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Let down and locked down

Students storm Manchester University campus building against rip-off fees and poor treatment

STUDENTS are occupying a Manchester University building in protest against rip-off fees, huge rents and their shocking treatment by authorities.

The group has occupied the empty Owens Park Tower building on the university's Fallowfield campus and say they plan to hold out for a month if necessary.

Their occupation began on Thursday night, just weeks after student Finn Kitson, 19, committed suicide while confined to halls of residence.

Mr Kitson’s father said: “If you lock down young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety," according to a statement from the occupiers. 

They told the Morning Star that they were urged to attend university as usual at the start of the autumn term in September — despite the Covid-19 pandemic — and were promised “face-to-face teaching, and full support” from the university.

But on arrival they were confined to their halls of residence and security guards were posted at entrances.

Food was delivered to the halls but sometimes did not arrive, leaving them with nothing for a whole day.

The occupation was launched by campaign group 9K4WHAT? — a reference to the students’ £9,250-a-year tuition fees. 

The group was formed by students, the Young Communist League, Labour Students and Greater Manchester Tenants’ Union.

One of the occupiers, named only as Lucy, said: “We will not leave this building until the University of Manchester agrees to meet our demands, and takes student safeguarding seriously.

“Students have been scapegoated for this crisis, blamed for rising (Covid) cases and even fenced in their halls — all because the University of Manchester wanted us to pay the extortionate tuition and accommodation fees.

“This cannot go on, and we will continue protesting until we are listened to.”

Last week students tore down fences erected by the university between different residential blocks. A further fence surrounds the entire campus, with entrances and exits staffed by security guards.

Students staging a rent strike say they were threatened with hefty fines by university authorities.

Another occupier and rent striker, named as Ve, said: “We have been forced to escalate our form of protest to an occupation because despite our demands being justified and our complaints having the full support of two UoM staff unions, we have not been given a meeting with management.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “These students were lured into halls on the promise that things could be relatively normal and safe. Things weren’t and still aren’t.

“Following a term of neglect, fences, and now fines, the students are protesting. They deserve better from their university and this government.

Manchester People’s Assembly Against Austerity is supporting the students’ action.

One lecturer said that almost 200 staff had sent a letter to the university's president expressing "disgust and shame" at the treatment of students. 

“I have been at the University for nearly 25 years and I have never been so ashamed to be associated with it," the lecturer said.

"Despite these terrible actions, know that you are valued. You are the beating heart of our university and are the reason why so many of us love our jobs.”

The students have made five demands: a meeting with vice chancellor Nancy Rothwell, mental-health support for students, no action to be taken against rent strikers, a reduction in tuition fees and protection of lecturers’ jobs.

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: "Overall, less than one per cent of our students have so far withheld their rent and we are already engaging with elected students’ union representatives about many of the issues being highlighted by the protesters. The university is fully committed to freedom of expression.

"The president and vice-chancellor have already agreed to meet with student hall representatives and this meeting will take place over the weekend.”

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