Students across the country have faced gruelling economic and social challenges as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Getty Images

During the course of the pandemic, Manchester has been making headlines, from being placed under restrictions in August, and moving into tier 3, to Manchester University placing fences around student accommodation and the subsequent student occupation of a university building. As a Fresher who has just moved from Manchester to Cambridge, it seems strange to see my home city being debated so frequently in the media. In August, the restrictions that were placed on Manchester the day before Eid stopped me from being able to celebrate with my family. This time, a new demographic was affected by COVID regulations in Manchester: students.

On the morning of Thursday 5 November, when the new national lockdown rules came into place, students at Fallowfield campus at Manchester university woke up to find their accommodation surrounded by metal fences. There was only one entrance into the building, which was guarded by security, and the students were given no prior warning about the fencing. Evidently, this sparked anger among students at the university, who’d already suffered from inadequate communication from the university about online teaching and isolation provisions. Having to stay at university during a pandemic has had disastrous effects on the mental health of many, and this dehumanising measure taken by Manchester University escalated this problem. Many students complained that similar to many other universities, they had moved into accommodation under the impression that some teaching would be in-person, only to find that most, if not all, was moved online as Manchester faced an ever-rising number of COVID cases, with an infection rate of 217.7 per 100,000 compared to the national average of 167.4. Now, with Manchester going into tier 3 after being placed under heavy restrictions since August, people are getting more and more frustrated. There have also been claims that the university had been restricting access to green spaces, which, in times of national lockdown, are essential to ensure students’ wellbeing. Students felt mistreated, and the decision to install fences to cage students in like animals seemed to be the tip of the iceberg.

“Having to stay at university during a pandemic has had disastrous effects on the mental health of many, and this dehumanising measure taken by Manchester University escalated the problem.”

That night, protests arose with hundreds of students gathering, holding signs with phrases such as “Students in Cages”. These were protesting not just the fences, which were taken down by the students over the course of the night, but the general disregard for the wellbeing of students. The next day, the university’s Vice-Chancellor stated “Firstly, I want to apologise again for the distress caused by putting up the fence yesterday and the very poor communication surrounding this. I am determined to find out what went wrong and to learn from it. As a matter of urgency, I have commissioned an inquiry into these events.” The university claimed a message was sent out to warn students of the decision to erect the fences, but that they had, for some reason, been installed prior to students seeing the message.

These apologies, to students, are too little, too late, particularly in the wake of high rates of student suicides. The disregard for their wellbeing was clear as the university continually took decisions without any clear communication with the students. This pandemic is a difficult time for students and many in Cambridge have responded to it differently, with some calling for remote teaching from home and others wishing to remain on campus. The government has put the burden on universities to be able to manage the issue of students breaking lockdown rules alongside rising COVID cases.

“These apologies, to students, are too little, too late.”

However, these are not adequate reasons to explain the steps taken by Manchester University to spend £11,000 on the installation and then the subsequent removal of these fences. In the past month since this event, there have been more clashes between students and the university, with a university-wide rent strike of around 200 students calling for a 40% rent reduction. The campaign culminated in an occupation of the university’s Owen Park Tower building by 15 students. The university has now finally made concessions, with Manchester University students winning a 30% rent reduction after a month of protesting and rent striking. The university has also promised that none of the rent strikers would be financially penalised. Students at Cambridge have followed what is now a nation-wide movement that is withholding rent due to dissatisfaction over having to pay full price rent when most teaching is occurring remotely. Growing calls for a rent strike are likely to take place next term in order to achieve a 30% reduction that students at Manchester were able to do. This is due to the dissatisfaction students at Cambridge have also been feeling over the way colleges may seem to prioritise rent revenue over understanding the financial and mental wellbeing of students.

The student movement in Manchester should show all universities that they must respect their students’ demands, as students cannot be expected to be locked in their university rooms and paying full rent in the midst of a pandemic, with remote learning that could easily be conducted at home. It is an extremely difficult time for all of us, having to cope with the limitations the virus has placed on university life, and for many of us it is the first time we have ever lived away from home. I’ve seen how moving to Cambridge for the first time in the midst of a pandemic has been a struggle for freshers this year, and the university must be aware of this. Keeping everyone safe from the virus is, of course, a priority, but this cannot come in expense of our mental health, and universities across the country must learn from these incidents in Manchester and ensure all measures are taken with open, respectful conversation with students, and that they ensure mental health is a priority.

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