In recent weeks, there has been an explosion of activism on Fallowfield campus at the University of Manchester (UoM), as students grow increasingly angry at the way they’ve been treated by university bosses.

Since being lulled to campuses at the start of this academic year, students have faced lockdown and isolation, with £9k fees for online courses, a lack of mental health services, and sky-high rents for shoddy accommodation. This is an utter scandal.

Mass action

The action began with a rent strike, starting on 23 October. This has not only picked up steam recently, with a growing number of participants, but has now become just one element of the militant response from discontented students.

Next up was the infamous ‘HMP Fallowfield’ incident on 5 November, where students – without any warning – woke up to find fences imprisoning them inside the campus, with no way of getting in or out.

This callous action by the university came mere days after the suicide of a student at the campus – Finn Kitson – was confirmed. Fellow students claimed that Kitson had suffered from severe anxiety as a result of being locked in halls without proper support, such as access to mental health services.

The fencing-in of students was quickly met with mass action. Students gathered for a protest that same evening, and then spontaneously proceeded to rip the fences down, demonstrating their fury against this mistreatment.

Police and protest

This was followed by an occupation of Owen’s Park Tower on 12 November by a collection of students. At the time of writing, this occupation is ongoing. In solidarity, a protest was arranged by student action group SAFER. But organisers were contacted by local police throughout the day, warning that there would be arrests if the protests went ahead.

In an act of defiance, students decided to turn up on the night of the protest regardless of these threats. But they found the Greater Manchester Police out in massive numbers. In coordination with security, the police decisively shut down any large gatherings, with pockets of protestors ordered back into their dilapidated accommodation.

Rather than scaring students into submission, these events only angered students even further. This was seen by an outpouring of rage on social media.

The fear of the university bosses over what is happening to their private property is palpable. You don’t ask for eight riot vans if you’re not deeply afraid of what students might do to express their rightful indignation.

Racist response

Friday 13 November saw one student submit an official complaint over racial profiling by the university’s security staff. They had assumed that he was selling drugs, and that he did not belong on the campus site, even though he had already had his student card checked upon entry.

Three security guards – caught on camera – had shoved him against a wall just three metres from the victim’s accommodation. Their excuse was that, although he had produced his student card upon request, he was ‘hiding his face’. When the same student approached other security, he was laughed at and was told it was ‘a minor issue’.

Absolutely outraged at this incident, and especially at the lack of response from the university until Monday 16 November, approximately 500-700 students mobilised at Richmonds Park (on Fallowfield campus) and marched around the site chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’.

One student on a megaphone made the correct observation that: “So many different issues are happening at this university. But there is not one voice to speak for us all.”

Marketisation of education

There is a clear understanding amongst students that only united mass action will make the likes of Dame Nancy Rothwell – the UoM Vice Chancellor – do something about all these various incidences of racism, rape, repression, poor education, and decaying living standards.

Universities should not be run for profit. Nor should any heavy-handed security be allowed on campus, especially after demonstrating clearly racist practices.

The organisation of rent strikes is significant. Rather than politely asking for help, such mass action hits university bosses and landlords where it hurts – in the profits. This is the only language that these bureaucrats and fat cats understand.

Students have been brought to university campuses – by management and by the Tory government – under false pretences, all because of the marketisation of higher education.

Why should we be paying a penny, let alone £9,000 in fees and extortionate rents, for online teaching and cramped, poor-quality housing? And this is without even mentioning the lack of decent nutrition, subsistence, and support for those forced to isolate.

Organise and fight

University management clearly won’t help students. It is up to us to organise ourselves in response. Dame Nancy Rothwell is a sneaky parasitical profiteer, who will continue to enforce whatever measures she sees as necessary in order to line her own pockets.

To fight back, we need to get properly organised, from the bottom up. This means holding regular democratic meetings in every accommodation block, with at-least weekly mass meetings of rent-striking students.

These should be used to discuss strategy and vote on proposals, to ensure that the strike grows and that demands are met. And accountable student representatives should be elected, in order to coordinate with the university in terms of implementing the necessary measures around safety and support.

UoM management have now offered a concession of two-weeks rent reduction. But this gesture is too little, too late. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that militancy pays. Without the protests and actions seen in recent weeks, even this meagre offer would not have been put on the table.

We must demand:

  • Compensation of all tuition fees and rent.
  • Universities to work with students in order to implement an effective isolation plan.
  • Free, nutritious meal deliveries for quarantined students.
  • Universal access to comprehensive mental health services.
  • A comprehensive plan for academic support.
  • The removal of any security found to be abusing their power.

 


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