Students have occupied a building in protest over poor living conditions and a lack of support during coronavirus lockdowns
In September, university students returned to campuses for the first time since the UK went into lockdown in March. Predictably, within two weeks, hundreds found themselves forced into self-isolation as coronavirus cases soared.
Locked down in small rooms with strangers, students began putting signs in their windows, urging the universities to consider their mental health. Others questioned, ‘9k 4 what?’, as frustration over extortionate tuition and accommodation fees began to mount. Students queried why they’d been sent to uni at all when lectures and seminars are happening online, and criticised the government for scapegoating young people as responsible for the second spike.
In Manchester, tensions have come to a head. Last week (November 5), first year students at the University of Manchester woke up to find themselves caged into their accommodation. Overnight, and without warning nor explanation, the institution had erected fences around the city’s Fallowfield halls of residence. That night, students tore down the fences in protest, accusing the university of treating them like animals.
The University of Manchester (@officialuom) is threatening students on rent strike with extortionate fines and refusing to meet with students to discuss their concerns.— Ben McGowan (@BenMcGowan_) November 12, 2020
So students have just taken control of the university’s Owens Park Tower & begun an occupation ✊💥#OccupyUoMpic.twitter.com/9vAdRjyamq
Now, rent-striking students have begun occupying Owens Park Tower – one of the uni’s buildings – in demonstration against high rents, poor living conditions, and a lack of support during the pandemic. 18-year-old Ben McGowan, who’s part of the occupation, said it’s socially distanced, with people grouped within their households in the building.
“We’ve been withholding our rent for three weeks now,” 18-year-old Izzy Smitheman tells Dazed, “because we believe the university has broken its contract in providing us unsafe accommodation, and lying to bring us onto campus for profit, rather than our wellbeing.”
Ve, one of the rent strike organisers, also cited “the frequency of break-ins, pest problems, and unaddressed maintenance issues” as part of the reason for action. “By the time the first rent instalment was due, we had over 200 rent strikers,” she explains.
Smitheman, who’s studying English literature and French, says students decided to escalate their action after “the university ignored our protest and rent strike”, adding that “we will not leave until they meet with us and agree to our demands”. These demands include a rent reduction of 40 per cent, no penalties for ending a tenancy, and an increase in support for students in halls.
There’s been a lot of police presence inside the Fallowfield campus at University of Manchester today. These are students’ homes and it all seems a bit too much. The tactical aid units are really unnecessary. #uomrentstrike#ManchesterUniversityhttps://t.co/eDH4DMJqdopic.twitter.com/mp0lCQmZtV— UoM Rent strike (@rentstrikeUoM) November 12, 2020
The university has responded by cutting the WiFi and increasing security presence both at the occupied Tower and halls of residence. Photos and videos on social media show large numbers of police entering students’ homes, filming them, and confiscating their belongings without reason.
Ve tells Dazed that “the university has not met with us or replied to our demands” and is instead “talking to the SU, but won’t allow us to be in those meetings nor tell us the content of the meetings”.
The university echoed part of this in a tweet, revealing that it is engaged with representatives from the student union and is “fully committed to freedom of expression”. It also promised that the president and vice-chancellor will meet with student reps over the weekend.
Smitheman doesn’t accept this promise. “The university has been consistently neglectful, and refuses to communicate with us,” she explains. Staff, however, have expressed solidarity with students, whose demands include an end to staff redundancies.
“The university has been consistently neglectful, and refuses to communicate with us” – Izzy Smitheman
In an email shared by the UoM Rent Strike Twitter account, 192 staff members said they had written to the president of the university to express their “disgust and shame at their treatment of you”. The email’s author, who hasn’t been named, said they “have never been so ashamed to be associated with the university” in their 25 years of working there. They concluded: “Despite these terrible actions, know that you are valued. You are the beating heart of our university and the reason why so many of us love our jobs. I was proud that you tore down the fences!”
A group of University of Manchester alumni have also offered their support to students, announcing that they will refuse to engage in events, and withhold donations until the dispute is resolved.
Students have been critical of the university’s treatment of them ever since they arrived in September. Speaking to Dazed last week, McGowan said: “Communication on every decision has been awful. 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.”
We were lied to and brought onto unsafe campuses, forced to pay insane rent for facilities we can't even access. We've tried protests, we've withheld our rent and we're being ignored! So we're occupying the tower until they respond to us! #uomrentstrike#occupytoweruompic.twitter.com/CJ1SIwMhrb— Izzy Smitheman (@ISmitheman) November 12, 2020
McGowan, a first year politics and sociology student, also condemned the university’s lack of mental health support, which he described as “appallingly inadequate”. This appears to be the case at several uni’s across the country, with many regarding this as the reason for a spike in 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.
At last week’s protest in Manchester, demonstrators held a minute’s silence for a student who recently passed away in their halls. Ve references this tragic incident when discussing the university’s lack of support. “The university has not grown a conscience since it spent £11,000 on fences to make the campus – where a student recently killed himself – into a cage.”
How do the 331 staff at @OfficialUoM who are paid over £100,000 sleep at night knowing this is what they're profiting off? https://t.co/QIL3qyoXW9— UoM Rent strike (@rentstrikeUoM) November 13, 2020
“Many have found the mental toll of isolation with people they barely know to be substantial,” Sarah Cundy, a history student at the University of Manchester, wrote in an article for Tribune. She also revealed that 100 students in one of the university’s halls of residence had to sleep on the floor in the communal area last month after their building flooded – videos of the damage have been shared on social media.
“Since the start of term, there has been an atmosphere of anger and disappointment from the students,” Smitheman tells Dazed. “We were brought here on the promise of face-to-face teaching, yet we were lied to. The university has made it clear through countless calculated decisions that they care more about profit than our wellbeing.”
Ve says the university’s failures have forced students to “come together to support each other, utilising the internet to make connections”. She adds: “There is a strong feeling of joint resistance across campus, and during the occupation we have been flooded with messages of support and donations of food and supplies.”
”We are doing this for every student on campus,” concludes Smitheman.