Image source: Wikimedia

Last week, the University of Manchester was met with riots after it fenced in students at Fallowfield Campus. The 7ft high fencing costing £11,000, which had been put up to address safety and security concerns – in particular, to keep non-residents off-site, was torn down by students who released smoke bombs and started an impromptu protest. The President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell has apologised for the ‘concern and distress’ caused to students and has launched an inquiry into the incident. Why did the University of Manchester feel this was an appropriate solution and why did it fail?

            In their statement, the University stated that they had installed the fencing, “as a response to a number of concerns received over recent weeks from staff and students on this site about safety and security; particularly about access by people who are not residents.” This is not an unreasonable concern to have and there are solutions. Universities could increase security patrols, give students security cards or increase CCTV coverage. This is a proportional response. Fencing in students is not a proportional response. By fencing in students, they imply that the students cannot be controlled and that they are the ones at fault. The University is now putting in place alternative security measures, including additional security patrols. Why was this not the first option? 

            A major complaint by students was that exits and entrances were blocked by the fencing. This is not the first university which has experienced this problem during the lockdown. In September, students in Marsden House at Leeds University found exits to their accommodation repeatedly locked with chains and cable ties. IQ Student Accommodation and Leeds University released statements saying they had not placed these locks, but The Fire Brigades Union strongly tweeted, “Blocking a fire exit is incredibly dangerous – and it’s illegal. […] There are no two ways about it: blocking, locking and tampering with fire exits kills people.” Had there been a fire or situation where students needed to evacuate, students could have been in serious danger.

            The return of students to universities has brought to the forefront two key issues: the cost of higher education and mental health support. A brief look at the hastily drawn signs shows you the clear anger of students who have travelled across the country for a £9,000 degree only to stay in accommodation and attend online courses. This is on top of the litany of disasters in the last few months that students have had to face, including cancelled exams and a results day fiasco. With no offers for a reduction in fees for reduced face-to-face teaching or inability to take part in societies, it’s no wonder one sign read, “The Most Expensive Prison”.

            Student mental health has been an issue for many years, particularly during the pandemic. Most students live in densely populated accommodation, something Fallowfield is known for. Given lockdown restrictions, students may struggle to find green spaces, essential to maintaining mental health, as well as the social interaction that helps students adjust to university. As first-year English literature undergraduate Ewan said to the BBC, “You’re in a completely different city and you do feel lonely there and trapped.” Having watched videos from the protest, you can understand students’ increasing anxiety over mental health provisions following recent events.

            Universities are facing an unprecedented challenge. No one wants to extend the feeling of lockdown and imprisonment any longer than necessary. So why construct a physical manifestation of everyone’s worst feelings around lockdown and actually imprison students? Why not spend the £11,000 on a marquee for people to sit outside, or on supporting the mental health services, or even give the money to students? Some students are still unsure about whether they can go home for Christmas and they need to be able to trust their institution. These students are in their first year of university. Many are living away from home for the first time in a city they do not know with people they hadn’t met until they arrived. These students are potentially vulnerable. The University of Manchester needs to positively reengage with Fallowfield Campus urgently, or risk an entire year group becoming disenfranchised.

Image source: Wikimedia

Carol Jones

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance composer.