The Augment Review

People Over Profit: Students Who Refuse to be Silenced

by George White, Staff Writer

Posted December 7, 2020
The University of Manchester
University of Manchester; photo taken by George White

My hometown of Manchester, England, has always been known as a friendly city, but it is so much more than that. It has always been one of England’s most progressive cities and is populated with people brave enough to stand, protest, occupy when there is mistreatment. This has been the case since the early 19th century when Manchester was the backdrop for The Peterloo Massacre. What began as a peaceful protest for the vote to be allowed to more than just the wealthy, landowning citizens, turned into a brutal attack to those who were protesting. While this historic event was a tragedy, it is recognised as a powerful movement for democracy in this country. Since then, Manchester has been the base for numerous protests and the people of the city have upheld the legacy. One of the most notable and widely watched protests currently happening in the city is a group of students from the University of Manchester who have previously occupied one of the university buildings due to the dissatisfaction with the way the university has treated them.

The students have already had a significant win. After a two-week occupation in a university building, they were awarded a 30% rent reduction for all students in Halls of Residence. To put this in more visceral terms, that is a six-week rent repayment for the students. However, the occupiers weren’t taking such actions for a rent reduction alone. Their demands are:

  • A rent reduction of at least 40% for the remainder of the 2020/2021 academic year.

  • To offer all students a no-penalty early release clause from their tenancy contracts for current and future years.

  • Increase the standard of support for students in Halls of Residence. (Food and laundry for isolating flats and faster response to issues such as broken appliances and heating.)

For those who are unaware of why the students are having such a strong reaction to the university’s treatment, I feel I should make clear what they have been put through. Like many universities across the U.K., students were promised that the upheaval of moving to a new city would be integral for the university experience. They were assured in-person lectures and comfortable Halls of Residence. While the lockdown that England is currently under was outside of the university’s control, the organisation has done little to accommodate the students’ needs. Instead, it seems that they have taken the students’ tuition and rent fees and abandoned all other promises they originally made.

As students moved to the University of Manchester from all over the country, even from abroad, it is unsurprising that there was an influx of Covid-19 cases among them. In a bid for a quick (and cheap) fix, the university organised large, metal fences to be placed around the campus. They put these fences up without once mentioning to the students that this was going ahead. Students simply found themselves trapped into campus.

Flag saying "I know I cannot continue my uni experience this way" -English Student
"I know I cannot continue my uni experience this way"-English Literature Student; photo taken by George White

As distressing as this is, it is unfortunately not a standalone case of the university’s mistreatment. The students who occupied the Halls have been voicing the issues for most of the academic year, whether it is fridges breaking , heating not working, or (the worst, in my opinion) rats and other pests infesting the flats. There have been multiple reports of students having to sleep on the floor after accommodations had flooded. These poor living conditions are where students have been forced to spend all their time when in-person lectures were cancelled very early on in the academic year.

Banner saying "Students Stand With Staff"
'Students Stand With Staff'; photo taken by George White

It is not unusual for university to be the first time that people are away from home , which can be very disruptive and unsettling for the individual. On top of that, we are all living through a global pandemic. Now is a time to have compassion for others and try to help where we can. Unfortunately, students in Manchester have already been very open about the lack of mental health support that is available to them. People’s health (both mental and physical) needs to be a priority.

There was another awful incident on the university campus in early November where a young male student was racially profiled by a security guard who believed he was a drug dealer. The occupiers were quick to use their growing voice to speak out about the injustice of the situation and the impact it has on the students who live there. The Vice-Chancellor, Nancy Rothwell, decided to speak to national news rather than address and reassure her students. She claimed, on television, that she had written to the student to offer her apologies. When the occupiers brought to light that this was a lie, she had to come forward and admit her mistake. She sent out a relatively emotionless video to the students and wider public admitting that she had lied. What this shows is how her public image outside of the university appears more important than the welfare of the students who are paying and funding the organisation.

Would this generation, who have had Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai pave the way, really sit back and let the university get away with such mistreatment? Not them and not in Manchester. The students could have contentedly taken their 30% rent repayment (one of the largest in history) and gone on their merry way. Instead, they remain active across social media (I highly recommend their TikTok account @toweroccupiers) and are organising a rent strike in January to achieve their other demands. They have also collected signatures in order to hold a referendum as to whether Nancy Rothwell should resign. One battle won is not stopping them from fighting the war.

The humanity and accessibility of these students inspires more than myself. More and more students from different universities are coming forward with their own plans of running rent strikes. The Manchester students are using their voice to draw attention to issues students face across the country, creating a community and platform for students to openly voice their concerns. The younger generation is paving the way for fair treatment once again. The new generation of Manchester is upholding the legacy from The Peterloo Massacre and I hope the rent reduction is the beginning of a long line of injustices being righted.

Protest poster; "Sick of wasting £9000 on Zoom?"
'Sick of Wasting £9000 on Zoom?'; photo taken by George White