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Mathieson: ‘this is your fault’

The University of Edinburgh is scapegoating its students for its own failures. We can’t let them get away with it

There’s a saying: accuse the other side of that which you are guilty. It’s pretty straightforward: when in danger of being exposed for your catastrophic failings, shift the blame elsewhere, divert the attention, create a smokescreen, and you can get away with anything. This all-too-common strategy has been worshiped by institutions during the pandemic, the latest of which appear to be British universities.

On Thursday 28th January, students at the University of Edinburgh living in accommodation received a blunt warning from Prof. Colm Harmon, Vice-Principal of Students: anyone caught violating COVID-19 guidelines will not only face eviction, but also “permanent exclusion from the University”.

So, let me get this straight: we were intentionally misled by the University last September who seemingly colluded with lucrative accommodation companies in order to lure us onto campus with the promise of “high quality hybrid teaching”. It then turned out the latter was a complete lie; despite having many months to prepare, no effort whatsoever had been made to deliver a substantial amount of socially distanced in-person learning, with plenty of degrees being 100% online.

The subject of workloads wasn’t even discussed, with the University assuming that students (the demographic with the worst mental health) locked inside their rooms all day, prohibited from visiting friends or family, should be expected to study the same number of hours and do the same number of exams as in ‘normal’ times.

More recently, calls for a ‘No Detriment’ policy on exams was bizarrely rejected. How can you blame them though – after all, why should students under house arrest with no real teaching be given any leeway in the virtual exams that will determine their entire careers?

And now, Professor Harmon says he finds the behaviour of students “disappointing”?

Is he serious? Does the University really think the violation of COVID rules is simply down to the students? Do they not see the clear link between a gross dereliction of student well-being and why many still continue to break the rules? Clearly not, so let’s spell it out: someone who is stuck inside all day working as relentlessly and with the same deadlines as they would normally have, knowing this situation won’t be taken into account when their work is marked, is very likely to be in a state of mind whereby they feel the urge to break COVID rules for social reasons, forgetting the risk of fines and other punishments.

If the behaviour of students is a symptom, the University’s cutthroat approach to student welfare is the disease. To say only bad behaviour is to blame is to say the same thing about the January 6th assault on the Capitol.
But if the complete absence of mea culpa isn’t enough, now the University of Edinburgh believe law and order is the solution. Without getting into the morality of expelling a student from university (effectively ruining their future) for being at a house party, practically speaking, this will prove completely ineffective: Believe me when I say that for most students who are under immense pressure, the opportunity to let off some steam will always outweigh the small risk of getting caught.

As I don’t want to be completely negative, nor in any way galvanise students into going to illegal raves, there is a way of bringing student COVID violations more under control, without being so tyrannical about it. To misquote Tony Blair, we need to instead focus on being tough on the causes of student COVID breaches.

As these restrictions continue, the University cannot keep treating students with the same arm’s-length disrespect as they have up to this point, demanding from them as much as in normal circumstances, but giving back far less. If more empathy was exercised by the University, not just with words but with actual deeds, there is no doubt students would be far more able to think straight when it came to picking between going or not going to a super spreader event.

In the meantime, emails about how this is all our fault, threatening expulsion aren’t just utterly reprehensible and hypocritical; they are largely useless.

I’m not going to pretend students have been the worst hit demographic by this pandemic, but we may be one of the most ignored. We’re all aware of the relentless media attention and constant policy development which has been directed towards mitigating the impact of the pandemic on school children. The same cannot be said for university students. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that schools have been ceaselessly lobbying for the interests of their pupils, whilst it is clear that at least at Edinburgh, even the University isn’t on our side.

We must call out their failures. If they can get away with blaming and punishing us for the consequences of their decisions, they can get away with anything.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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