COVID-19: University of Manchester students occupy building in protest over ‘lack of support’
The students straining their necks out of a first-floor tower block window are desperate to see the sky again, but first they want to make sure their voices are heard.
For a week they have occupied the decommissioned Owens Park Tower on the Fallowfield campus of the University of Manchester in protest over rent, tuition fees and what they perceive as inadequate support for mental health.
It’s Manchester University but it could be any number of campuses around the country. Out of the window, they speak for a generation for whom the university experience has been a let down from the start.
“Almost everyone on campus caught COVID within the first two weeks simply because we were all in close proximity, it was inevitable,” says Lotte Marley, a first-year student from Sussex.
“Isolating for two weeks is really tough for anyone but particularly in a tiny flat with people you don’t know.”
Ben McGowan, another first year student, joins in.
“The fact is that we were told there would be face-to-face teaching and that promise was broken in the first week by university management,” he tells me.
“The university has prioritised profits over student wellbeing.”
Meanwhile, the death of a 19-year-old student on this site last month has left many shaken.
“We are being pushed to the brink,” says Izzy Smitheman. “Especially us first years, none of us have ever really lived away from home before.”
She added: “No one wants history to repeat itself, the death on campus was tragic but the lack of support from the university has been completely atrocious and terrifying.”
The University of Manchester has found itself at the centre of student ire over the current situation.
Many students feel they were brought here under false pretences, effectively imprisoned on campus as the virus spread like wildfire and, all the time, blamed for a second wave.
Maya Moodley is a first-year politics and philosophy student and has received some support from the university counselling service, although she believes it has been inadequate.
“All my lessons from the start have been online and my counselling has been Zoom calls,” she says.
“I feel like I’m not part of the university at all, I never go to campus. A big part of why I chose this uni was the vibrant city and I feel like I haven’t had that experience.”
The erection of a fence around the Fallowfield campus this month only inflamed tensions between students and the university management.
It was pulled down by those who live on the site almost straight away.
“The fence definitely made us feel even more trapped,” says Amy Charlton, a first-year law student. “It’s felt very lonely and very isolating being here, I’ve almost been robotic.”
Sarah Littlejohn, the head of campus life at the University of Manchester, accepted that the university had made mistakes.
She said: “When we get feedback, and that was clearly difficult feedback, we really listen to it.
“We’re trying to be in a conversation with our students and to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
But Ms Littlejohn and her colleagues have their work cut out in convincing students, many of whom feel betrayed, that they are all on the same side.
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