In an email sent to first-year health science students on Friday, a department staff member said, "I understand that those of you who chose not to take a gamble on your academic future and remained in Dunedin in case we were moving back to Alert Levels 1 or 2 will be extremely frustrated".
"Some of you took the risk of missing out on work required for terms and left against advice from health sciences first year (HSFY) to do so.
"As HSFY is a very competitive course that is required for entry into professional programmes; it follows different policies and recommendations."
She then advised students to "ponder this from Margaret Thatcher: ‘You might have to fight a battle more than once to win it’."
The next day Associate Prof Jo Kirman, on behalf of staff, emailed students to apologise for the earlier communication.
"We understand that this was a highly pressured situation, and that there was conflicting messaging, which meant that students made a range of decisions based on the information available and their circumstances.
"We are very sorry for any distress this comment has caused. As we proceed with the academic year we will be taking all students’ circumstances into account," Prof Kirman said.
A health science student said he was shocked by the lack of understanding shown to students.
"Some of my friends are immunocompromised and had to go home for medical and mental health reasons, so to say that we are gambling with our future is unfair."
Otago University Students Association president Michaela Waite-Harvey said she was aware of the email, and other similar communication from university departments that had caused stress for students trying to decided whether to stay or go at the start of lockdown.
Students had been in contact with her on the final day before the travel window closed, asking what they should do.
There was conflicting information.
For example, Ministry of Education guidelines advised students to go home, but emails from their departments said something different.
It was good the university acknowledged the problem and apologised to students, she said.
A university spokeswoman said the email was sent to students studying a particular paper.
"This was not an official University of Otago communication and is not supported by the university.
"Once we were made aware of it, we apologised to the students in a follow-up email."
A group of students flatting in Dundas St said yesterday they were happy with how both the University and Otago Polytechnic had engaged with them.
Polytechnic architecture student Jorja Jones considered going home to Christchurch, but her parents suggested that she stay in Dunedin in her bubble and try to keep studying.
Her flatmates, who were from Dunedin, said they went home during last year’s lockdown but decided to stay in their flat this year.