UNIVERSITIES and colleges spent months drawing up their plans for the safe return of students to campuses for the start of the new academic year. With the mass outbreak of Covid-19 clusters at so many student halls of residence across the UK, it’s not unreasonable to ask: where did it all go wrong?

As September began, the tone from Universities Scotland was upbeat and optimistic. Convenor Professor Gerry McCormac said: “Universities are looking forward to welcoming students back for the start of a new academic year. It’s important that students have the opportunity to continue their studies; they’ve been through a lot and will benefit in many ways from a safe return to study.”

The tone was echoed by the chief executive of Colleges Scotland. Welcoming new government guidance for students, Shona Struthers said: “The safety of our students and staff is the overarching priority, and this collaboration between the college and university sectors, NUS Scotland and the Scottish Government is an important element in helping everyone in the tertiary education system return to campuses with confidence in the measures which have been put in place.”

According to the Scottish Government’s guidance, students were told to expect to enjoy blended learning, smaller teaching groups, the ability to spend time with friends and participate in the student experience albeit unlike normal academic sessions. In reality, most lectures were online. The promise of the student experience evaporated within a few weeks too.

Last week, the tone from Universities Scotland changed. We now had threats of suspension or expulsion with “yellow and red cards” for students failing to follow the “rules”. There was a “ban” from going out over the weekend to pubs or restaurants. Halls of residence aren’t cheap, ranging from £5000 to £8000 per annum for what is generally a wee room in a shared flat of six or more.

Sitting in your bedroom staring into a computer screen was never going to be the student experience of meeting new people with a myriad of backgrounds or being opened to the idea that all things are possible if you have the imagination and drive.

Students were always going to want to party and socialise. For those with their very first taste of independence and freedom it’s a wonderful rite of passage. But in a Covid-19 world it spelt chaos. Over the weekend police had to break up student parties in halls of residence. For students who broke the law by holding irresponsible parties individual responsibility has to be taken.

Yet the writing had been on the wall for some time. Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at Edinburgh University, said over the weekend that modelling had been undertaken by Bristol University which showed how Covid-19 would spread if students returned to campuses – particularly in halls of residence with first years. Our decision-makers knew the risk.

We’ve ended up where we are for economic reasons. The UK Government wasn’t prepared to bail out universities and colleagues any longer; the Scottish Government fell into line. One might argue students were mis-sold. They’d never get what government guidance alluded to; it was always going to end up like this. Two practical things strike me.

Firstly, if you’re a student in halls of residence or private purpose-built student accommodation in Scotland, you’re currently entitled by law to end your tenancy by giving 28 days’ notice. Check your lease whether you can do so by e-mail or letter. You need a reason related to Covid-19.

A notice might say: “I hereby give you 28 clear days’ notice of the termination of my tenancy at [address]. The reason I’m bringing my tenancy to an end is because of an outbreak of Covid-19 at [address] and/or in nearby accommodation. My tenancy will end on [insert a date at least 30 days from your email or 31 days if posted]. This notice is given in accordance with the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020, paragraph 2, schedule 1. Please confirm you accept same”.

This example is an illustration and you should take independent legal advice on your own circumstances. The right to give notice under the 2020 Act is due to expire tomorrow, although it understood the Scottish ministers may extend this right for a further period.

The second issue that causes concern is the growing lack of clarity of what people can and cannot do as a matter of law. Recent announcements such as “bans” on students being able to go to bars or restaurants conflated enforceable law with non-binding guidance. It was advice, not law. We had the national clinical director, Jason Leitch, tweet “the law was clear” – students couldn’t return to parental homes.

Public health law is complex. It allows for anyone to change their “household” by selling or ending a lease to their home. Trying to assert legal rules by tweets on the hoof was a recipe for confusion. The treatment of students has shown us we need to do much better.