FOI data has shown that colleges have opted for drastically varied approaches to COVID-19 disciplinary processes, with some colleges fining their students figures of over £4000, and others choosing not to fine students at all. Of the 26 colleges that Cherwell obtained data for, Somerville College has fined its students the most, administering 107 fines in Michaelmas alone totalling £5590. St Hugh’s College is also amongst the colleges with the highest amounts fined, administering £4300 in fines to date, with £2575 of that acted or levied. Trinity College, St Hilda’s College, and the Queen’s College are amongst the colleges that reported no fines for Michaelmas or Hilary up to the mid-February point.
The UK government’s fine policy suggests that those 18 and over will be fined £200 on their first COVID-19 rule breach if deemed necessary by the police, which is lowered to £100 if paid within the first 14 days. Under educational guidance, however, those attending illegal house parties of more than 15 people can be fined £800, doubling with any repeat offences. Under college policies, fine amounts vary, with Keble College fining between £50-£250, with the £250 fine reserved for those caught mixing households on multiple occasions. Other colleges provided less specific information on fining, instead providing ranges, with Mansfield College’s top-end figure being £500.
Some of these colleges have opted for different disciplinary methods for COVID-19 rule breaches, both alongside and in replacement of fines. At Merton, some students were required to write essays of a tutorial length on COVID-19 related topics. At Trinity College, where no students have been fined, disciplinary methods include formal warnings, community service, restrictions from shared spaces, and in some cases, banishment from the college premises. A spokesperson for Trinity College told Cherwell that the college opted against using fines as a result of the possible disproportionate impact of fines on lower-income students, as well as JCR opposition to fining.
A student that received a £30 acted fine and a £200 suspended fine for having a gathering in their room during Freshers week told Cherwell: “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone’s social life to some extent. It had an outstandingly high impact on first-year students who found themselves in a novel environment. Freshers’ week plays a central role in the establishment of a support system at University. […] So, I consider that although I received a fine, it was worth having gatherings and getting to know people.”
The same student went on to argue that fines may not be a fair system. “An issue with the fining system is that it further enlarges the socio-economic discrepancies between students. Someone with financial difficulties may socialise less because the fine may affect them more.” Many fines are related to large social gatherings, with 47 of the fines that New College gave out during Michaelmas being ascribed to only 6 events.
Another student was given a series of suspended fines. “I was fined around four times, and each time the fine doubled. The biggest fine was around £300 which seemed ridiculous. However, the college never followed through with them and I, as of yet haven’t been charged.”
“I was obviously annoyed about it and it was a frustrating situation, because I had to weigh up social isolation and breaking COVID-19 rules. And I know for certain I have met some of my best friends at university from breaking the rules, either within college or outside. So while I understand the college has to put on a front, and perhaps not officially fining me was that, it’s still frustrating because the college don’t seem to understand the social problems students face by sticking to COVID-19 rules.”
Multiple students cited the social ramifications of this policy, with another recipient of a suspended fine sharing their experience with Cherwell: “Three days into my time at Oxford I was given a three-figure suspended fine, to be paid the next time I committed the offence within a year. The offence was that of socialising with my fellow freshers.”
“The Porter broke up the innocent gathering as if we were producing Class A drugs, and took our names as if we were dangerous criminals. All this was, of course, the obvious consequence of prohibiting 100+ eighteen-years-olds, in self-contained accommodation and with hardly any contact with non-students, from interacting properly with anyone but 2/3 other bubble members.”
In a formal complaint to a college, another student requested the college “rescind or at least change the fine” that had been issued to them and five others, calling the disciplinary measure “incongruous to our actions” and “frankly an elitist consequence from a college that prides itself in denying elitism,” begging the question, “what is £100?”
“£100 is certainly worth a lot to a whole lot of people but frankly countless people in our college would throw away that amount of money on a suit, a new pair of shoes, or even to get into an esteemed club just because they can. Therefore, the punishment is not a future prevention but instead a confirmation that people can solve their problems with the writing of a bank note.”
A representative for Somerville College told Cherwell: “Somerville College is committed to preserving the safety and wellbeing of all our students, our staff and the local community during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Michaelmas 2020, we employed a fixed system of warnings and fines as a means of enforcing the government’s regulations and thereby keeping our college open and our community safe. The schedule of penalties was published at the start of term so the level of fine for each offence was known to everyone in advance and consistency in the application of fines guaranteed. The proceeds of these fines were divided equally between three local charities. As part of a no-tolerance policy, there were no fines imposed in Hilary 2021.”
“In order to adopt the most nuanced approach for Trinity Term, a panel commissioned by the Governing Body of the College has developed a new disciplinary framework that balances the need for penalties that are sufficiently robust to deter Covid breaches against our overarching goal of maximising compliance and ensuring that everyone feels safe”.
“As such, the framework will include fines, but these will be reserved primarily for serious or repeat infractions, with a sliding scale of penalties to be deployed at the Deans’ discretion, including formal warnings, community service, reflective essays, bans from student functions, suspended fines, immediate fines and the requirement to leave college early (for finalists) or temporarily (non-finalists). Under this system, we hope that everyone will feel safe and happy to return to Somerville and their Oxford lives in Trinity 2021.”
A spokesperson for Jesus College told Cherwell: “Jesus College is proud of the diligence and care its students have shown during the current pandemic, for those both within our community and the wider Oxford community. The College imposed fines amounting to 225 pounds across Michaelmas and Hilary terms. It also imposed suspended fines of 4,000, which are not payable unless there is another breach of the bylaws within a specified time. The total received by the college – 225 pounds – was forwarded directly to the College’s student hardship fund.”
A spokesperson for St Peter’s College told Cherwell: “The vast majority of the College’s students have, throughout this academic year, largely complied with restrictions which have been, and continue to be, necessary to keep our students and staff safe and to reduce the risk of the onward spread of Covid 19 to the wider Oxford community.”
“However, there have been some instances in which students did not comply with the requirements – for example by not sticking to their own household areas. In those cases, reported breaches were investigated by the Dean and some fines were imposed. Where fines were imposed, students were also expected to re-familiarise themselves with the College Regulations and the requirements of the University’s Student Responsibility Agreement. All decanal fines paid by students go into the College’s Student Hardship Fund.”
When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for St. Hugh’s College told Cherwell that “St Hugh’s is one of the largest colleges in Oxford with a significantly higher proportion of students living on site,” and that the “the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is paramount.”
23/4/21, 14:36 – updated to include a further student comment.
Image Credit: Alvin Gast / CC BY-SA 4.0