‘They have manipulated us’: Life inside university tower occupied by rent-strike students

Colin Drury
·7-min read
Students let off flares after occupying Manchester University’s Owens Park Tower (PA)
Students let off flares after occupying Manchester University’s Owens Park Tower (PA)

It is, in many respects, like a thousand other student halls of residence: leftover food litters the kitchen, discarded mugs on the surfaces and a guitar in the corner of the room.

But this building, Manchester University’s landmark Owens Park Tower, has this week become the front line of an increasingly bitter battle between students across the UK and the very institutions they attend.

Nine teenagers have made headlines by occupying the 19-storey campus block — a long-disused residential complex — in protest at the way (they say) universities have mistreated and misled youngsters throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

They’re furious they spent summer being told that plans were in place to ensure learning would go ahead largely as normal this term — only for those reassurances to melt away once tuition fees and accommodation rents were paid. Soon after which, students were informed that, actually, things had changed, teaching would be almost exclusively online and, by the way, most facilities would be closed too.

Chris Adair, a 19-year-old law student, spoke to The Independent while sat in the tower on day eight of the occupation. He said he felt the university had “manipulated us for profit”, adding that they felt deceived and like the university "has shown us no regard or due care”.

These nine, it is worth stressing, are not alone in feeling cheated.

Hundreds of other young scholars, both here and in Bristol and Glasgow, have withheld rent in protest at the treatment, while further direct-action is also being planned post-lockdown across a variety of campuses including in Sheffield, Newcastle and Cambridge.

A petition calling for partial refunds of tuition fees, meanwhile, has been signed by more than 220,000 people. “Blamed for the rise in Covid cases, locked in accommodation in new cities with no support network, and not receiving the teaching they have paid for,” was Labour MP Chris Evans’s damning summary of the current student experience during a parliamentary debate on Monday.

Critically, perhaps, many youngsters feel their health has been put at risk by being placed in halls where little appears to have been done to prevent contagion: at least 45,000 students have been infected nationwide. A simultaneous lack of mental health provision has only added to the sense that profit is being put before people.

Here in Manchester itself, meanwhile, a controversial decision to fence off the university’s Fallowfield campus at the start of the new lockdown — an apparent attempt to stop students leaving the site, students say, while the university has disputed this and says the barriers were put in to prevent non-residents from accessing the campus — inflamed tensions so much that said fences were torn down within 24 hours.

All of which led, last Thursday, sometime around 10am, to these nine youngsters grabbing some essentials (“sleeping bags, toothbrushes, banners”) and climbing through an open window of the Owens Park Tower. They barricaded the front door with a bunch of sofas, declared squatters’ rights and within a couple of hours had popped flares out of top floor windows to announce their arrival.

Izzy Smitheman and Hannah VirgoThe Independent
Izzy Smitheman and Hannah VirgoThe Independent

Now, the group – members of UoM Rent Strike and 9K4WHAT – are planning on staying here until the university agrees to discuss their demands: 40 per cent rent reduction, better mental health support and a commitment to reopening facilities in a Covid-secure environment.

How’s it going so far?

Pretty good, it seems. They’re eating well (homemade curries have been dropped off by supporters), keeping up with lectures online and, given this is an old residential block, have all managed to get a bedroom complete with bed, mattress, wardrobe and desk.

“It’s actually bigger than my room in halls,” says Izzy Smitheman, an 18-year-old English Lit and French student. “It’s literally an upgrade.”

When they first arrived, they explored the whole building. They found nothing of real note save some old Christmas decorations and a bunch of paper timetables from years back. “We were looking at them getting nostalgic,” says Adair, who is originally from Leicester. “Like, ah, remember when you could go to lectures.”

Since then, their days have been a whirlwind of media calls, Zoom meetings with local MPs and hosting workshops aimed at encouraging activism in others. The living room — table, sofa, Pride flag — is a hive of activity, from which FOIs are fired out and solicitors contacted. “Harder work than you’d imagine,” is how one describes the occupation.

In the evenings they have a rule not to plot and plan new moves but they invariably end up doing so anyway: “It will be like 1.30am and we’re all fizzing with ideas,” says 18-year-old Hannah Virgo. One night, in a moment of group solidarity, they all had permanent stick and poke tattoos of the tower etched onto their skin.

“I think it will be cool to be older and have it as a reminder of trying to do something that mattered,” says Virgo, a religion and theology student from Wokingham. She pauses. “I don’t know if everyone’s parents know we’ve done that yet, though.”

Tattoos possibly excepted, their folks are, they say, proud of them. “They’re completely supportive,” says Smitheman, from Bristol. Their only real issue, she says, is she’s so busy she’s “not calling them as much” as they’d probably like.

Parents are not the only ones who have offered encouragement either.

On Tuesday, a number of staff at the university came to the tower to read a letter of support, while Afzal Khan, MP for Manchester Gorton, has offered advice.

“Students across the country have been placed in an extremely difficult position this year,” he tells The Independent later. “I’ve spoken with the students and with [the vice-chancellor], and I believe a solution can best be reached by open and honest dialogue.”

Therein may lie the sticking point, however.

Perhaps in a similar way the British government doesn’t engage with kidnappers for fear of encouraging such behaviour, so the university top brass is refusing to speak to the Owens Park Nine.

“We don’t have direct dialogue with students engaged in occupation,” says Professor April McMahon, vice president for teaching, learning and students. “Our students are politically conscious and active, and we try and facilitate that. It’s good for them and for staff. But occupation is not the right way to do this.”

She appears largely unrepentant about the institution’s actions over the last four months and denies students were ever misled.

“We didn’t ask for this pandemic,” she says at one point, before suggesting an offer made on Wednesday of a fortnight’s rent freeze should satisfy students.

It doesn’t. As those in the tower point out, the gesture is the equivalent of a 5 per cent discount over the year. They call it “laughable”.

When asked why the university had instructed security to block media from entering the occupied tower — The Independent ducked in during the confusion of a shopping delivery — McMahon refuses to comment. “I don’t have anything to say about that,” she says before adding: “We do believe in transparency.”

Owens Park Tower, Manchester UniversityPA
Owens Park Tower, Manchester UniversityPA

Striking a slightly more emollient tone a day earlier, vice chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell told students she was sorry for any mistakes made and the university “will try to do better”.

But, in an interview with the Manchester Evening News, she suggested the university — and others — had faced an unprecedented crisis.

Senior leaders had to consider financial implications of their actions, she admitted, but added: “The safety of our students and our staff has to be the first consideration, always.”

Back at Owens Park Tower, it is an assessment that is met with disbelief. “We know these have been unprecedented times,” says Adair. “But the university has shown almost no empathy or preparedness … We had a right to expect better."

Virgo has a more blunt assessment. “Thousands of students with coronavirus, hundreds more suffering mental health issues and no face-to-face teaching? Well done, Manchester University.”

As for the future, the group insist they will stay here until the university opens dialogue with them.

What happens if it refuses? What happens if they’re still waiting at Christmas? Will they spend the festive period here?

“We’ll have to see what happens,” says Smitheman. “But I don’t think any of us are prepared to let this go.”

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