Staff report nightly parties, students setting off fire alarms and ‘shocking’ vandalism at Edinburgh University

Support staff at Edinburgh University say their health is being put at risk on a daily basis by having to break up rowdy groups of students chafing at lockdown restrictions.

Tuesday, 20th October 2020, 7:00 am
A person wearing a protective face mask walks past a bar in Bristo Square, Edinburgh, as part of the "Student Village" at The University of Edinburgh, providing students with extra hospitality space, after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a range of new measures to combat the rise in coronavirus cases in Scotland. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday September 22, 2020. See PA story SCOTLAND Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Staff claim there had been illegal parties every night, a 400 per cent increase in malicious fire alarm activations and “absolutely shocking” acts of vandalism as cabin fever in student halls threatens to boil over.

Last week Unison said its support staff members were having to deal with sometimes violent disruption on university campuses because of a chaotic start to term.

The union referred to unrest at an unnamed university, including an incident where “staff had to fight their way through hundreds of students – including Covid-positive cases – heading for fire exits as alarms were intentionally set off”.

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Fire Alarms

Several weeks ago a mass breakdown of social distancing was reported at the university because of a fire alarm in the early hours at its Pollock Halls accommodation.

Support workers on campus have said this was far from an isolated incident, with malicious fire activations “ongoing”.

One employee – who asked not to be named – said: “We’re sitting at about a 400 per cent increase on malicious activations at the moment compared to this time last year.”

Nightly Parties

She described a situation of near chaos in the university’s halls. “There hasn’t been a single night where we haven’t had illegal activity or gatherings or parties,” she said. This had included parties of “30 to 50″ people last week.

“[On Thursday] there were three fire extinguishers set off in buildings and numerous covering of detector heads and smoking within rooms. Full evacuations have taken place where we have confirmed positive cases.

“Some of the parties that have been broken up have had confirmed cases in them – one staff member had three instances of being exposed to positive cases who were either in parties or in other households.

“[Staff] anxiety levels have been through the roof.”

Edinburgh University reported nearly 200 live Covid cases last week, with almost 2,000 students understood to be in self-isolation.

‘Shocking’ Vandalism

A second staff source said had been “absolutely shocking” cases of vandalism, including “ceilings getting ripped down” along with the light fittings.

“We had one incident, it was 3.30am when a member of staff was called,” she said.

“He couldn’t get in the building because of all the students going about outside, they wouldn’t move to let him through. When he finally did get in there was live wiring lying on the floors. It’s not just the ceiling tiles, it’s entire lights. Doors kicked in, glass everywhere… Our cleaners are having to clean soup from walls and bathrooms.

“No other university is reporting the kind of behaviours that we’re experiencing… the university just doesn’t have a grip.”

‘They’re really suffering’

The revelations show how fraught conditions at universities are causing emotions to run high and creating strains between staff and students.

The sources said that while “a huge number” of students on campus were obeying the rules, some arrived with “the express intention” of not following them, and “as stricter measures came in, it has caused more frustration”.

“We are concerned about the students who are behaving, who can’t study, who can’t sleep. They’re really suffering.”

Staff Well-being

A spokesperson for Edinburgh University said: “The wellbeing of our staff is of absolute importance. In preparing for the start of the new academic year, we have worked with staff and union representatives and are continually ensuring Scottish Government guidelines are followed.

“We have risk assessments and procedures in place to provide staff the opportunity to report to managers where they feel that safety measures could be improved, and we have adapted a number of staff processes in light of this feedback.

“While the vast majority of our students are observing the rules, if a student is found to be intentionally or repeatedly failing to comply with safety measures, they have faced appropriate action. If a staff member was to feel that intervening in any situation was unsafe, they are advised not to and to call the appropriate emergency services.”