Students at several UK campuses have accused their universities of granting police officers access to halls of residence to check for breaches of coronavirus rules, with some complaints of officers entering accommodation in the middle of the night.
Students at Sheffield and Manchester who spoke to the Guardian described regular police patrols and widespread use of fines of up to £800 as universities clamp down on the mixing of households to avoid repeating the major coronavirus outbreaks that occurred in autumn now that students are returning for the spring term.
Students at Sheffield and Manchester say they believe that in some instances police officers may have received keys from university security to enter flats unannounced and check that students were not socialising with their neighbours. The universities have denied this.
One first-year student living in Froggatt Halls, which is run by the University of Sheffield, said that police have been patrolling the area in which several halls of residence are located every weekend, with her flat visited three times in the last month.
“The first time was at 1.30am and I was in bed. We had left our door on the latch, so the police officer came in and was quite aggressive. Across the hall I could see another police officer talking to a girl alone in her flat, asking how many people lived there,” she said. “It’s an invasion of privacy.”
A student at the University of Leeds said the police had been given access to his accommodation block at around 4pm one day in mid-February, and knocked when he was watching TV with his housemates. “He asked who was in there, and was quite forceful. He came into the kitchen and said we were all taking the piss and the university had called them in to tell us it’s our last chance.”
A student rent strike group at the University of Sussex tweeted that students should video police entering their flats on their phones and take down badge numbers, as well as asking the reasons for their entry, after the group received a number of reports of heavy-handed policing.
Students at the University of Manchester published a report on Thursday with the police monitoring network Netpol, saying that multiple police cars patrol Fallowfield campus every weekend. The students, who run a campaign called Cops Off Campus, have used legal observer training from the activist group Green and Black Cross to compile testimonies suggesting that “unlawful searches of student properties have happened on many occasions”, often under the pretext of noise complaints, even when flats are quiet.
The report asks that the police only arrive on campus when students report an incident. It states: “The intrusive police presence on campus has created an atmosphere of fear among students. Many students have reported feeling unsafe, some to the extent of having panic attacks, due to the ability of … the police to enter their homes at any moment.”
A spokesperson for Netpol said the network has received similar reports from students in Bristol, Sussex, Sheffield and Northumbria and is working with the National Union of Students to develop guidance for students on their civil rights.
“We strongly suspect that, across the country, students are experiencing what amounts to over-zealous babysitting, instances of racial profiling and the threat of arrests and fines. They have been blamed, criminalised by the police and abandoned by institutions that have been happy to take their rent and their fees,” he said.
The president of the NUS, Larissa Kennedy, said: “[During the pandemic there have been] increased numbers of police patrols who have been given more powers than ever before. On and off campus, this has routinely resulted in harassment, racial profiling and severe impacts on students’ mental health. Black and Muslim students often face the sharpest consequences.”
There are tight restrictions on police rights to enter premises to search for breaches of coronavirus rules without residents’ permission or a warrant. However, students living in university halls of residence are typically classified as licensees rather than tenants, which grants landlords more powers.
Rosalind Comyn, a policy manager at Liberty, said the human rights charity has received reports of police forcing entry into student housing as well as extortionate fines being handed out to students.
“We’ve been calling for a public health approach, with people given the tools they need to follow public health guidance, rather than handing the police an enormous amount of power to potentially criminalise people,” she said.
A University of Manchester spokesperson said a minority of students “continue to breach the government guidelines”.
He said: “Since the start of the academic year, Greater Manchester police have been operating an initiative across the city, which has targeted reports of large gatherings both on and off university campuses. This has included responding to such reports in our Fallowfield halls of residence – many made by students – as well as in private accommodation.”
A spokesperson for the University of Sheffield said: “The university has a responsibility to protect its students, staff and the wider community by implementing Covid-19 regulations on our campus.”
A spokesperson at Northumbria said: “The university works in partnership with the police for the safety of our students and the wider community. We are aware they have issued fixed penalty notices for breaches of Covid-19 legislation across all communities, including university accommodation.”