Manchester University: Inside the protests that rocked an institution
By Joe McFadden
When students living on Manchester University’s Fallowfield campus woke up on Thursday morning, they found themselves greeted by the erection of massive 6-ft metal fences.
It was the first day of the new national lockdown, and they had received no warning that the barriers were going up. Many were confused and scared, with others reported as being in tears.
Some students, many of them first-years and living away from home for the first time, took to social media, questioning what was going on and saying they felt “fenced in”.
The University soon confirmed the fences were an “additional lockdown security measure” and that students could come and go freely.
But the critical communication error meant students weren’t told in advance, and confusion quickly turned to anger.
The furious backlash from students, parents, and the general public alike was swift, and undergraduates reacted in the only way they knew how: by staging a protest.
At around 8 pm on Thursday night, hundreds of students showed up to protest the fences erected around Fallowfield without any communication from the university.
But the protest, which saw students tear down the fences amid enraged and empowered feeling, was just as much to do with the University’s handling of mental health and student welfare as the coronavirus restrictions.
The protest began with rallies and chants, coloured with flares and protest signs igniting the dark Fallowfield skies, as students made their anger with the University known.
Moments before the protest started, the University announced plans to remove the fences on Friday, in an email to all students Nancy Rothwell apologised for the “concern and distress caused” by the fences.
University Vice-Chancellor: ‘I am truly sorry’
Organised by UoM Rent Strike and ‘SAFER’, the protest climaxed on Thursday evening. On Friday, Rothwell once again emailed all students to apologise again, saying: “I want to reiterate that I am truly sorry for the events of yesterday”.
The University is in the process of launching an inquiry into the erection of the fences and the subsequent response from students alongside the ‘mishandling’ of communications surrounding the fence.
The inquiry will be carried out by Professor Clive Agnew, a former Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students, and will also include a former Students’ Union Officer.
The fences were erected on Thursday by a team of construction workers as students looked on bewildered as there had been no prior warning by the University.
This was followed by many angry social media posts across Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Tik Tok, as students tried to figure out what was going on and why they were being fenced in.
Eventually, it fell to the security guards to explain what was going on and by mid to late afternoon there had still been no official communication from the University.
‘We will tear down every single f*cking fence we can find’
As the day went on it was increasingly clear that many students were angry with the fences, with hashtags such as ‘#HMPFallowfield’ trending across the internet.
At 8 pm, hundreds gathered to make their anger with the University known, as well as observing a moment of silence for Finn Kitson, the first-year student who tragically passed away in his Halls of Residence last month.
Protest music was played with songs ranging from classics like Gil Scott Heron’s 1971 civil rights anthem ‘The Revolution will not be Televised’ to the Kaiser Chiefs’ ‘I Predict a Riot’.
Students tore down the fences surrounding the tower block before moving on to dismantle the rest, marching from Owens Park through Richmond to Unsworth to Oak House, tearing down, as one protestor put it, “every single fucking fence [we] can find”.
‘This isn’t about fences, this is about students being pissed off’
One student, Max, told The Mancunion: “The fences are just a tipping point, this about students being pissed off. It’s the uni’s fault, there’s been no help at all with quarantine”.
He went on to say that the university response to the Pandemic had been “incompetent at best, but at worst they don’t value students’ quality of life”.
One of the organisers of the protest, initiated by the groups ‘UoM Rent Strike’ and ‘SAFER’, stated that they were “pleased with the turnout, anger shown and solidarity amongst students”.
They also commented that “it was unfair the Uni thinks they can get away with it” and they were “pleased with the resistance” as it was “incomprehensible” the university would decide to do this following the death of Finn Kitson.
In a damning critique of the leadership they said “we need full support, not another enemy” and that the new response to increase security was “concerning” showed the University’s “true colours”.
Many students seem to be of the opinion that the University’s response to Covid-19, the subsequent mental health crisis and the fences debacle has been a shambles from the start.
The mixed messaging surrounding lockdown, quarantine and online learning has only solidified the consensus among students that having them return to campus for Semester 1 was, whether true or not, motivated only by profit from student rents and not by an adequate or accurate assessment of the health and safety risks posed.
What remains to be seen is whether the University leadership will adapt their response, learn from their mistakes, and ultimately fix the communications issue that is the source of this continuing fiasco.
If you are a student in halls in need of support you can contact your ResLife team for assistance and advice. The Duty ResLife Advisor can also be contacted for any emergencies out of hours. For general Covid-19 support and enquiries please email [email protected].
Photos by Antonio Ross and Carlo Di Giammarino