‘The fences were absolutely the last straw’: Manchester students on last night’s protests

‘I’m yet to find anyone who can say they’ve felt supported mentally since coming to uni’


Yesterday afternoon, fences were put up around several University of Manchester halls of residence.

The university said they were a result of “new security measures” introduced by the university, due to the national lockdown. They stressed students could still come and go and were not being locked-down, however those living in halls said they felt they had been “barricaded in”. Speaking to The Manchester Tab, freshers also said they had not been informed by the university or their halls what was happening.

A protest was swiftly organised, headed by the university’s Rent Strike group, and though the university later said the fences would be removed today, it still went ahead, with some students claiming as many as “400 or 500” were in attendance. Whilst there, students tore down the fences, with footage showing protesters pushing and kicking the fencing.

Credit: Felix Kwok, @felixcycat

The university has apologised “for the concern and distress caused by” the fences, saying “this was not our intention.” In an interview this morning, the uni’s VC, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, said “an immediate inquiry” has been launched into why they were put up, saying the report will be published publicly “within two weeks”.

However, for many Manchester students, this simply isn’t enough. One Manchester fresher who attended the protest, Rosa, said she felt the protest “was a culmination of many frustrations, not just about the fences”, although “the fences were absolutely the last straw”. Rosa says she’s “pleased to have received a formal apology, but we feel like there’s still so much more for the uni to address.”

Students point to a number of grievances, built up over the course of a tumultuous term:

‘I’m yet to find anyone who can say they’ve felt supported mentally since coming to uni’

Students specifically reference the recent death of Finn Kitson, a Manchester fresher who was found dead in his halls last month.

After his passing, Finn’s father, academic Michael Kitson, said: “If you lockdown young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety. The student referred to below is our son – and we love and miss him so much”.

Rosa says she feels Finn’s death has been “swept under the rug”.

“It just doesn’t feel good enough,” she says. “A student has died during isolation. The uni deciding to shove fences up between our accommodations without any regard for how we might feel about it shows how little they’re thinking about our mental health.”

Credit: Farris Ramsey

Rosa tells me she and her friends feel there’s a “lack of mental health support” at the university.

“My personal experience of the mental health service was being basically turned away and told I wasn’t anxious enough to receive counselling. I was directed to a website instead.

“I’m yet to find anyone who can say 100 per cent they’ve felt supported mentally since coming to uni.”

Sophie* was also at the protest last night. She says: “Some people protesting were clearly there because they care about the mental health aspect.”

Millie, Gareth and Phoebe agree, telling me about the “anxieties” they and many other students faced when moving to campus this term. “This was the breaking point for most of us who were already feeling very unsettled about our current academic and social situation,” they say.

They also feel students have been unfairly blamed by many across the UK: “We face the brunt of the blame for the country’s current situation.”

‘There was a food fiasco during isolation’

Rosa says the university “needs to address the food fiasco during isolation”. She’s in a catered halls, so she and her flatmates were alright, but “three days after we got out, four huge boxes of food were left on our doorstep. We didn’t ask for any of it and weren’t told it was coming, and given most of it went off in a few days and there was no way to return it we had to throw a lot of it out, unfortunately.”

Last month, some Manchester Uni freshers having to isolate in halls reported having to wash clothes in their sinks, being unable to get food, and otherwise feeling they lacked support.

Flatmates Millie, Gareth and Phoebe had to isolate, after most of their flat tested positive for coronavirus. They tell me: “We feel we were given almost no support by the university. The little food we did have came far too late within our isolation.”

‘The fences were the last straw’

After a term of built-up tensions, “the fences were absolutely the last straw,” as Rosa says. “We feel totally un-listened to.”

There was mass confusion yesterday as to what was happening when the fences were put up, with students saying they had not had any information from their halls or the university. Yesterday, Alice* told The Manchester Tab: “We were in a Zoom call and we saw barriers going up everywhere. They are slowly going up around each accommodation.” Many worried their halls were going into lockdown. (The university explicitly confirmed this was not happening, stressing students could still come and go from their accommodation as they please.)

Aisha* agrees: “The uni keeps doing things without telling us – there’s definitely a lack of communication.” Millie, Gareth and Phoebe say they “would like the university to provide more support in future, but also to communicate.”

Credit: Felix Kwok, @felixcycat

Rosa says she didn’t “mind” the fences as such, “although they were a little crude, because we understand the implications of a second lockdown.” However, her main grievance is due to the fact students were not communicated with before they were put up: “That caused a huge amount of anxiety in what is already a pretty uncertain, stressful time.”

Manchester Uni’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, said: “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. This will be conducted by Professor Clive Agnew, a former Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students, and our intention is to also include a former Students’ Union Officer.

“They will examine how and, for what reasons, the decision to erect the fence around the residences on the Fallowfield campus was taken and how this decision was – or wasn’t – communicated to students. The report will be submitted by the end of November and we will publish the full report as soon as possible for all to see.

“I will also be meeting with student representatives from the Fallowfield residences as soon as possible, together with our Director for the Student Experience, Dr Simon Merrywest.

“I know the events of yesterday were distressing for many students on a personal level at what is already a very difficult time. I’m sorry for that. I also regret that our actions led to protests and unrest at the residences last night. The fence has been removed today and, in consultation with students, additional security measures will be put in place to help to keep all of our residents safe.

“We would like students to write to us with suggestions about how we can improve safety across our campus sites. Please contact [email protected] with your suggestions.

“If you have been affected by anything that has happened either yesterday or during your time with us so far, or just want to speak to someone then our counselling and support services are available to you. Advice and Response staff will be present at the Fallowfield site next week for one-on-one sessions and we will be holding check in and chat sessions over Zoom. Details of these arrangements will be sent shortly. You can also speak to your ResLife advisors for wellbeing or any other concerns.

“Finally, I want to reiterate that I am truly sorry for the events of yesterday.”

Featured image via Riona, Gareth, Phoebe and Millie

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* Some names have been changed