The university has been forced to apologise after it blockaded first years in the city’s Fallowfield accommodation without warning
Yesterday morning (November 5), first year students at the University of Manchester woke up to find themselves caged into their uni accommodation. Overnight, the institution had erected fences around the city’s Fallowfield halls of residence, physically preventing students from going in or out – much like a prison.
Last night, in an act of defiance, students tore down the fences, accusing the university of treating them like animals. Speaking to a crowd of protesters holding signs that read, ‘HMP Fallowfield’, one student said: “We’re not angry at the lecturers. We’re not angry at the teachers. We’re angry at the people who brought us here, and the people who are profiting from our misery and from us being in danger from COVID. By bringing the fences in, they showed us that they see us as animals.”
Photos and videos on social media show collapsed fences, students setting off flares, and hanging banners that read, ‘Paid, blamed, caged’. 18-year-old Ben McGowan, who attended last night’s protest, tells Dazed: “There was a really sense of solidarity and community. Once one fence came down and everyone was hit by a cathartic wall of joy, it was inevitable that they would all get ripped down.”
The university has since issued an apology, and promised to remove the fences by this morning (November 6). “The fencing was intended as a response to a number of concerns received over recent weeks from staff and students on this site about safety and security, particularly about access by people who are not residents,” Nancy Rothwell, the University of Manchester’s president and vice chancellor, said in a statement. “There was never any intent to prevent students from entering or exiting the site.”
Rothwell says the university will introduce “alternative security measures, including additional security patrols” instead.
According to McGowan, a first year politics and sociology student, the fences were put up without warning or consultation. “We repeatedly asked staff putting them up what they were, but they refused to tell us. It wasn’t until several hours later that we received any information from the university as to what they were.”
“Everyone was determined to achieve the same goal: fight for our freedom and mental health” – Barnaby Fournier
19-year-old Barnaby Fournier criticised the fences as “blocking our common exercise space, which is literally included in our rent”. The philosophy, politics, and economics first year is one of many students already participating in a rent strike over the university’s lack of support during the pandemic, as well as rat and silverfish infestations at the accommodation.
“We’ve been rent striking since October 23, since the first rent installment was due,” he explains, “and as far as I know, the university hasn’t yet made an adequate response.” Fournier says last night’s demonstration was organised by the rent strike organisation, and asserts that the atmosphere “was buzzing”. He added: “Everyone was determined to achieve the same goal: fight for our freedom and mental health.”
Fournier is critical of the university’s treatment of students – particularly first years – who have been scapegoated for an increase in coronavirus cases, and subjected to harsh lockdowns ever since the beginning of term.
“The university has claimed they have done as much as they can,” he tells Dazed, “but that’s not true. The university claims to care about our mental health, but that’s not true either. Some students have been handed £1.6k fines – you can’t hand 18, 19, 20, and 21-year-olds fines that big while claiming to care about their mental health.”
McGowan agrees. “Communication on every decision has been awful,” he reveals. “We were promised face-to-face teaching and it was taken away before it even began, despite other universities continuing with it. During isolation, we had minimal support; we got a food package for the quarantine period, but it arrived after we’d finished isolating, and it all expired within a day.”
He added: “Mental health support has been appallingly inadequate. People are far from home with people they don’t know very well, and they feel isolated without a support network.”
Those online have also condemned the university’s approach to students’ mental health. One student said on Twitter: “Imagine waking up in your uni accommodation to see that you’ve been caged in, after several people in your neighbouring accommodation committed suicide because of the lack of mental health support at uni.”
McGowan says protesters held a minute’s silence last night for a student who recently passed away in their halls. The inquiry into his death was launched yesterday.
Last month, the National Union of Students (NUS) issued a warning about the pandemic’s impact on students’ mental wellbeing. The group also called for urgent action to tackle student suicides. As reported by The Tab, at least one university student has died weekly since the start of term; while three of these deaths were drug-related, the rest are being treated as unsuspicious and “unrelated to COVID”.
Following the death of 19-year-old University of Manchester student Finn Kitson, his father suggested that the “little support” his son received contributed to the “severe anxiety” that may have led to his passing.
“Mental health support has been appallingly inadequate. People are far from home with people they don’t know very well, and they feel isolated without a support network” – Ben McGowan
Speaking to Dazed last month, students from universities across the UK spoke of their struggle starting a new chapter of their life with neither freedom nor support. “There’s been no one to talk to, nowhere to exercise, absolutely nothing to keep us sane,” said Manchester Metropolitan University student Patrick McVeigh. “From the very second we were locked in, there was pure panic throughout (our halls) building – people were on the phones to their family and friends looking for insight.”
As the UK enters its second national lockdown – and with the government refusing to close schools or further education institutions – universities have a responsibility to take care of their students, many of whom feel let down and abandoned by those who are supposed to look after them.
“We completely understand there are regulations in place,” Fournier concludes, “but it seems like the government has sent us here to get COVID so we can be immune, and then started to impose harsh restrictions on us.”