“We are not going to roll over and take this shit anymore,” a student at the University of Manchester (UoM) boomed through a megaphone during a protest last November. “You brought these people into these homes under false pretences. You caged them in, you fenced them in because you thought you could get away with it.”
It’s not a great time to be a British student. Socialising is banned by law, you’re lucky if you get to step on campus, there’s a chance you’ll be locked into your halls – which may have a high rate of COVID-19 – and mental health provision is, by all accounts, terrible. Also, that’ll cost you up to £9,000 a year, plus £3,000 for your accommodation.
The hefty price tag, lack of services and lack of support has left many students frustrated. On the first day of the November lockdown, the UoM management spent £11,000 erecting six-foot metal fencing around their Fallowfield halls of residence, without informing the students who live there. They were forced to remove them hours later after some were pulled down during protests.
Over the following weeks, the student unrest continued; another protest took place, against the alleged racial profiling of a student by security staff at the Fallowfield Campus, and hundreds of students joined a rent strike and an occupation of the university’s Owens Park Tower.
After a month of protest, the university agreed to a 30 percent cut in rent for the first half of the academic year. The university said the total reduction equates to £4 million, making it the most successful university rent strike in British history. As all of this was going on, we asked students in Manchester to send us videos, explaining how they’ve navigated the worst university term in history.
“The craziest story I heard was the Birley accommodation hall,” said Joe Fearon, a student at Manchester Metropolitan University. “There was a massive party with a few hundred people a few days after they put in the lockdown. It’s mad, because they’re basically imprisoning people.”
Chris Adair, a University of Manchester student involved in the Rent Strike campaign, recalled what happened next: “Students woke up, looked out of their window and saw these huge metal fences being put around the campus. Some were so angry that they actually started pulling down fences.”
“The uni didn’t think to mention that they were going to do that,” said Liv Schalkwyk, a UoM student. “The news tried to paint it as an anti-lockdown protest.” But it wasn't that. “It was more a general protest about the lack of mental health support, how much academic pressure there is and charging us full tuition, even though I go to uni only once every three weeks.”
According to mental health charity Mind, the pandemic has intensified the student mental health crisis, but universities have not stepped up their support. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of students who responded to a Mind survey said their “mental health declined during the lockdown”.
So, you can see why students might feel like protesting.
If you’re a student suffering from mental health issues, you can click here for information about support services available to you.