What it’s really like inside the student occupations at four unis around the country

They have 30 days’ worth of biscuits with them

For the past two weeks, first year Manchester student Chris has been living in one of his university buildings. It’s not that he’s left his essays until the last minute and is having to camp out in the library – he and a group of fellow students are occupying one of the main campus buildings, in protest of their treatment over the past year.

Students have already proved this year that occupying campus buildings works. Last term, a group of students occupying Owens Park Tower at Manchester Uni won a 30 per cent rent refund for semester one, for all students living in halls. Every student in Manchester halls won over four weeks’ rent – up to £900 – back.

Chris and many of the current Manchester occupiers were part of this group that won back thousands of pounds from the university. But this time they aren’t alone – there have been occupations happening at the same time at Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam and Nottingham universities, too. Across the four unis there were as many as 50 student occupiers.

The Tab spoke to students at the ongoing Manchester and Sheffield Hallam occupations about how the past two weeks have been. Nottingham’s occupation has now ended, and Sheffield university has served its students court papers to make them leave.

Amongst other things, the occupiers at all four unis have been demanding rent refunds, tuition fee rebates, an end to university staff job cuts, and an end to the increased security measures and police patrols they’ve seen on campus.

This is what it’s really like inside the occupations at four universities right now:

You’re not allowed alcohol

Chris says they’re “banned” from taking in alcohol, as that would give the university “grounds to evict” them. “They’ve been very strict about what we can and can’t do,” he says. But they’re getting on well, can play music or put Netflix on, and “have a laugh”. Some of the group already know each other well from the November occupation – “we’ve been through so much together”, Chris says.

It’s the same at Sheffield Hallam, where occupier Zac, also a first year, says they’ve worked out how to connect their laptops to the room’s projectors – “it’s basically a home cinema system”, he says.

Chris says there’s sometimes the feeling of “I’d rather be going to the pub with my friends”, but says “it’s not that amazing” – plus, pubs will still be open whenever they leave the occupation.

They’re doing exams and dissertations from inside the occupations

Obviously, the occupiers are all students, so they’ve brought along their laptops and have still been going to their lectures and seminars. Chris and Zac both say having this from inside the occupation feels the exact same as doing online lectures from home. “This is what really highlights the situation with education,” Chris says. “This is what we’ve been doing all year, we just turn on our laptop and go on Zoom. The only difference is we’re doing it in a different building.”

As well as this, they’ve been having to write essays and do exams. All the Sheffield Hallam occupiers are first years, but in Manchester there’s second, third and fourth years, too. They’ve all lost a year and a half of their degrees to online learning, and some have even submitted dissertations whilst inside the occupation.

They’re being given ‘huge meals’

Both Manchester and Sheffield Hallam occupations have been getting food, clean clothes and other supplies dropped off to them. Some have been donated by supporters, other local groups, and even members of university staff. Chris says some people have cooked them “huge meals” and delivered it in Tupperware boxes.

Most of the occupiers have left their keys with housemates, too, so they can get their own things they need dropped off to them.

At Hallam, they can go to the door of the building to collect food and deliveries, or uni security gets it for them. But in Manchester, they’ve had to devise a basket-and-pulley system for getting supplies, using a rope they hang out of a top-floor window.

The building Manchester is occupying also has a staff kitchen, which Chris says was luckily unlocked when they went in. It has a kettle and a microwave – they’ve had to be “resourceful”, but have been able to keep some food stored. The occupiers also came prepared with 30 days’ worth of biscuits, tins and other non-perishable foods.

Occupiers brought air mattresses and sleeping bags

Students have pillows and sleeping bags, and are sleeping on cushions from the sofas inside the buildings, or even air mattresses they’ve brought along. In Manchester, one of the rooms they’ve taken over is an old lecture theatre and they’re sleeping on the chairs in there. “It’s not as luxurious as student accommodation, but it does the job,” says Chris.

The buildings have toilets too, and even showers, so the occupiers can keep clean and be as comfortable as they can be.

However, Zac tells me that while they’re “comfortable”, the occupation is taking a “mental health toll”. To combat this, the Hallam occupiers have just set up a rota system where they can each go home to “recharge” for one day at a time.

Students are protesting over the way they’ve been treated this year

In Manchester, the occupation is made up of the rent strike, as well as other campus groups that have emerged in response to issues throughout the year.

Chris says “so much unfolded” in the first months of this uni year – issues with maintenance in halls, a general decline in student mental health, and increased police presence on campus, to name a few – that these campaign groups sprung up and quickly grew. Zac feels the same, saying students feel “ignored” by their universities and as if they’ve been treated like “cash cows”.

Chris feels the occupation is “symbolic”, and sends a “strong message” for universities to pay finally attention.

About the occupation, a University of Manchester spokesperson said: “A small number of students are currently occupying an area in one of our buildings without permission. Staff are on site to ensure safety and welfare. We would ask that the students leave. We understand that some of our students have concerns and we are continuing to work closely with their elected representatives.”

A spokesperson for Sheffield Hallam University said: “We fully support students’ rights to express their views through peaceful protest, and are committed to continuing dialogue with the protesters. Senior staff from the University and Hallam Students’ Union Officers met today (Friday) with the three student protesters currently occupying the building to continue those conversations. We have also provided them with access to facilities on-site.

“The University itself does not own any accommodation and is not a landlord. However, we want to support students who are understandably concerned about paying for accommodation they may not be able to use during the pandemic, so are working closely with accommodation providers to try and ensure that tenancy agreements reflect the current circumstances.”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

In pictures: Student occupations happening right now at four unis around the country

• UoM students occupying Sam Alex building say security have been ‘hostile and threatening’

• Sheffield Hallam rent strike protester ‘thrown to the ground by security guard’