Irish university students face expulsion for breach of public health guidelines

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

Students in several national universities have received significant sanctions for breaching public health guidelines, including the threat of expulsion.

University College Cork (UCC) confirmed that they have handed down temporary suspensions to 11 students pending the outcome of a hearing. The students have been suspended following the receipt of complaints from Campus Watch regarding a breach of student rules. In a statement issued on October 1st, the university outlined that “every case is considered on its merits and the principle of natural justice applies”. It is being considered whether the Campus Watch committee, which is comprised of UCC staff and student union members, or the Student Discipline Committee will handle the complaint. Students have a right to appeal any decision. UCC’s president, Professor John O’Halloran, warned students that a breach of Covid-19 guidelines could result in expulsion.

Following the controversial scenes at the Spanish Arch on Monday the 28th, National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) has also stated that students may face expulsion for breach of public health guidelines. 

However, it’s unclear what powers colleges have in relation to off-campus gatherings. As outlined by University of Limerick (UL), the feasibility of expulsions for students who organise activities off-campus is uncertain.

The Gardaí have been taking an active role in shutting down off-campus house parties. Gardaí reportedly shut down 35 parties in the Castletroy area of Limerick during the University’s Freshers Week, resulting in the arrest of 5 people for public order and trespass offences. Professor Kerstin Mey, President of UL, has reportedly accompanied the Gardaí on patrol to remind students of the importance of adhering to guidelines. A spokesperson for Professor Mey told The Irish Examiner that action can be taken through the Code of Conduct against students, outlining that, although there is no set sanction, potential penalties include “monetary, academic, suspension, and expulsion”. 

However, Professor Mey told The Times that universities will find it difficult to penalise students who organise off-campus gatherings. Mey outlined that the difficulty arises due to the fact it’s impossible to find out what institution the students are from. She explained that as a university, they do not have the policing power to enter houses and ask for identification. The university is reliant on receiving complaints about students off-campus in order to take action. She said universities have the power to govern on-campus behaviour, but described the off-campus situation as more complex. 

UCD Student Union (UCDSU) told  The University Observer that they have already been contacted by UCD students living in student accommodation who have been affected by sanctions for breach of guidelines. UCDSU President Conor Anderson explained that there has been a lack of clear communication from UCD to the students regarding what exact guidelines must be followed in UCD accommodation. 

Anderson further outlined that although students must behave responsibly regarding public health, it is UCD who is at fault. He emphasised UCDSU’s position that it is UCD who is blameworthy for bringing students back in the middle of a pandemic, outlining that it is unreasonable to invite young students back to campus, then expecting them not to participate in social life. 

There have not yet been any severe penalties imposed on UCD students. However, Anderson stated that if expulsion is threatened for breach of guidelines, UCDSU will be opposed to the measure.

UCD has outlined that if a student fails to adhere to public health guidelines the matter may be considered  “through the disciplinary procedure of the UCD Student Code of Conduct”. The compulsory student health declaration is also part of the body of the university's Covid-19 response.