Statement: Human rights of students at Scottish universities

The Scottish Human Rights Commission is concerned about the restrictions placed on many students at the present time, particularly those living in student accommodation, living alone for the first time without family or other supports, and lacking clear information on the restrictions which apply to them.

The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland has raised concerns around the human rights implications of current COVID-19 regulations for those students covered by his mandate – that is, students who are under 18, or who are under 21 and care experienced. We welcome his Position Statement, which details a number of human rights considerations and associated recommendations for the Scottish Government and university principals. In the Commission’s view, the issues set out in this statement apply to all students, and therefore also engage our mandate.

Guidance released by the Scottish Government clarifying that additional legal restrictions have not been placed on students is helpful in addressing the considerable, and very understandable, confusion that has arisen in recent days.  

In addition to the issues raised by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner, the Commission is concerned that although the current COVID-19 legal restrictions apply equally across the population, they impact more severely on those living in student residences. As students and student representatives have pointed out, student residences are extremely poorly suited to quarantine arrangements, with multiple occupants living in close proximity and sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities. While the legal restrictions apply to the whole population, the impact of those restrictions will be felt more acutely by people living in this type of accommodation; this gives rise to human rights concerns specific to this population group. The Commission echoes calls on Scottish universities to ensure adequate support is provided to students who are required to self-isolate and that students themselves are involved in determining what this support should be. This is particularly important given many students will not be able to rely on the help of friends and family where they have moved to a new city with no support network in place. 

From the outset of the pandemic, the Commission has highlighted that the state has a duty to protect both the health and lives of the public. The Commission welcomed the First Minister’s previous announcement that a public inquiry into all aspects of the handling of the pandemic will be held in due course. The Commission believes that questions as to whether it was appropriate to allow students, both Scottish and international, to take up places in student residences at this point in the pandemic, should be scrutinised by any future public inquiry.

The Commission will provide a more detailed human rights analysis of the situation experienced by students in the coming weeks. We hope this will be useful in informing accountability for the decisions taken by both the Scottish Government and Universities, as well as aiding their decision-making in the period ahead.