FOR the past few weeks I've been watching the gradual return of students to Glasgow's west end with a heart swelling at the poignancy of them.

Clunking up that hill at the top end of Gibson Street carrying a standard lamp or wheeling a bursting suitcase along Byres Road looking slightly overwhelmed.

Some boys moved in across the hall and with them comes the endless smell of bacon frying. For the first time my thoughts didn't turn to new friendships but to whether they're eating right and having enough nice cups of tea.

I'm not sure if this is a marker of advancing age or whether it's the effects of the strange covid times. While I normally want to greet the advancing mob of freshers with a wink, this year it's been more of a wince.

We tell young people that university will be the best years of their life. We pump them up for a drunken, adventuresome, flirtatious freshers' week. Adults now, we tell them, out in the world.

Hundreds stream back into cities and towns on the cusp of their future but suddenly they are not in for a glorious time but rather they must socially distance at the point when social connections are the most vital and most soothing thing to achieve.

Universities are just opening and already hundreds of students have coronavirus and hundreds more are self-isolating in halls of residence. Who would have thought it? Well, anyone with a sparking brain cell in their head.

Five Highers at A grade don't ensure common sense and they don't ensure best behaviour. While the University of Glasgow has said two clusters have arisen from parties at the start of term, the spread is unsurprising because teenagers partying is unsurprising.

Young people generally don't have a sense of death and they don't have a sense of the long term. They want to have fun. Now.

That's not to excuse illegal parties, but to suggest some empathy for the young people who took part in them. They are suffering the consequences for that now - the problem, of course, is so are the classmates who kept to the rules. And so is the wider community, at risk of transmission; and the additionally burdened health service.

We have so far seen a carrot and stick approach from the governments. On Tuesday evening Boris Johnson, in his speech to the country, referenced additional police on the streets and back up from the army if necessary. Nicola Sturgeon followed with an apology for the impingement on our lives and a request that we be kind to one another.

Enforcement and empathy are both inducements to do the right thing but there must be effective scaffolding around the requests being made of us - students are no different.

Universities spoke at length earlier this year of the swingeing financial impact of coronavirus and asked for more robust financial support from the state. It was clear as early as April that there would be a reluctance from higher education establishments to ask students to study remotely, given the losses incurred by the lack of rent and spending on campus.

Not all universities have moved teaching online, some are still insisting on the sage on the stage, putting lecturers unexpectedly in the position of being on the front line. The unions are already mobilising against this but any outbreaks among teaching staff won't come as a surprise.

Where first term teaching is being done online the question of whether students should have been brought into halls only to study remotely is a question that must be seriously examined.

The covid crisis has been one of balancing health and economy - life and livelihoods. Keeping students away from campus is the safest option for health but creates a financial detriment if those students then request refunds for not getting the experience they initially signed up for. Were the decisions taken at universities weighted more towards health or wealth?

And what about testing? Glasgow is to have a mobile testing centre on site but this is too little, too late. Enhanced testing is a major factor in allowing campus life to continue in as smooth and safe a manner as possible but will there now be a strain on the system, with wider ramifications, as was seen at the start of the school term?

At Abertay University, where young people are also self-isolating following an outbreak, the student association described the mood in halls as "fairly buoyant" and there were correspondingly impish posters in student hall windows asking for supplies of "food, drink and weed" to be sent in.

For some young people, in their first experience of being away from home, two weeks in quarantine with strangers for company will be extremely tough going. The talk of not being allowed to return home for weekends - or for Christmas - can't be helping.

But while the financial impact on universities has been much spoken of, less has been said of the financial impact on students. A university degree comes with thousands of pounds of debt.

Young people are also most likely to be in hospitality roles for part time work to support their study. These jobs have been most at risk of furlough and redundancy and are harder to come by.

What additional financial support is being offered to students who don't have a family safety net to support them through their studies? This year's young people are more vulnerable to incurring debt in order to see them through a less satisfying university experience. What a double whammy.

They can also only socialise outdoors or in pubs and cafes. With winter coming in, the latter of those is the more viable and the more expensive. The notion of "beer money" takes on a new significance.

There's a need for a fully holistic package of support for 2020s cohort, coming from the top down. As we all have, they have been ask to act with the greater good in mind. They must be enabled to do that without the penalties - educationally, emotionally and financially - being too great.

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