The tragedy of events that unfolded in Newcastle last weekend cannot be emphasised enough. The death of 18-year-old Jeni Larmour, hailed as a ‘model student’ by her former school, as well as two other 18-year-olds and a 21-year-old following suspected drug overdoses places the exclamation point on pressure cooker universities’ blasé approach to student welfare.

Appearances before student welfare

The deaths of multiple young people from a drug pandemic that we know about all too well points to an unspeakable truth that encompasses almost every university in the country: in the scramble to Covid-proof campuses, student welfare has been tossed aside to avoid the bad PR of mass gatherings, or worse, confirmed cases. 

The university in question this time round, Newcastle University, is the same institution that has imposed draconian restrictions on its students. These include funding the salaries of police officers on extra patrols around student hotspots, whilst failing to maintain the same level of funding for mental health services at the exact moment they were needed most. The university, seemingly unaware that mass gatherings with unmoderated students likely mixing with those from the outside world would be the inevitable and natural consequence of suppressing any avenue of socialising, has now paid the worst possible price for disregarding the welfare of vulnerable teenagers in favour of avoiding bad press. 

Profiteering form the pandemic?

Yet, why would universities want to crack down on mass gatherings at all? As many students are forced into isolation, it’s become apparent that eliminating Covid-19 would eliminate one of many revenue streams — as it has been revealed that thousands of quarantined students at multiple universities have been charged up to £20 a day for just three basic meals during their legally enforced period of convalescence. Lancaster University, which in 2019 generated a revenue of £319.4 million, charges students in halls £17.95 for ‘a cold breakfast, cold lunch and an evening meal (to be heated by yourself)’. Meanwhile, students at the University of East Anglia, which had a tuition fee revenue for 2019 of over £158 million, were required to cough up a whopping £250 for two weeks’ worth of basic supplies — or go hungry. UEA has also banned non-isolating students from dropping off shopping for isolated flats, leaving the university-sanctioned food parcels as the only remaining option.

Last week on Times Radio, I made the point that without increased support provisions for students we would hit a ‘triple-headed behemoth of a crisis’, encapsulating not only academic and financial disaster, but a mental health and welfare crisis. I thought we’d run into this brick wall by November — when the dystopian image of empty streets filled our screens once again, as the nation grappled with a full-flung second wave and when students would yet again be an afterthought. But the crisis is here. It’s taken one week.

Evading responsibility like the bubonic plague

Yet not only are severe university restrictions unreasonable and (in the case of Manchester Metropolitan University) potentially unlawful, they are also completely unenforceable. The moment a student leaves university property, the institution’s contractual vice over students slips away.

This blinding oversight simply pushes the hub of youth activity away from the universities themselves — quite literally kicking the student-shaped can down the road — but does nothing to deter students meeting in groups. Although this is evidenced by the prevalence of the virus in universities — including 770 cases among students at Northumbria University — universities seem almost determined to expunge responsibility by expunging their students’ ability to socialise.

In fact, many stories suggest the supposed ‘safety’ regulations have the exact opposite impact: students mix with non-students, who are nigh-on impossible to track in the event of a Covid transmission. Students can end up mingling with unsavoury types, including those who use and distribute illicit substances, such as the drugs that ultimately claimed the life of Jeni Larmour. Would this happen if students were allowed — in a way that is safe as it can possibly be — to mix in groups, with masks and at a distance? 

The answer is that in the eyes of the nation’s vice chancellors, the risk of a snarky local paper attack — like that of the Oxford Mail — outweighs the risk of pushing socialising students off campus and in to the paths of dangerous criminals that seek to take advantage of young people. Without protection or provision from universities that allegedly have their students’ safety at heart, criminality is winning. This theory has been supported by Fiona Measham, co-founder of harm prevention charity The Loop, who noted that nightclubs and many other student hotspots — including some on-campus locations — often provide security for protection, offering a ‘safety net’ that has now been dissolved and disregarded in favour of Covid lockdowns.

‘Nightclubs are a semi-safe space, they have registered door staff and security … my concern is that … young people will be having parties in private residences but they won’t have paramedics on hand’.

— Fiona Measham to The Independent

A recipe for sorrow

The perfect storm of suppressed socialising combined with a lack of support, invasive restrictions — including the industry-wrecking 10 pm hospitality curfew — and the vulnerability of freshers has reached its denouement in the worst possible, but sadly most predictable way.  .

Horrifyingly, there will be more Jeni Larmour’s. There will be more parties, more drug-taking, more recklessness and more tragedy so long as institutions insist on going ‘cold turkey’ on any form of socialising. 

It was only a matter of time before the University-sized pot began to boil over. And now it has, in the most tragic way. Jeni Larmour was ‘utterly amazing’, with a ‘bright future ahead of her’. If the university isolation crisis can take her life, it can take anyone’s.

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