Exclusive: ‘It’s shambolic’ MSG Admin Farris Ramzy on the MMU halls fiasco

‘The government knew what was coming, they sent students back anyway and now they’re blaming us’

Whilst Manchester remains in local lockdown, both Freshers and returning students have been coming back over the past few weeks to prepare for Uni. However, with the influx of students and the state of COVID not improving, tensions are building in Fallowfield.

Farris Ramzy, due to co-running popular student group Manchester Students’ Group, has perhaps the best overview of the situation of us all. The Tab Manchester caught up with Farris as to his insight into students’ attitudes, how the government and Manc uni’s themselves have been handling the situation, and as to how he sees the circumstances evolving.

Attitudes towards Freshers have been quite negative, especially in the media of late. Do you think this is fair?

“A certain degree of empathy is needed here. Freshers are already in a vulnerable situation at the best of times. Think back to when you first started uni: the amazing experiences you got meeting new people, potentially getting your first taste of nightlife, but also the drastic lifestyle readjustments to living and surviving away from parents.

“Halls are not a traditionally uplifting environment, and fallouts with housemates happen. The inability to meet with people outside your household removes any outlet or escape. Students this year have no nightlife, little face to face interaction and significantly less opportunities to make those lifelong bonds that help you through these difficult years.”

The lack of mental health support for students has become extremely apparent in recent weeks, with the government even going so far as to try and scapegoat and guilt-trip young people. Does this concern you in regards to Freshers? 

“I am really, really worried about the rapid deterioration of students’ mental health in the coming weeks. As a Fresher – you are trapped in your tiny one bed room, dimly lit, alone and away from your family for the first time. This is miserable enough under current circumstances – can you imagine being under quarantine in these conditions?

“I say this from experience, first year was incredibly difficult for me. I began to isolate myself, I stopped going to lectures. If I hadn’t had face-to-face contact with my friends, who subsequently could see I wasn’t ok – then I probably wouldn’t have made it out alive. I don’t say that lightly, but it really is as simple as that. The implications really are that serious and solutions have to be found.”

What is your view of the government and their handling of the present situation in regards to students?

“I don’t believe the government has responded well to universities returning. I don’t expect a bunch of ageing MP’s who have long since forgotten what it’s like to be a student to understand the implications of their legislation but it was particularly disappointing seeing Matt Hancock use our demographic as a scapegoat and the insensitive nature of his wording (“don’t kill your gran”) was particularly despicable.

“The whole approach has been pretty shambolic and really highlights how out of touch the government is to this demographic.”

How well do you think universities’ have responded to COVID – especially Manchester?

“Overall I do think unis across the country have made a fantastic effort in shifting courses online. But I don’t think there has been enough to build an alternative to keep students occupied in their isolation.

“In Manchester, it was very frustrating that the first piece of contact many students had with their new university was Nancy Rothwell’s announcement that students could face exclusion if they are found flouting social distancing rules.”

Some students however, have not been behaving adequately. What do you think of the students who have been breaching regulations and involved in mass gatherings?

“Let me be perfectly clear, I do not condone anyone contributing to the spread of the virus. This is the greatest threat to public health our generation has ever seen and must be treated as such.

“But this hard hitting approach towards a demographic that is already very anti-establishment, highlights how once again, this government cares more about the appearance of safety than actual safety. Their preventative methods have, and will continue to fail in areas populated by students because they have taken the wrong approach.

“I would love to sit here and say the deterrents will work, and the students will arrive and sit quietly in their halls and behave themselves, but frankly this outlook is naive and dangerous and has already proven not to be the case one week into university, with the increase in flat parties and outdoor raves such as the one outside Owen’s Park recently.

“The new curfew means students will leave and congregate somewhere, and the council simply will not have the facilities to cope with the sheer volume of drunk and frustrated students wandering the streets, which also brings new dangers in the form of burglaries, violent crime and traffic incidents (think drunk students partying in streets).”

How do you see the situation progressing? 

“I fear there is a storm coming in the next few months; a storm that is going to put a strain on local authorities that will have to police these parties, a strain on healthcare in Manchester when cases begin to spike, and a strain on the general relationship between the student population and Manchester City Council, which is already pretty hostile.”

What do you think could be done to help improve the tense situation?

“Firstly: Improve the messaging between the council/universities and students, taking into account approaches this demographic is more or less likely to respond to.

“Second, increase the provision of online services, activities, messaging and communication between students so that they are not isolated from the world.

“Third, increase mental health service provision.

“And finally, find a way to defuse the mounting pressure building in the city, especially areas like Fallowfield, that still abides by the current government legislation – such as socially distanced on-campus events.”

Would MSG be open to being used as a platform in which to help ease these tensions? 

“Very much so – several times we have attempted to open up a line of communication between students, the university and the council, which we think is essential, especially now. Our moderators would be more than happy to work with the council to help distribute relevant safety messaging, in a tone that the audience are more likely to actually respond to.

“Students do not and will not follow Manchester City Council on Instagram, so important messaging often gets lost in transmission, or is ignored, because of the authoritative way it is phrased.”

What do you think of the 10pm curfew on pubs?

“We need to understand that this clamping down on the hospitality industry will increase cases in student areas, not decrease. This is because students are driven out of the relatively safe environment of regulated Track and Trace pubs and bars, and instead move to cramped, unsanitised underground raves and flat parties.

“If the government really cares about lowering cases, the solution of course, would be a full nationwide lockdown once again, but they have shown they are unwilling to put lowering cases above economic losses. Therefore, you must instead offer viable, safe alternatives to defuse the pressure.

“Such alternatives we have seen effectively implemented in Trafford in the new venue Social Avenue. These outdoor “socially-distanced” raves have offered a clever alternative, with forward thinking promoters offering an outlet to students in this miserable time, while still being safe and complying with social distancing, mask wearing, hand sanitiser and limiting group sizes to up to 6 of the same household.

“We would love the opportunity to have something similar in the South of Manchester, and would love to work with the police and the council to ensure all guidelines were fully met.

“As of today, Manchester City Council has cancelled all of Social Avenue’s events for the next four weeks due to cases being on the rise, and yet the pubs, restaurants and bars remain open.”

What do you think of the situation at Manchester Metropolitan at the moment? 

“If it was up to me students would not have returned to university – anyone can see that shared accommodation is a perfect environment for accelerating the spread of the virus, regardless of any policies. Haven’t they heard of freshers flu? Not to mention the fact that fees have remained the same despite the university environment drastically changing for the worse.
“Manchester Metropolitan halls have been forced into quarantine. Can you imagine how horrendous it would be to be trapped in your first year accommodation? What on earth did they (the government) expect? They knew what was coming, they did it anyway, and now they are blaming us. It’s so disappointing how transparent this all is, and what every decision is centred around – money, NOT health.”

Any final messages to Manchester authorities on how to improve the situation? 

“Physical health is so important, but vitally, mental health must not be pushed to one side. As a team that specialise in online communication and outreach, we see the importance of online communities, and now, more than ever, it is important these young, isolated adults, have an open line of communication with as many peers as possible. University is lonely at the best of times, and I dread to think how alone some students will be feeling in the coming months.

“It’s time to stop blaming individuals, and instead hold the government responsible for implementing policies that set us all up to fail.This is a call especially to Manchester City Council – please, let us help.”

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