Multiple locks, security guards and key-card systems usually stop outsiders from getting into university halls. In Manchester, however, things are very different. The lockdown has meant that student accommodation has become the epicentre of the city’s nightlife, and older and violent non-students are increasingly barging their way in as a result.
‘Because all the clubs are shut, everyone knows that uni accommodation is the only place they can go for a party. I’ve gone on huge diversions to avoid huge groups of older men to make sure they don't know where I live. They just follow us into accommodation and no one stops them,” says Yasmin*, 18, a University of Manchester student living on its Fallowfield residential campus.
Due to the damage caused by freshers week and Halloween raves last term, Yasmin, who lives in the Unsworth Park halls of residence, believes that Fallowfield security struggle to keep strangers out because doors and gates have been damaged for prolonged periods of time. “A guy without a key punched through the glass in a door to get in. It was left broken with blood on the wall for weeks.”
This security issue is not unique to Fallowfield. Katie, a Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) student, agrees that safety is an issue in student accommodation throughout the city. After complaining multiple times that the lock had been removed from a door to her building at the privately-owned Briarfield accommodation, Katie woke up one morning to find a random man in the corridor outside her flat. “I guess he just walked in and decided to kip in my hallway. It was scary.”
The threat from outsiders entering university accommodation has caused fear among the Manchester student body, at both the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University.
Amber* is a first-year University of Manchester student who lives at the Oak House halls in Fallowfield. She recalls one evening in Halloween last term, when a non-student in his thirties entered the uni halls looking for parties. “We were told he had a scar on his face, but it was so hard to recognise him as everyone was in fancy dress with fake blood. I ended up at a party where he was.”
Pre-pandemic, assault and harassment would often present itself in clubs, pubs, at work or festivals. But with the outbreak of coronavirus and the closure of clubs, students fear that predators are targeting accommodation buildings instead. Many believe that security staff are mistakenly concentrating their efforts on ensuring social distancing and coronavirus rules are being followed.
Meg, an MMU student who lives in the Birley Fields university halls, tells VICE that security staff are too focussed on noise complaints. “Security walked into my room with no knock and no warning because I had music on – it was only 9PM. We could have been getting changed or anything, it just felt weird and massively inappropriate.”
Amy, a first-year MMU student also living in Birley Fields, was sexually assaulted in November by a man who had got past the gate and into the smoking area of the accommodation.
She tells VICE that she had gone outside for a smoke and the man, who had come in looking for parties, asked if he could stay with her because he did not have a mask to get his Uber home. “I told him that I had a spare mask and I would go and get it for him so he could leave. As I ran up to my flat – I had no idea that he had followed me, catching all the doors before they locked – he came into my room and sexually assaulted me.”
In a statement to VICE, an MMU spokesman said: “We currently have no record of a sexual assault at Birley Halls being reported to us, therefore it is extremely difficult to comment further on this. Any report of sexual assault is taken extremely seriously by the University.
“Alongside the support offered to students as outlined below, if any incident is reported to police and the University it would be fully investigated and all CCTV evidence provided to police.”
Both universities told VICE they have been proactive in preventing non-residents from entering student property. “If students suspect anyone of being on campus or in accommodation who shouldn’t be, they should contact security or a member of their accommodation ResLife team immediately,” a University of Manchester spokesperson said.
Both universities cited the SafeZone app that allows students to contact security directly in an emergency or when facing potential threats.
The MMU spokesman said that they have employed more security than ever before, but added that: “Despite all the security measures we take, there will, unfortunately, be occasions where non-residents gain access to our accommodation. While we believe these to be isolated cases, they are understandably concerning for all involved and they will be fully investigated.”
Three Manchester-based students think the authorities could be doing more than they already are. Philippa Humphries, Caitlin Hyatt and Alyssa Whelan founded Manchester Students Against Public Sexual Harassment (MSAPSH) in November 2020. Fed up of living in fear of sexual harassment and assault, the three women created MSAPSH in response to a rise in harassment across Manchester.
“Sexual harassment is so normalised here. It happens nearly every day,” Alyssa, a first-year MMU student, tells VICE. The group have had meetings with universities, the police and the mayor’s office to try and bring much-needed change. But without the input they would have liked to have seen from the authorities, their work is happening from the bottom up.
Phillippa – a master’s student at Manchester School of Architecture – has created a map for Manchester students to leave anonymous testimonies of sexual assault and harassment.
“It’s a good way for people to share their experience, especially if they don’t want to go to the universities or police themselves,” she says. The study, which hosts Post-it note-style attachments on top of a city map, features incidents from The University of Manchester campus and accommodation.
Female students in Manchester have had to take precautions for years to avoid the actions of sexually violent men. But COVID-19 has made women even more vulnerable as outsiders gain access to accommodation for parties and security are focused on reducing the risks of the virus. Students think it’s time for universities and authorities to leave victim-blaming “self-defence” advice in the past and make students feel safe in their own homes by tackling the real issue – poor security and violent men.
“Unis need to publicly recognise this issue and validate women’s feelings on the matter.” MSAPSH co-founder and student Caitlin tells VICE. “This cannot be brushed aside.”
*Names have been changed for privacy.
Update: a Manchester Metropolitan University spokesman contacted VICE after publication and pointed out that students can also use the university's online reporting system 'Report and Support' to report sexual harassment or sexual violence. Reasons for security entering rooms are signed off, recorded in logs and can include noise complaints, welfare checks and smoke alarm tampering. Security cannot enter rooms without a legitimate purpose and must do whatever is reasonably possible to seek permission to enter a room.
The university will be delivering new training for security staff on how to respond to sexual harassment and assault. These security teams operate 24 hours a day.