University Of Manchester Students Say ‘Blatantly Oppressive’, ‘Horrifying’ Fences Were ‘Unforgivable’
On Thursday, November 5, the UK government implemented a second nationwide lockdown and encouraged people to stay in their homes as much as possible.
While most members of the public still had the option of going food shopping, going for a walk or meeting up with one other person outside their household, students at the University of Manchester awoke to find themselves surrounded by fences, with many feeling their choice to venture beyond the campus had been completely eradicated.
One first-year student, Imogen, told UNILAD students looked out of their windows to see workmen ‘effectively fencing [them] in, with no context, explanation or warning’.
The 18-year-old said exit points were not made clear – an oversight which ‘would’ve been disastrous in a fire’ – and as a result many students ‘genuinely believed [they] were being fenced in’.
The university constructed the fences around its Fallowfield campus, which is home to thousands of students. Another one of the campus residents, Ben McGowan, said students ‘repeatedly asked’ those putting fences up what they were doing, but they reportedly refused to give any answers.
Ben told UNILAD:
It was quite horrifying just how physically imposing it was to wake up and see what you’ve just started to see as your home surrounded by tall metal fencing.
If you pay £6,000 a year for accommodation you expect to be treated with the bare minimum of not being caged in.
To be clear, there were designated entry and exit points in the fences, but it’s evident these were not immediately obvious to those on the inside.
Imogen said the students received no communication about the fences until mid-afternoon on the 5th, when the university sent an email about ‘increased security measures’.
The email stated that ‘fencing displaying important COVID-19 health messages will be installed’ to ‘help highlight main entrance areas’, where security would check students’ IDs and ensure they were permitted to be on the campus.
This came out after the fences had been erected. I would argue that rather than point out the main exit and entry points, the fencing did the opposite and made these points extremely unclear.
The university encouraged students to contact its ResLife team and its Counselling and Mental Health Service for support during the ‘challenging times’, though Imogen already felt wary of ResLife after it failed to get back to her and offered ‘inadequate’ support to students who were struggling.
Ben described the support from the university with regards to mental health as ‘abysmal’, especially considering the thousands of students are ‘mostly miles from home in a city we don’t know with people we barely know’.
Ewan Murgatroyd, a 19-year-old student who is also in his first year, told UNILAD he felt as if students’ mental health ‘has not been taken into consideration’ as the university went ahead with the controversial measures without consulting students or recognising the fact that the campus is their ‘home’.
Imogen said she felt ‘extremely disappointed and surprised’ that the university considered the fences to be a good idea when ‘it seems so blatantly oppressive and miserable.’ Similarly, Ben said the fences ‘epitomised the entire attitude of the uni’ in that it took students’ money and had ‘no regard for [their] wellbeing beyond that point’.
Restricting the greenspace you can use and how you can travel across your own campus when we’re already restricted in where we can go so much just felt like the last straw on top of all the tension built up over the past months.
Imogen said multiple people in her household were in tears as a result of the dramatic measures, and she herself asked: ‘Why am I paying to stay in a place that feels the opposite of home?’
Speaking about how the fences impacted her and friends’ mental health, she added:
I don’t think universities or the government realise how much of a crisis student’s mental health is in right now, and I alone have heard through friends of suicide attempts, dropping out and extremely low feelings.
I understand [the university’s] need to react and put measures in place, but not explaining them beforehand is unforgivable.
The construction of the fences resulted in a ‘general sense of upset and unease’ among the campus’ residents, and in an effort to make their disapproval known students used social media to plan a protest for 8pm on Thursday evening.
Ben said there must have been ‘400-500’ students gathered inside the fencing, where they broke out in chants ‘about the treatment by the uni’ before observing a minute’s silence for a student who passed away at the university earlier this term.
One image showed a student likening the campus to a prison as they held a sign which read: ‘HMP Fallowfield, £9k to enter’. People began to rattle the fences, and it soon became clear to those gathered that they were ‘easy enough to pull down’.
Imogen described the display as ‘passionate’ and Ben said the students were hit with a ‘pure cathartic wall of joy’ as they began to destroy the barricade.
Ben told UNILAD it felt as though the atmosphere on the campus had reached boiling point, and the first fence being pulled down was a sign of things boiling over.
It was a feeling of relief that we could finally make our voices heard. There was a real sense of solidarity and community amongst all us students who’ve suffered through this, coming together in this protest.
Once we tore it down the sense of victory… only spurred us on.
Ewan recalled the feeling of being ‘united’ with his fellow students during the protest, noting that the students are ‘angry’ at having to pay £9,000 university fees plus £6,000 for accommodation, despite the fact lessons are largely online and the accommodation has left students feeling caged in.
As a result of the backlash, the university issued an apology email on Thursday evening in which it acknowledged its mistakes.
The apology, sent by President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, said the ‘concern and distress’ caused by the fencing was not intentional. It stressed that ‘there was never any intent to prevent [students] or other residents of our halls from entering or exiting the site’, and revealed the fences would be taken down on Friday morning.
Imogen said she appreciated the email, and she acknowledged that universities are ‘in a difficult position’ as the government offered universities ‘little specific support or guidance’ when it came to dealing with the pandemic.
However, she also pointed out that the fact the university again encouraged students to contact ResLife shows it does not recognise ‘the faults within its current network of student support.’
Ben expressed his shock at the decision to erect the fences in the first place, saying the ‘stupidity’ of the move ‘really showed just how ridiculous [the university] can be.’
It really makes me think their decisions aren’t just often heartless but recklessly reactionary rather than thought out.
Students are now free from the caging feeling of the fences, but with almost four weeks of lockdown to go they still have a long road ahead. Ben accused the university of ‘failing [its] basic duty of care’, and warned that if it doesn’t offer better support things are ‘only going to deteriorate even more’.
The lockdown is due to come to an end on December 2, and students are set to be allowed to return home at the end of term.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
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