Universities have little power to tackle off-campus Covid breaches

Many house parties taking place in private rented sector beyond college walls

A street party in Limerick city which, locals say, was attended by hundreds of students.

A street party in Limerick city which, locals say, was attended by hundreds of students.

 

There has been plenty of tough talking from third-level colleges when it comes to taking a zero tolerance approach to Covid-19 breaches by students.

Much of it is just that.

The reality is that the most egregious breaches captured on shaky mobile phone footage have been taking place outside college campuses in the private rented sector.

Universities have little or no power to monitor or identify those responsible for house parties beyond those students reported to them by gardaí.

It is one reason why there have been so few suspensions, expulsions or other tough sanctions against the minority of students who have been involved in this kind of behaviour.

Most universities that responded to queries from The Irish Times on Wednesday were unable to provide details of the number of students who had been disciplined for breaches of Covid-19 guidelines or the nature of the sanctions they had faced, though sources say the numbers in most cases are small.

Where details were provided, penalties for Covid-19 breaches were typically linked to infringements in on-campus accommodation, which is monitored by university staff.

Some of these penalties vary from fines of €50-€250 (in UCD), writing a 2,000-word essay after watching RTÉ Prime Time Investigates programme on Covid-19 (in NUI Galway), to making charitable donations/ or attending an alcohol education programme (UCC), or suspensions from campus accommodation (Maynooth, DCU).

Most have the potential to escalate sanctions to formal cautions or more serious disciplinary issues.

In the case of UL, for example, four students had been issued with cautions and a further seven were “in process” prior to this week’s events.

Even in the case of on-campus breaches, some sources say they are limited in what they can do.

“We’re unable to properly administer fines, which means students are becoming increasingly emboldened to break the rules knowing there will be little consequence,” said one university staff member involved in enforcing rules.

“I’ve had students refuse to wear masks and argue with me about why they don’t think it’s fair the Government rules apply on campus.

“I’ve caught students who are required to self-isolate attending large gatherings on multiple occasions.”

Accommodation contracts

The fact that so many students are living away from home at a time when the vast majority of college education is online is hardly helping matters.

Some students complain they are locked into contracts for accommodation that were signed when it was envisaged that more on-campus education would take place.

While most universities say they have provided flexibility to students to cancel accommodation without financial penalty, this is not the case with many private providers off-campus.

The Union of Students of Ireland said that due to the lack of legal protections and inflexibility from providers, many students had not been allowed to terminate their contracts with private student accommodation providers early.

“It is not good enough to ask students not to go back to campuses and live in student accommodation or mix with other students, but not support them in this by ensuring they are not out of pocket for doing so,” it said.