I DON’T know if it is a breach of human rights law, but the way students have been treated by Scotland’s universities is certainly a breach of trust. Thousands were allowed to return to crowded halls, in the middle of a pandemic, with precious little thought given to the ethics and health implications of doing so.

Tens of thousands of students are now stuck doing essentially online courses under a form of house arrest. They have paid large sums of money for a learning experience that cannot possibly be compared to what they had been led to expect in the glossy college prospectuses. If this isn’t a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act, it certainly should be.

But more important is the impact on their health. Nicola Sturgeon yesterday announced a new record number of Covid infections in Scotland, and the biggest increase is among young people. Yet thousands of them have been brought together in university flats under circumstances almost guaranteed to facilitate the spread of any self-respecting virus.

Murano Street Student Village in Glasgow houses more than 500 of them. Kids as young as 17 are paying £5,000 to be locked up with of up to 11 other flatmates, sharing kitchens and bathrooms, and being exposed to students who could be positive with Covid-19. Parents of any student who catches a disease or suffers a mental breakdown will be tempted to sue for negligence.

Students should surely have been tested on arrival, as was recommended by the Scottish Government’s Covid adviser, Professor Devi Sridhar. Covid-positive students should now be moved out of crowded halls, where self-isolation is not possible, to other places of quarantine like hotels. The halls anyway need to be emptied to allow social distancing.

Students should be given the option of leaving campus and studying at home, which is after all what the Government is advising the rest of us to do. Apart from those courses requiring lab work, like medicine, there is really no justification for keeping students in these covid camps. They get minimal if any face time and the social experience is about as life-enhancing as HMP Saughton. Students who opt to work at home should be offered a full refund.

Of course it’s easy to be wise after the event. However, there was little excuse for not being wise before this event. There was ample evidence that herding students, who are known to be likely super-spreaders, together in close quarters during an upswing in the pandemic would be reckless.

Of course they have parties. Does anyone seriously expect hormone-rich young people to remain in self-isolation in their cells when their mates are all around? I am amazed they’re taking it with such Post-it note stoicism. In my day we would’ve been occupying the Vice Chancellor’s offices, holding open air Covid love-ins and getting off our heads on illegal substances.

There is widespread suspicion that universities kept students in the dark and allowed them to return because they needed their cash. “Universities knew damn well they would be providing online teaching,” says the lawyer and former Glasgow University rector Aamar Anwar, who believes students are right to feel conned.

Another human rights advocate, Niall McCluskey, told BBC Scotland yesterday that universities are wide open to litigation for imposing “inhumane and degrading treatment” by locking them down. Students are also being denied proper family life – another violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Scottish Government can’t get round this by saying students are living in households “just like at home”. These accommodation blocks are not households by any acceptable definition because the kids – and many of them are under 18 – are among strangers and lack access to food and facilities like laundry.

The universities say they will provide, but anecdotal evidence is widespread that they can’t. There are reports from Edinburgh’s Pollock Halls complex of heavy-handed policing and students getting out-of-date food or no food at all. The reality is that universities are not prisons. They do not have the skills or the manpower to service an incarcerated population.

Yesterday, Ms Sturgeon gave a stern warning to university principals that they owe a duty of care to the students. That was a red card. I do not personally believe that the universities were so cynical as to endanger students in order to get their hands on their rental cash. They are under acute financial pressures at the moment, but they’re not commercial predators.

More likely it was plain old-fashioned incompetence by bureaucrats whose default crisis management is avoidance. The matter will no doubt have been discussed at numerous on-line meetings without any one taking responsibility. They waited for the Government to tell them what to do, when they should have been weighing the risks themselves.

The vice-chancellors probably thought that accommodation and student welfare was anyway below their pay grades. The academic staff have been mainly concerned with their own welfare and security. Heriot Watt lecturers are even considering strike action, not because of the treatment of students but because they fear redundancies – as well they might after this fiasco.

It has been a public relations disaster. Alistair Sim, of Universities Scotland, pleaded unconvincingly yesterday that students are still getting the “best possible learning experience” in their covid campuses. Many don’t have the family circumstances to stay at home, he claimed. Perhaps, but they would like the choice.

There doesn’t seem to be a huge reservoir of public sympathy for the students, perhaps because people think they get it easy anyway. Ms Sturgeon played that card very astutely on Monday, arguing that they are in the same boat as the rest of us. But they aren’t really, else they would have been given the option of working from home.

The universities and the Scottish Government may think the open-ended terms of the Coronavirus Act immunise them from any legal come-back. But they are subject still to human rights law. Principals and ministers would be advised to lawyer up, because they may find themselves having to explain themselves in court for a teenage version of the care home scandal.

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