‘Threatening homelessness’ and other awful ways Cambridge colleges have handled Covid discipline

Ranging from reflective essays to the removal of accommodation, disciplinary measures need to be standardised


We’ve dealt with fines and the number of Covid infringements in Cambridge last term, and in this next part of our investigation into disciplinary measures at different colleges we’re going to review the varying punishments put in place in colleges and evaluate the impact that this has had on students, financially or otherwise.

From the removal of college accommodation to being made to write essays on “The Perils of Breaking Covid-19 regulations”, disciplinary measures have varied widely across Cambridge colleges. But before we get into that, we’ve received new and updated information from some colleges about discipline in Michaelmas, so let’s take a look at the new figures relating to the 27 colleges that have now responded to our FOI request.

Following on from our publication of these figures, we’ve gone through the list of disciplinary measures put in place at each college over the course of Michaelmas, to evaluate similarities and disparities and how these have impacted students across the university.

Fines: ‘Struggling to pay rent’

It’s obvious that there’s a huge disparity in the amount colleges have chosen to fine students. Corpus, the college with the highest number of Covid infringements, fined £0 in Michaelmas, whereas second and third runners up Homerton and Robinson chose to fine £1,360 and £1,100 respectively.

The Cambridge Tab spoke to Alex Roberts from SU Class Act, about how fines have the potential to unfairly impact disadvantaged students. Alex said: “Fines as a means of punishment affects Class Act students disproportionately, and it’s unreasonable to use this as a blanket punitive measure when many students don’t have the means to pay.

“Colleges need to address the reasons why they are seeing the number of Covid infringements that they are, which is very likely due to the loneliness caused by above-government guidelines level rules enforced by a number of colleges in Michaelmas term.

“The rate at which different colleges have been fining their students has been wildly different, with Gonville and Caius College fining £4,850, and others fining nothing. The university website states ‘The University and Colleges are committed to the principle that no suitably qualified Home fee status student should be deterred from applying to Cambridge by their financial circumstances’, but the inconsistent practices across colleges, and using financial punishments makes this ring hollow.”

The amount fined at each college vs. the number of infringements at each college

At Robinson, a campaign has been launched in retaliation to these disciplinary measures, urging the college to lower the amount they fine students, and advocating for an abolition of the use of fines altogether. Our previous investigation found that the college fined 11 students an average of £100 each last term.

A spokesperson from Robinson Campaigns told The Cambridge Tab: “Charging students £100 for a Covid offence affects some students far more than others. It is an extremely unfair way to punish students, leaving some students completely fine and others struggling to pay rent or afford food. Smaller fines are more understandable but, realistically speaking, college shouldn’t be using financial punishments for students.”

Class Act students are already struggling to choose between paying rent and coming back to Cambridge this term, and that fear should not be exacerbated by concerns over financial penalties at their college.

Robinson College was contacted for comment.

Community service: Cleaning and volunteering

Students at Robinson were also asked to do community service for breaking Covid rules, which included looking after self-isolating students. In 43 cases, community service was the only action required, but in the remaining 11 cases of infringements at the college, a fine was issued in addition to community service.

Catz also issued community service to offending students, and members of Wolfson College were made to do volunteering work for breaking Covid rules last term.

Compulsory donations to charity: The trouble with data

The difficult thing about collecting data relating to fines in this instance is that some colleges asked students to make a donation to NHS charities, rather than issuing a formal fine. This was the case with Trinity, whose Dean told The Cambridge Tab: “I asked some of the students who have breached Covid guidance to make a voluntary contribution to Addenbrooke’s Hospital Trust. I have not levied any fines.”

This means that data on fines might not give the whole picture as to how much money students have lost this term. At Trinity, the amount students were asked to donate hasn’t been disclosed, whereas Tit Hall has disclosed that £800 was levied as donations to NHS Charities Together.

At Tit Hall, students were asked to donate to the charity and provide proof of receipt. Some students were also asked to write five-page reflective essays, entitled: “The Perils of Breaking Covid-19 Regulations”.

