On Sunday 29 November 2020, David Batty reported in the Guardian that UK universities had fined students more than £170,000 for breaking coronavirus rules. Topping the list was Nottingham University. Up to the 12 November, Nottingham University had sanctioned 672 of its students, with another 21 cases pending. Ninety-one Nottingham University students were fined a total of £58,865. ...

UK universities fine students £170,000 for Covid rule breaches

Exclusive: 28 institutions issued fines, with Nottingham University students alone hit for £58,865

Universities fined students more than £170,000 for breaching coronavirus safety rules in the first weeks of the new academic year, a Guardian analysis has found, as students told of struggling to make friends without flouting restrictions.

Twenty-eight institutions fined students for breaking university, local and national Covid rules, including on household mixing, mandatory face coverings and social distancing, according to responses from 105 universities to freedom of information (FoI) requests.

University of Nottingham students paid more than one-third of the total amount, with 91 fined a total of £58,865 up to 12 November – more than the amount levied on its student population by police. The university said the individual fines it issued were up to £1,500.

The fines handed down to 1,898 students amounted to £170,915. Most universities only disclosed fines levied in the first two to three weeks of term. Some said the money would be paid into their student hardship fund,

The findings reveal wide variations in the penalties imposed on students by different universities as well as in the support provided to those self-isolating or seeking psychological help during the pandemic.

Fifty-three universities said they disciplined and cautioned a total of 5,122 students. Nottingham came top, with 672 students sanctioned and a further 21 cases pending, followed by Leeds Beckett (403), Oxford Brookes (340), Manchester University (334) and Aberdeen (215).

Aberdeen University disclosed the second highest value of fines – £32,250 by 24 November. The university did not disclose how many students this figure covered but said it had imposed fines of £17,750 on 140 students by 15 October. Most fines were £125 but a small number of repeat offenders were told to pay £250, it added.

Oxford Brookes imposed the highest number of Covid-related fines – 326, totalling £18,950. Leeds University imposed 343 fines but said it could not extrapolate how many were for breaches of Covid regulations, and did not disclose their value. St Andrews University imposed fines totalling £13,240 on 193 students.

The figures do not include fines separately imposed by police. Nottingham said police had issued 91 fines to its students, totalling £28,000. In October, four Nottingham Trent students were fined £10,000 each by the police after more than 30 people were found in their house. A university spokesman said it was working with officers to investigate another student house party earlier this week, and had begun disciplinary proceedings.

Emily, 20, a first-year student at St Andrews University, which warned students they must “follow all safety guidelines to the letter”, said she had broken the Covid restrictions because “otherwise it would have been physically impossible to make friends”.

She added: “I have received two £60 fines from the university and two strikes on my non-academic register, meaning I can no longer do things such as apply for a year abroad. I think it’s outrageous that these strikes will stay on my record for my entire university life.

“The halls and town are crawling with wardens and security ready to shut down anything immediately. It’s like a police state. A friend was fined for not wearing a mask properly. This whole experience is incredibly isolating.”

Liz, 18, a first-year student at Newcastle University, was fined £100 by the police for having drinks with friends from her home town in their student house.

She said: “I’d been feeling really down and thought this would make me feel better. It wasn’t a party but the music was fairly loud. I didn’t appeal because I thought feeling lonely wouldn’t stand up very well as a defence. I’ve not made any new friends. I’m stuck in my tiny bedroom all day. I would have deferred if I knew it was going to be like this.”

Some of the universities that levied the largest fines also had the longest waiting times for students to see a counsellor. St Andrews University said the average waiting time to see a counsellor was five weeks. Manchester Metropolitan University, which issued 156 fines totalling £7,800, disclosed the largest number of students waiting for counselling (280), followed by Northumbria University (81).

Most universities said they were providing online and telephone counselling, with some also laying on buddy services. Many are providing deliveries of food and toiletries – some for free.

Larissa Kennedy, the president of the National Union of Students, said: “It is absolutely unacceptable that universities have felt it necessary to issue obscene fines and harsh punishments. [They] should be providing care packages with food, household products, wellbeing materials and general necessities at no extra cost.”

Newcastle University said it was “acutely aware” that the pandemic had limited students’ ability to make friends. A spokeswoman added that students had access to a helpline and 24/7 mental health support and could pair up with a student or staff buddy.

A St Andrews University spokesman said: “It’s grossly false and disingenuous to claim the only way to make friends is to break the rules. Support for our students remains our paramount concern.”

The University of Nottingham said it supported police fines against the minority of students who broke the rules, which were reinforced by its own disciplinary action, fines and other sanctions.

A spokesman for Universities UK, which represents 140 higher education institutions, said universities had encouraged responsible student behaviour through agreements or pledges. But he added: “Universities are taking Covid safety measures and government guidance very seriously and students will have been informed of the consequences of breaking these rules.”

UK universities fine students £170,000 for Covid rule breaches | Universities | The Guardian