In the summer of 2020, universities across Scotland, England and Wales, indicated that they would be open and ready to start a new academic year in the Autumn. They presented to undergraduates – new and returning ones – that a full physical teaching or hybrid university experience would be delivered within the allowable parameters of the Covid pandemic and in so doing, accepted payment from students for university accommodation, often paid up front or in contracts with strict terms.

Within a week of the start of term, many of these universities reversed their position and imposed strict quarantine measures on students, irrespective of whether they tested positive or not. These measures have included an unexpected solitary confinement in halls of residence, for 14 days at a time and sometimes much longer. Some universities have taken it upon themselves to determine what those students will eat and when, delivering food that is often near or past its expiry date and that cannot meet the nutritional requirements and calorific demands of an eighteen year old. In some places, students subjected to such confinement are banned from washing their clothes and no measures are put in place for that basic necessity. Those students who break quarantine are harassed and treated as criminals and the only option presented is to leave the university and continue the online studying from home – minus the fees paid for the halls of residence which in some places amounts to £9000 a year. For international students, the situation is even more dire, given the absence of a support network, though we cannot assume that any friends or family could even reach them were they in the country.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other UN bodies have stated that the solitary confinement (physical and social isolation of 22-24 hours per day for 1 day or more) of young people under age 18, for any duration, constitutes cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. For children who have just finished their A levels and may have just crossed this age threshold, it is academic to suggest that they are somehow better equipped to withstand this. Without examining in detail the rules and case-law regarding the personal hygiene, food, health and medical services of persons deprived of their liberty, the following main principles contained in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners should be emphasised:
As to personal hygiene:

prisoners shall be required to keep their persons clean, and to this end they shall be provided with water and with such toilet articles as are necessary for health and cleanliness (Rule 15)

As to clothing:

every prisoner who is not allowed to wear his own clothing shall be provided with an outfit of clothing suitable for the climate and adequate to keep him in good health. Such clothing shall in no manner be degrading or humiliating (Rule 17(1))

All clothing shall be clean and kept in proper condition (Rule 17(2))

whenever a prisoner is removed outside the institution for an authorized purpose, he shall be allowed to wear his own clothing or other inconspicuous clothing (Rule 17(3))

As to bedding:

Every prisoner shall, in accordance with local or national standards, be provided with a separate bed, and with separate and sufficient bedding which shall be clean when issued, kept in good order and changed often enough to ensure its cleanliness (Rule 19)

As to food:

Every prisoner shall be provided by the administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served…drinking water shall be available to every prisoner whenever he needs it (Rule 20(1) and (2))

As to health and medical services:there shall be

at least one qualified medical officer who should have some knowledge of psychiatry

at every place of detention and the medical services

should be organized in close relationship to the general health administration of the community or nation (Rule 22(1))

Few, if any universities have addressed the mental health needs of students having to remain in isolation for two weeks or more, let alone enquire about any other medical or dental needs.

It is not enough to say that students can leave if they wish. Having taken their money and within days, turned halls of residence into some of the most expensive prisons in the world, there is a question as to what extent universities anticipated this course of action and yet went on to misrepresent the situation in order to bolster thinning funds.

There is an urgent need to address this situation which bears all the hallmarks of discrimination (against a class), inequality (for not everyone can afford to just leave and accommodate themselves elsewhere) and inhumane treatment. The costs to the mental health of our nation as a result of lockdown are already being tallied; for the generation of those who have worked so hard to get into university and now must spend their time alone or on the brink of being criminalised, this cost has yet to be calculated.

Universities who have embarked upon this approach without consultation or even a scientific basis, who have discriminated wholesale against their own clients, must be challenged in a court and made to

  1. repay the cost of monies most likely obtained by deception
  2. pay damages for the mental health, trauma and other costs that have undoubtedly been incurred by this class.

A concerned parent of a student at Edinburgh university is already making enquiries regarding bringing such a class action against a number of universities in the UK. Those who are interested, please make yourself known.

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