The Scottish Government has been accused of showing “contempt” for the public after refusing to turn over its own correspondence with university bosses on students returning to campuses.
Officials claimed it was too costly to “locate and retrieve” communications between ministers and Universities Scotland regarding preparation for institutions to reopen, the return of in-person learning and students moving to term-time accommodation.
The resumption of full-time learning in September led to outbreaks of coronavirus at dozens of universities across the UK, including cases linked to student accommodation in Aberdeen, Dundee, St Andrews and Glasgow.
The Scottish Government was forced to issue fresh guidance allowing struggling students to return home on a permanent basis but others were warned they face fines and being kicked out of university if they are caught on short visits.
Returning home for Christmas?
Questions remain over whether students will now be allowed to return home for Christmas or if teaching time may need to be cut short to allow residents in term-time accommodation to self-isolate before visiting their families.
Nicola Sturgeon rejected any suggestion the decision to allow student accommodation to fully reopen was influenced by pressure from universities concerned about a further loss of income this year if people stay at home.
But her government has refused to turn over communications it had with industry leaders following a freedom of information request by Scottish Labour.
Fobbing off legitimate enquiries and kicking them into the long grass is not good enough when families have to begin preparations around restrictions and complex tier systems.”
The party’s education spokesman, Iain Gray, hit out at the response and said it “shows the lack of accountability we have come to expect from the Scottish Government over its handling of the pandemic”.
“Officials’ refusal to disclose this vital information displays the same level of contempt for openness and transparency they showed to students when they gave them the go-ahead to return to campuses across the country this summer,” he said.
Mr Gray warned statements by education secretary John Swinney had risked sowing confusion after he initially stated that students being allowed to return home was a “priority” but later admitted Christmas on campus was a “realistic possibility”.
Mr Gray added: “Students need to know now whether they can go home, if they should return to universities after Christmas and what testing will be available to them
“Fobbing off legitimate enquiries and kicking them into the long grass is not good enough when families have to begin preparations around restrictions and complex tier systems.”
The Scottish Government said: “While our aim is provide information whenever possible, in this instance the cost of location and providing the information requested would exceed the upper cost limit of £600.
“Under Section 12 of FOISA, public authorities are not required to comply with a request for information if the authority estimates that the cost of complying would exceed the upper cost limit, which is currently set at £600 by regulations made under Section 12.”
Calls for statement on possibility of Christmas on campus
Scottish Labour has called on ministers to make a statement to the Scottish Parliament on students and Christmas “as a matter of urgency” so undergraduates know whether they will be reunited with loved ones “or endure a Christmas on campus”.
Mr Swinney said last week there was a “realistic possibility” students could be asked to stay in halls or other university accommodation at Christmas but stressed the Scottish Government “wants to avoid that at all possible cost”.
Phased returns to and from campuses are being considered as part of an attempt to limit further infections by the movement of a ‘substantial’ number of people.