Scotland’s universities union has described the decision to ban students from pubs and restaurants and to threaten them with expulsion as “astounding”.
UCU Scotland accused Scottish ministers and university principals of “blaming students” for coronavirus outbreaks at campuses around the country.
The union said universities had actively “encouraged” people to return to student campuses.
It comes after students staying in halls were told they cannot visit their parents’ homes indoors under current national restrictions, as they are no longer counted as in the same household.
On Thursday, the higher education governing body Universities Scotland announced a weekend ban on students going to hospitality venues or socialising with anyone outside their accommodation.
But the move has been met with a storm of criticism by organisations, student bodies and political parties.
In a statement, Universities Scotland insisted safeguards had been in place for the return of students and blamed the latest measures on a “minority” for not following public health guidance.
It warned that a “yellow card/red card approach” is in place for anyone who breaks the new rules, with the possibility of students having their studies discontinued as a last-resort punishment.
But UCU Scotland official Mary Senior hit back: “It is astounding that the Scottish Government and principals are blaming students for Covid outbreaks on university campuses.
“This is an incredibly contagious virus and students were encouraged to return to campuses.
“UCU has argued that the default position for universities should be remote and online working, in line with other workplaces.
“That is what the Scottish Government should be introducing today, not threatening students with red cards and banning them from going out.
“Students have the same rights as any other member of the community and should not be treated as second-class citizens.”
The National Union of Students also criticised the decision and questioned the situation for the significant proportion of students who work in the hospitality sector.
NUS Scotland president Matt Crilly said: “Tonight’s announcement by Universities Scotland, and endorsed by the Scottish Government, unfairly blames students for the spread of coronavirus and takes the unjustified step of applying different rules to students over and above the rest of the adult population.
“These measures are deeply concerning – not least to those students who rely on income from hospitality jobs.
“Having different rules for students makes it even more confusing to stay within guidance, which could make things less safe and the rules show a complete disregard for students’ mental health and wellbeing.
“We need better.”
Meanwhile, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland has said it is “concerned about the human rights implications” of the ban on students returning home.
Scotland’s higher education minister Richard Leonard denied the new policies are “stigmatising students”.
He told the BBC: “Universities are asking the students jointly across Scotland this weekend – given we’ve got a number of outbreaks of the virus and some campuses across Scotland – to have the weekend off from socialising outwith the households.
“The vast majority of students have been so responsible, it’s a very tough time for them.
“Imagine being a 17 or 18 or 19-year-old going to university for the first time and of course we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and they’re not able to do what the previous generations were able to do.
“This is about all of us working together, it’s not stigmatising students, it’s not about saying they’re particularly to blame for what’s happening.”
But Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said it was “not right” for students to be treated the way they had.
He said: “This group of young people have had their education disrupted like no other.
“Their parents have sent them off to university and, above all else, they just want them to be safe and happy.
“But in their first week, students are being threatened with expulsion and handed last-minute mixed messages, creating uncertainty about if they can go home or if they’ll miss Christmas with their families.
“We need to remember that in many cases we are talking about young people, as young as 17, living away from home for the first time and facing the possibility of not being able to return to their parents for what could be six months.”
Ross added: “Some students have taken up expensive leases and they’re now in limbo waiting for clear answers.
“Treating them this way is just not right.”
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the Scottish Government had “utterly failed to anticipate, prepare or plan for this”.
He added: “Students should not be paying the price of government incompetence.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrats branded the situation a “catastrophe” and issued a five-point plan to fix it include mass routine asymptomatic testing in universities to try to catch more positive cases.
The Lib Dems said students who tested negative under this system should then be given the option to return home, and that rent money should be returned to students who leave their accommodation temporarily or permanently.
Party leader Willie Rennie said: “It should have been little surprise to the Scottish Government that these outbreaks would happen, but they were still caught flat-footed.
“We have been warning for weeks that students going back to university was the biggest movement of people since the lockdown and required extra measures to prevent outbreaks.
“They missed the opportunity to test international students on arrival and now reject our calls for asymptomatic testing for all students.
“It is an extra safety measure that we should take to ensure that we can hunt down the virus even in those people who don’t know they have it.”
He added: “Students have been treated shabbily and as second-class citizens.
“Last minute panicked changes to the rules and laws has left students feeling cheated at being trapped in expensive accommodation, unable to go home and with no in-person teaching for months.”
In a tweet on Friday morning, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vowed to address the matter at the daily coronavirus briefing.