'Profit b4 Students': Protests and Strikes in Manchester University Halls of Residence

Manchester’s student protesters declare success, as the university agrees to give them a 30% rent reduction from the period between September 2020 to January 2021; an estimated cost for this is around £12 million. The decision comes after a tense month of protests and strikes in and around the student hub of Fallowfield against the University's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The University’s landmark Owens Park Tower recently became the site of a demonstration as a number of students barricaded themselves into the previously derelict tower, refusing to leave until their demands were met. Large banners hung forlorn from windows, stating that the university was putting “profit b4 students”. Some have suggested a new branding for the university: 'University of Moneychester’. It’s safe to say that their actions represent a progressively bitter feud between universities and their students across the country. Students are left feeling angry and shocked over the commercialisation of their education. Hundreds in Bristol and Glasgow have also withheld rent, feeling unhappy with their treatment.

 

In Manchester, students had been undertaking a ‘rent strike’ since mid October. Sadly, as November rolled around and they failed to receive any formal response from the university, a small number began occupying the tower, refusing to leave until their clearly outlined demands were adhered to. The university initially offered a 5% rebate, but funnily enough, this decision was met with dissatisfaction. The group who have been named the ‘Owens Park Nine’ demanded a conference with senior members of the university. One of these members being the current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell. Bored of idling, the students created banners in solidarity and etched tattoos onto their ankles with an image of the tower to commemorate their efforts. Then, on the Wednesday of 25th November, the University released a statement explaining that all students in university halls of residence would be given a 30% rebate of this semester’s rent as compensation for their poor experience.

 

The original demands outlined by the rent strikers were:

  1. To make an appropriate refund of rent;
  2. To commit to no more redundancies throughout the pandemic;
  3. To maintain constant communication with the University and College Union; and
  4. For no penalties to be imposed upon strikers.

 

The strikers initially requested a 40% reduction in rent for the remainder of the academic year. Following the announcement on Wednesday, protesters took to social media yet again, stating that they will continue striking into January in order to ensure that they receive further compensation for the second semester.

 


Image courtesy of @izzy.smitheman

 

The story of the strikes hit major headlines just a week after students were left stunned by the University's action to impose fencing around the whole of the accommodation campus in Fallowfield. Some have compared it to treating them like ‘farm animals’ and it wasn't long before hundreds of outraged students had come out of their rooms and torn down the fencing. Many others have stood in solidarity with students over both of these issues. A number of academics at the university came to the Owens Park Tower and read out a statement in support. Yet students continue to feel let down by the way the situation has been addressed or lack thereof.

 

Just like most universities currently, 90-100% of teaching is taking place online in Manchester. Many claim to have been told by universities that it was safe to return and that studying would resume as normal. Following this advice, a spike in coronavirus cases led students to experience scapegoating in the media and were accused of acting recklessly as a cohort. Students in Manchester shared their feelings via the @uomrentstrike Instagram, stating that they had simply been “lied to and brought back to unsafe campuses” and that profit has been continually prioritised over their welfare. Students across the country claim to have received a significant lack of support regarding the impact of this pandemic on their education and wellbeing.

 

Further protest was held in Manchester following a racial profiling incident of a Black student which took place on the Fallowfield Campus, sparking additional controversy and calling for Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell to resign. The now viral footage of the incident was posted online, which showed the first-year French and Linguistics student pinned up against a wall by campus security, leaving him traumatised. The university have since released a statement saying they are deeply concerned and thoroughly investigating the incident. This seems to have been the final straw. The new ‘NoMoreNancy’ hashtag was established and a petition which required at least 400 signatures was set up in order to call a vote of no confidence in the Vice-Chancellor. Within just a few hours they had exceeded the required number and the Students' Union is now obliged to hold a referendum whereby the whole student body will have the opportunity to vote.

 

Where do we go from here? Students are becoming increasingly impatient and indignant at their treatment. Has the tuition fee really been worth it this year? Evidently, the thousands of ‘9k4what’ campaigners would argue not. Students across the country are continuing to demand refunds or a reduction in fees and if they're anything like the University of Manchester Rent Strikers, they most definitely won’t be backing down anytime soon.

 

https://www.instagram.com/uomrentstrike/

https://www.instagram.com/9k4what.mcr/

 

Words By: Olivia Snelson 

Edited By: Harhseni Maniarasan