Students at Manchester began a rent strike and occupation of Owens Park Tower in response to the University of Manchester (UoM)'s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and perceived student neglect.
The Courier attended the nationwide Zoom rally held 24 hours into the event, hosted by those occupying the building, to witness their attempts to spark action within the student community.
450 people tuned into the rally live and 19,000 tuned into their livestream via People’s Assembly the day before.
The University installed fences around accommodation buildings at the beginning of the second lockdown, which sparked outraged amongst students.
Izzy, a first-year student currently occupying Owens Park Tower, opened the event with a speech. She claimed that students were brought to university under "false pretences" and were deceived that university life would return to "normal". The reality upon arrival for many was reduced services, an increase in rent, and little to no in-person teaching.
The student described how cleaners had been forced into Covid-positive flats and that the response from University management had been one of a disinterested nature - until the occupation when fines were issued, and police being called in to patrol the campus in an attempt to silence the protesters.
This shared experience was re-iterated throughout by students from York, Stirling, and Bristol.
In York and Bristol, rent strikes are escalating. Louis, a rent striker from Bristol, said that UoM was treating students with “absolute contempt” and congratulated them on the occupation thus far.
The update given on the University of Bristol was that they had 1,500 sign-ups for the rent strike, one of the biggest in university history. Despite saying they had “no big wins”, Louis expressed hope that strikers' demands would be met in a meeting with university administration on 20 October and warned that if this did not come to pass then strikers were considering an occupation at Bristol.
Larissa Kennedy, the President of the National Union of Students (NUS), expressed her solidarity with the students in a passionate speech: “the movement is killing it right now”. She went on to say that the current higher education system is “rotting at the core”, a sentiment echoed by Laura Pidcock of The People’s Assembly, and Karen Reissman of People Before Profit.
The demands of the occupation, as stated on the @9k4what.mcr Instagram account are:
This week’s actions have been linked to student-led movements of the past by Louis and others, including protests against rising tuition fees and police presence on campuses.
Kennedy concluded her speech by stating: “NUS stands with you… let’s spread this across the country!”
Corncern was voiced for the government's perceived lack of care towards students. Jo Grady, the UCU General Secretary quoted the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan: “We will return students in January”.
Grady said this phrasing likened students to "cattle [that could be] shoved on a train and moved around the country”; calling it "disgraceful" was to her "an understatement”.
She congratulated Manchester students on involving staff in their demands. Grace Blakely, author and economist, also had concerns about the governmental "negligence" and spoke in solidarity.
Laura Pidcock also emphasised her disdain for the government's attitude towards students. She said that a decade of austerity and cuts coupled with the marketisation of higher education has led to "the ruin of the systems".
Nahella Ashraf from UoM's branch of Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) discussed a similar grievance with the government. She claimed that the government first blamed black and ethnic minority communities for the rise in COVID-19 cases, and is now doing the same with students.
Ashraf said: “It is important that we don’t let this University or this government divide us”.
Pidcock stated: “Another world is possible, one which we can live in peace… but this is only possible with a socialist system”. She concluded her piece with the words “collective endeavour is how most battles are won”.
The occupiers are planning a “week of action” next week, with different activities every day including further direct action on Thursday which they will not disclose. However, there was a protest on 16 November against the racist profiling of a black student at UOM by University security.
Featured Image: @uomrentstrike2020 via Facebook