Covid-19 (Students)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 29th September 2020.

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Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

1. To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it is having with the university sector regarding students isolating because of Covid-19. (S5T-02420)

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

This is a challenging time for many of Scotland’s students, and we are in frequent direct conversation with the university sector around support for students who are self-isolating because of Covid-19, to underscore the importance of supporting students, practically and emotionally. We have been assured that practical and welfare support is in place, but we are actively pressing universities to ensure that that is the case. Institutions and providers are making arrangements for self-isolating students to be able to access food and essential supplies.

Students can also access local authority services that provide support for self-isolating individuals who are otherwise unable to access food and other essentials. That can be arranged through the national assistance helpline on 0800 111 4000. The national assistance helpline is a service for those who cannot leave their home and cannot get the help that they need in any other way.

Universities will have accessible wellbeing services, with details on their websites, and the student information Scotland website has the student support pages of every institution, so it can signpost students to support that is available.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I have spoken to the universities in my constituency and

I have not had an answer from them, so will the minister please tell me whether the Scottish Government has had any discussions with the universities about students who have already returned home or who wish to return home, but who want to resume their university hall tenancies once it is deemed safe for them to do so? Will those students face financial penalties?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank Sandra White for asking those pertinent questions that are relevant to many students in Scotland.

Our advice to all students in Scotland is that they should please remain living in their current student household in their current university accommodation, because that is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus in Scotland. We are giving similar advice to all sectors of society across the whole of the nation.

However, we recognise that this is a very difficult time for many students, particularly those who might be self-isolating and those first years who might be away from home for the first time. That is why we issued guidance at the weekend, after speaking to student bodies and the universities, to outline under what conditions students can return home under the current restrictions in Scotland. The ability is there for students to return home if they are unable to continue in the current circumstances at university, but if they are able to do so, we are asking them to remain in their student households in their current student accommodation.

When it comes to leases for student accommodation at university, we know that the University of St Andrews and the University of Glasgow have introduced a lot more flexibility to ensure that they do not penalise students who want to resign their leases even within their 28 days’ notice period. I have written to all of Scotland’s principals asking for all universities to be very sympathetic to all students at this time.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

A number of students reside not in halls but in the private accommodation sector, including houses in multiple occupation. Has the minister had any discussions with private student accommodation providers regarding guidance on their duty of care to their residents and what should happen if residents wish to leave? Has he had any correspondence with those providers regarding the Government’s guidelines? In my Glasgow Kelvin constituency, I have a huge amount of private student accommodation.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

That is a good point. On purpose-built private student accommodation, I note that the Covid regulations that we passed allow students to give 28 days’ notice to resign their leases, and that applies to those situations as well. We have had regular conversations with the operators of those buildings, and they are also obliged to have a duty of care for their residents and ensure that they are able to access necessary supplies if they are self-isolating.

The Presiding Officer:

There is a lot of interest in the subject. We will see how many members we can get through.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

What consultation did the minister hold with NUS Scotland about the restrictions on students and their potential impact ahead of their publication early on Friday evening?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

We have had regular conversations with NUS Scotland throughout the pandemic. Indeed, I spoke to it again today. On the guidance for students returning home, we were in conversations with NUS Scotland, and it helped to input to that guidance.

If the member is referring to the guidance on socialising over the weekend, we offered our support to Universities Scotland, because that was the advice that it gave to Scotland’s students. It said that, just for the previous weekend, they should not socialise outside their households in order to help us to break the chain in transmission, given where we are with the outbreaks in universities at this time. That was a matter for Universities Scotland to take forward.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Yesterday, the First Minister was at pains to explain that the advice on household mixing for students was not really different from the advice for everybody else. Given that that is the case, why did the minister, before the universities returned, remove from the guidance that where work could be done from home, that should be the norm?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Over the summer, we worked with Scotland’s further and higher education sector on guidance for the safe return of our colleges and universities, and we consulted closely all the stakeholders including the trade unions, student bodies, the universities and, in the case of further education, the colleges.

It has always been the case, even in the draft guidance that was circulated for comments and consultation, that there was the proposal for blended learning. In many cases, students will be learning online, but there are cases where face-to-face teaching is very important. That should, of course, be limited and happen only where it is necessary, and that has been reflected in every version of the draft guidance that was circulated for consultation in the run-up to its publication on 1 September.

That blended approach to student-centred education is incredibly important at present. Many courses cannot be taught wholly online. Interaction with lecturers and tutors is an important part of the education experience as well, and it has to take place where necessary.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

In the past few days, a number of students have raised disturbing examples of universities informing them that, if they were to terminate their lease for their university accommodation, their place on their course would be terminated as well. I do not believe that that is legally enforceable or morally right. I ask the minister to take this opportunity to state categorically that no student should lose their place at university because they have decided to terminate their accommodation lease and return home.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

It is absolutely the case that no student at any Scottish university should have their place on their course jeopardised by their terminating the lease for their student accommodation. I have discussed that point with the principals, who tell me that that is not the case. I know that there have been such reports, however.

