As of yesterday, University of Manchester students have occupied Owens Park Tower in Fallowfield. The building, which is synonymous with the student area, has been taken over by students involved in the Manchester Rent Strike and 9K4WHAT? campaigns, and are not leaving until university management listens and agrees to their key demands:
- That management meet with students;
- A rent reduction of at least 40% for students;
- To offer all student no-penalty early release clauses from their tenancy contracts;
- To increase the standard of support for students in Halls of Residences;
- No more staff redundancies;
- That management listens to UCU;
- That there are no penalties for occupiers or rent strikers.
Students at University of Manchester have been treated with contempt by management. Like those across the country, we were lured back to campus on the promise of normality – a promise that the lecturers’ union, the UCU, as well as SAGE warned was inconceivable.
We have been used as scapegoats for government failings, and forced to pay rents that 74% of us cannot meet – since students usually work to make ends meet. All this while Nancy Rothwell, our Vice-Chancellor who chairs the Russell Group, championed the use of chartered flights to coax international students into an environment that she must know is unsafe.
Students in Manchester halls have had it particularly bad. Last month, 100 students in Weston Hall were forced to sleep on the floor in a communal area after substantial parts of the building were flooded, which led to many students contracting coronavirus. When told to self-isolate, students found it hard to access material or mental health support from the university. Many have found the mental toll of isolation with people they barely know to be substantial.
Then, last week, in an act that demonstrated what the university truly thinks of its students, fences were placed around halls to stop us from mixing with each other. We tore them down. Fed up of being treated like inconveniences, students are fighting back. Over the past weeks and months, several campaign groups (9K4WHAT?, S.A.F.E.R and UoM Rent Strike, to name a few) have coordinated protests that vented student anger.
These protests have attracted hundreds of students, radicalised by the conditions they’ve been thrown into and fighting against a system which has exacerbated the Covid-19 crisis. Over £300,000 has been withheld in a rent strike organised by students in halls. The response from the university has effectively been to threaten those students with expulsion, as well as using police to harass demonstrators.
After years of decline, the neoliberal university in Britain is in turmoil, and the current pandemic is only fanning the flames of a completely untenable situation. The crisis at Manchester is a part of a broader picture: like many other universities, Manchester refused to extend contracts to many staff members who weren’t on permanent contracts, leading to over 600 teachers, researchers and professional support taking voluntary severance this summer.
Young people in this country have recognised the nature of universities’ offensive against educational quality and working conditions, and many have chosen to confront it. Already this year, the government has allowed them to be put at risk of losing out on educational prospects because of their home postcodes. Now, those who have come to universities like Manchester sit in extortionately priced accommodation with little-to-no ability to work, little-to-no support from the government, and little-to-no support from university management who view them primarily as consumers.
For a generation of students who haven’t known an alternative system of higher education, who were brought up in the decade where education experienced a push to privatisation and corporate pedagogy, it is hard to envisage a world without marketisation. But, simultaneously, we’re faced with a crisis of neoliberal education– and we are occupying, rent striking, and protesting because we don’t want to ignore the problem, we are going to confront it.