerning some MSPs.The return of students to universities in January is concerning some MSPs.
The return of students to universities in January is concerning some MSPs.

However, he admitted no decision had been made as to whether all students would return.

His comments came as the president of NUS Scotland, Matt Crilly, told MSPs in the Covid-19 committee that he believed some universities were worried about the financial implications of not having in-person teaching.

The head of the student’s union said: “My worry at the moment is we haven’t learned the lessons from September and October and so I don’t think students do have the certainty as to what their teaching is going to look like in January.

"In fact it seems some universities where there’s a financial imperative for institutions to want to have students arrive because otherwise they will suffer the loss of international tuition fee income potentially and rental income from students.

"I do think students would really value some medium-term certainty as to what their learning will look like.”

Mr Johnson, the Scottish Labour MSP, was scathing in response to the lack of clarity from ministers.

He said: “It is completely unacceptable that days from the end of term, not only is the Higher Education minister unable to tell students 'how' they will return, he can't tell them 'if' they will return

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“Despite the failings in September which led to students having to self-isolate in cramped accommodation unsuitable for quarantine, the Scottish Government has no plan to avoid the same mistakes. The minister should have been planning for this since the early autumn, yet it is mid-November and he is clearly continuing to make it up as it goes along.

“Bluntly, students do not know if they should be packing up their things for just Christmas or for good – the minister should get a grip of this or he should be packing up himself.”

Mr Greer, the Scottish Green’s education spokesman, echoed the fears and labelled the complacency in the Scottish Government “staggering”.

He said: “The Scottish Government’s failure to plan for students arriving on campus in September played a significant role in the resurgence of coronavirus in our communities. It is disgraceful that ministers still haven’t bothered to develop a plan for the potential return of students to campus in January. The complacency is staggering given what happened just two months ago.

"It very much looks like the Government has failed to acknowledge just how serious its failure in September was and how important it is that we don’t see a repeat."

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