We will reiterate, time and again, that our universities have a duty of care to their students at this very challenging time—particularly to those students who are going into their first year at university, as I said before, as it is perhaps their first time away from home and already an anxious time for them. They deserve the absolute maximum support from all Scotland’s universities. There should be no obstacles to putting their wellbeing and education first.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Police Scotland says that there are no travel restrictions in law, and there never have been, so why were students being told that they could not travel home, which gave them the impression that if they did so, they would be breaking the law?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government issued guidance at the weekend on students travelling home to put the recent restrictions in the context of student households. It is only a week or so since we had new restrictions on meeting other households indoors and social gatherings. It was very important, particularly given what has been happening in some of our universities, where students are self-isolating, and perhaps are anxious and want to go home, that the restrictions are put into the context of student households.

There are no extra laws that apply to students that do not apply to the rest of society. We must not stigmatise or target students. What is happening at the moment is not their fault, or anyone’s fault—we are in the middle of a global pandemic.

If students wish to go home, they are perfectly able to do that within the law, in certain circumstances, as outlined in the guidance that was published at the weekend. However, our strong advice to the student population in Scotland is that if you are able to, please remain in your current household in your student accommodation.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

With colleagues, I had a constructive meeting with Professor Muscatelli yesterday, where I raised various matters, including restrictions put in place by Glasgow university at Murano Street student village regarding the use of common laundry facilities and the suspension of cleaning services for communal areas. I know that the university is working hard on both counts. There is a temporary workaround and it is trying to secure a permanent solution.

Is the minister aware of similar issues elsewhere in Scotland? Can I request that the Scottish Government works with universities to ensure that they meet their responsibilities and that such matters are resolved speedily?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The guidance on a safe return to further and higher education that was published on 1 September outlined how the guidelines should be applied to student accommodation and the services that should be made available to students, and how outbreaks should be managed.

I very much recognise that the current situation is a challenge for Scotland’s universities, as it is for our students. I thank our university staff and all staff who are helping to care for and look after the wellbeing of our students at this time.

There are some practical challenges and there have been some teething issues, as Bob Doris mentioned. I will happily look into the specific issues that he raised and make sure that they are reflected in our on-going discussions with the sector.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

The multiple changes in guidance all happened over a short few days and were completely bereft of parliamentary scrutiny, and they have left many students worried about whether or how they can socialise or even return to their family homes. Can the minister end some of those concerns and confirm that food parcels and priority deliveries will be available for all students in lockdown who need them, and that any who choose to leave their accommodation and return home permanently can do so and will be given rent refunds? Given that students are not yet clear whether they can go home for the October holidays, can the minister give some reassurance that they will be allowed home for Christmas?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Of course, Jamie Greene highlights important issues, but we worked with student bodies on the guidance that was published at the weekend. I spoke to them again just before this question, and they told me that they very much welcome the guidance, and it has been welcomed across Scotland’s campuses.

I hope that most people are able to stay in their current household in their student accommodation, but if they are not, I urge all students who feel that they are unable to continue in their accommodation, particularly those who are self-isolating, to access the guidance, which explains the circumstances in which they are able to return home. The circumstances include moving permanently back to your home household, which of course means that you cannot move back and forth, because the whole of Scotland is subject to the same guidelines on households meeting indoors and social gatherings.

The guidance is clear. Students have told me that it is welcome and it is clear. It is helping a lot of students to make informed decisions, and that was its purpose. The law has not changed, and the guidance explains the law in the circumstances of student households.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I am advised that senior Government advisers wanted the mass testing of students at universities. Who vetoed that?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The guidance that we are following is, of course, from Scotland’s public health officials. We keep asymptomatic testing under review, as I am sure the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the First Minister have reiterated time and again. There has never been anything vetoed in terms of the advice that we have received from our advisers in Scotland, who have taken into account all the scientific advisory group for emergencies—SAGE—advice. SAGE advice was published in the first week of September, and the draft version of that was, thankfully, passed to our own officials so that we could take it into account for our own guidance, which was published earlier than that, because our universities in Scotland return earlier.

The guidance from SAGE and our own public health officials is, of course, taken into account by ministers, and we are focusing our testing capacity on symptomatic students, as the advice asks us to do. International students who arrive in Scotland from certain countries have to quarantine for two weeks, as well. We are advised that that is the best way to keep people safe.