On 5 November, the university put up fences at Fallowfield Campus to enforce students to stay in their accommodation once their rent had been paid. This was achieved with absolutely no warning from the University of Manchester to the students, who woke to find themselves surrounded by fencing that imprisoned the whole campus.
In an amazing show of militancy and solidarity, by 8pm the students had spontaneously organised to protest outside their accommodation behind the fences – and were well accompanied by UoM students from other accommodation blocks, such as Weston Halls.
Energy and solidarity
This was all thanks to the students themselves. When this protest began, there were many students being vocal about their anger at how they have been treated and blamed for the Covid crises. But it is the Tory government which has been making the decisions that have allowed the virus to spread.
The ‘9k4what’ slogan was seen frequently. Equally, it is widely accepted that the landlords and UoM bosses are seeking to profit off students whilst they are caged in what can only be described as horrifically neglected accommodation.
According to one UoM student "the moment the red flare was lit it all kicked off". The whole of the fencing was taken down by the students, and an estimated 400 students mobilised and moved around the Fallowfield area wearing anti-Covid face masks.
Poignantly, a minute silence was held for the passing away of Finn Kitson, a student at UoM. His father tweeted following his son’s passing:
"If you lockdown young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety. The student referred to below is our son – and we love and miss him so much."
Many students have been feeling the brutality of such isolation, as one rent strike participant stated:
“I think mental health wise as well (if you go back to when majority of Fallowfield was isolating because of positive tests), parents were calling the uni asking if everything was okay and their response was literally: we weren’t prepared for this… Like okay then why the f**k were we allowed back if you didn’t have suitable plans in place?”
The response of the students at UoM to organise and mobilise the way they have is a sign of the burning desire to fight against mistreatment.
The loss of a student to the conditions they are still living in tells us this isn't a bunch of wild youths smashing obstacles for fun. This is a serious period for students living in Fallowfield, with a growing awareness of what kind of action is needed to get the attention of the establishment.
With the university failing to heed the constant complaints from students regarding floods and leaks in bedrooms and kitchens in multiple buildings, and then fencing them in to maintain rent payment and to restrict their movement, it’s entirely correct and predictable that such an explosion of outrage took place this evening.
Response from UoM
The University of Manchester has now agreed to take down the fences, as of this morning (Friday 6 November). However, an increase of security patrol will also be seen on campus, as verified by the following statement and apology from the President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell:
“I sincerely apologise for the concern and distress caused by the erecting of a fence around our Fallowfield Halls of Residence today. This was not our intention – in fact quite the reverse.
“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.
“There was never any intent to prevent students from entering or exiting the site.The fences are being taken down from Friday morning and students are being contacted immediately. Alternative security measures, including additional security patrols are being put in place. I apologise once again for the issues caused by this incident.”
One Socialist Appeal activist, Paul Allen, had this to say in response to the words of the chancellor:
“This is nothing more than vile and despicable words from a person not fit to control an educational facility. Locking in students as nothing more than common farmyard animals shows their lack of any true empathy and is clearly runs against the duty of care all in education should take on. This statement is nothing more than an attempt to 'save face' and should be viewed for the heartless act it was on the president, chancellor and all those on the boards of directors for the university.”
Rent strike and leadership
Prior to these events there had already been some coordinated strike action at UoM to combat the universities negligence of student welfare, and also the student union's impotency to act in the students' interests.
Organisation to channel this explosive mood is vital in ensuring that students' basic demands of decent living conditions met. But only a fighting organisation with determined leadership set on seeing this struggle through to the end will be able to harness the power of the students' anger against the capitalists.
One UoM student also reported: “I have no idea who organised it…I was mostly with the group at the front getting fences down…The protest was high energy and mostly crowd led. It definitely made a statement and did what it was intended for.”
In addition, they stated: “It was quite disorganised really…the leaders could have done more.”
This reveals the sheer level of energy felt by students following the cruel measures imposed by UoM. But it also highlights the necessity for real bold leadership of the students, to strengthen this movement and to help it grow and spread.
Since being lulled back to campuses students are now being fenced in! 9k for online courses, a lack of mental health services and high rents is scandalous.— Socialist Appeal (@socialist_app) November 5, 2020
Students are fighting back and organising in the Marxist Student Federation! See their flyer 👇#hmpfallowfield #9kforwhat https://t.co/tcZwcRARf3 pic.twitter.com/nkspGw3Odj
Need for Marxism
As already mentioned, the rent strike participants have started organising because of the scandalous situation, with students imprisoned into accommodation just to line the pockets of the rich.
As history has shown us time and time again, however, without firm leadership and bold political demands, any spontaneous movement will eventually run out of steam and dissipate.
The UoM Student Union have proven to be unwilling or unable to help the students. The students must therefore rely on their own organisation and initiative, with door-knocking, leafletting, and regular democratic mass meetings to decide and plan how to take on the likes of Dame Nancy Rothwell and the landlords.
If the movement does not advance, then further measures will be taken to continue this exploitation, and no concessions will be won for the students at UoM.
But by harnessing the energy and anger of the students - and organising this around clear demands for free education, rent rebates, and the provision of proper mental health services - the movement can grow and be victorious. Then we can land a blow against profiteering bosses and landlords.
Solidarity with the students of the University of Manchester and all rent strike participants!
Manchester Marxist Society