Reflective essays: ‘Perils’ and punishments

The reflective essay approach, which was also used at Corpus and Peterhouse, required students to submit written responses to their breaking of Covid rules as a form of discipline. This obviously has far fewer financial consequences but does pose the problem of being time-consuming, especially when students are having to write academic essays at the same time.

A fresher at Tit Hall told The Cambridge Tab: “I was honestly surprised by the idea of such an essay as punishment and found it to show a real lack of empathy as well as being just unproductive. It contains within it the condescending assumption that students are not rational enough to weigh up risk for themselves, particularly within the weekly testing system at Cambridge, and are simply acting thoughtlessly rather than deciding how best to act, a decision which often involves prioritising their own well-being.

“It’s anachronistic and regressive as a punishment and ours was based on the flawed assumption that students don’t already understand the risks of breaking regulations. Measures such as volunteering would be more productive.

“It also shows a lack of empathy with students who are already facing studies during a pandemic. My essay was due in Week 5 when we were already incredibly busy and I was given six days to complete it.”

Writing an essay on the “perils” of breaking lockdown rules not only holds the potential to be “unproductive” and fail to deter students from future breaches, but they can also be damaging to well-being and time management.

Even though this measure results in real and tangible consequences for students, when we think about other colleges, where students are made to pay £100 for similar infringements, we’ve got to ask whether it’s really fair that some students are given financial penalties, whilst some aren’t. And what about students at a college like Tit Hall, where both donations and reflective essays were issued? One student shouldn’t have to suffer twice as much as someone at a different college for committing the same offence.

Trinity Hall was contacted for comment. 

Removal of college accommodation: ‘Threatening to make people homeless’

Sadly, our investigation also revealed that St John’s College temporarily removed accommodation as a result of Covid infringements last term. Alex from Class Act told The Cambridge Tab this kind of approach is hugely dangerous for vulnerable students who don’t have access to alternative accommodation: “Fines are only part of the problem; we have received reports that colleges such as St John’s have threatened removal of students’ accommodation in response to Covid infringements. Threatening to make students homeless is completely unacceptable in normal times, but in the middle of a pandemic, removing housing security risks both their safety and their mental health.

“The Class Act Campaign is committed to supporting students from socioeconomically, culturally and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. We encourage you to get in touch with us (directly via our committee, or via our Facebook page), or get in touch with the Students’ Advice Service if you are facing financial hardship, or lack of housing security (whether you are in Cambridge or elsewhere) and don’t feel able to directly approach your college about it.”

Alex is the Vice President of the Cambridge SU Class Act Campaign (Image credit: @cambridgeclassact on Instagram)

When asked for clarification on the removal of accommodation last term, a spokeswoman from St John’s said: “Undergraduates at St John’s have a continuous nine-month room licence which means, in normal times, they can use their room during the Christmas and Easter vacation periods at no extra cost.

“At the end of the Michaelmas Term, a small number of students had their room licences suspended during the Christmas holiday as a result of serious breaches of the Covid-19 regulations. This meant that those students went home a few days earlier for the Christmas vacation than they were initially planning.

“No student suffered hardship as a result of this decision and their individual study, travel, and home accommodation arrangements were all carefully considered as part of this measure. St John’s College takes the safety of our community and the wider Cambridge community very seriously and the vast majority of our members share our commitment to acting responsibly during the pandemic.”

Regardless of whether students suffered hardship because of the removal of accommodation, it’s really concerning that this type of discipline is being used at all. As Alex said, it risks safety and mental wellbeing, and there’s nothing to say that vulnerable students could endure serious hardship if this kind of procedure is repeated at any college in the future.

The removal of acess to college spaces is not exclusive to John’s, either. Fitz told The Cambridge Tab that students were prohibited from both college events and access to college spaces in Michaelmas term for breaking Covid rules. It seems as though this approach is rare, but that only makes it more unfair on students in the colleges who are issuing these punishments.

Watching students on CCTV footage

Homerton College told The Cambridge Tab that they used anonymous reporting systems – where students could alert staff that other students were breaching lockdown measures – and also CCTV surveillance to find out which students were breaking Covid rules, before disciplining them. 12 infringements were reported via anonymous forms, and 11 via surveillance.

The college kept a detailed record of the infringements caught on CCTV footage, which they told us included observations of people “seen on CCTV not wearing a mask while Covid [positi]ve,” and “seen on CCTV in West House in breach of Covid guidelines. Found intoxicated asleep on the patio of the bar.”

When asked about this approach to discipline, and the extent to which it might be thought of as a breach of privacy, the college told The Cambridge Tab: “Homerton has a clear code of practice in relation to CCTV. Images can only be accessed when considered strictly necessary, by application to the Data Protection Officer.”

(Image credit: Erin Visaya-Neville)

The fact that college staff can use a “code of practice” to watch students goes to show that not only do they not trust students, but they don’t respect their privacy. Of course, colleges have a duty to keep students safe, and this means taking infringements seriously. However, certain colleges have taken a much more respectful and compassionate stance, and it’s important that we recognise these and try to replicate them across the university.

Communicating effectively with students

Corpus, who did not fine students last term, told The Cambridge Tab: “The College operated a policy of working from the initial assumption that gaps in compliance with the COVID-19 rules were a result of misunderstanding or insufficient awareness, not a mark of disrespect for other members of the community, and addressed them first by means of explanation and clarification.”

This clarification came in the form of a conversation with the head porter and then the Dean, in place of the immediate issuing of fines or community service. At Newnham, a similar process was put in place, with students receiving a call from the college’s Covid Tutor in the event of infringement, to go over the code of conduct with them.

This kind of stance, which assumes the best rather than the worst from students, and opens up a conversation with them, is far more humane than watching students on surveillance footage, threatening the removal of accommodation, and issuing large fines.

The Corpus JCR President, Zachary Aw, added that “all Covid-related disciplinary procedures were agreed upon following close consultation with the JCR.” Involving student representatives in decisions about discipline is also a commendable way to ensure that the individual and broader needs of the student population are respected and met.

There needs to be a unified approach to disciplinary measures across colleges

This is a difficult conversation to have because, of course, we do want to stop the virus from spreading and the health of college staff and students do need to be protected. It’s definitely not ideal that students are breaking Covid rules, particularly on a large scale by having house parties and large gatherings.

However, colleges still have a duty to protect the safety, mental wellbeing, and financial security of students who are found to be in breach of regulations. At some colleges, we are definitely seeing this play out, but too many students have faced disproportionately heavy punishments, and, given the fact that we don’t know if this has made a difference to the rate of infection, it’s very hard to justify such extreme measures.

We don’t know if there’s any correlation between stricter disciplinary measures and lower numbers of infection, and in some ways, we don’t need to know that to see that students at Cambridge deserve to see a standardised approach to punishments from colleges at this university. This approach should not treat students with suspicion, nor should it expect them to incur greater financial or emotional difficulty than this pandemic is already causing.

Colleges need to treat us fairly and with respect, and it shouldn’t be up to individual groups to make this happen. Our university needs to actively ensure that no student faces disproportional hardship – financial, emotional or otherwise – just because of the college they’ve ended up at. 

If you’re a Class Act student and are concerned about the disciplinary measures you’ve faced at your college, you can contact the Cambridge SU Class Act campaign via their Facebook Page, or contact the Student Advice Service on 01223 746999, or email them at [email protected] (open 9 am-5 pm Monday-Friday).

The University press office was contacted for comment. 

Update – 19/02/21

Trinity Hall has since responded to us with a comment clarifying their position on Covid discipline: 

“Breaches in compliance with the College’s protocols, rules, and guidance regarding Covid-19 will initially be interpreted as a result of misunderstanding or an insufficient awareness, rather than arising out of disrespect for other members of the College community. Such instances will usually be addressed by explanation and clarification. Instances of repeated, or an especially egregious failure to adhere to protocols, rules or guidance – especially when the safety of other College members is put at risk – may, however, result in referral to the College’s Code of Discipline for Students.”

Cover image credit: Jess Marais.