In November a group of Manchester University students occupied a campus building to protest against their treatment by the university authorities. One of the students involved gave us this interview.
At the beginning of this semester people understood that the university had to make decisions to stop the spread of corona virus. Then what annoyed a lot of people was that just one week before we were all due to return to start our course which we’ve all paid a lot of money for, we got an email saying there would be no face to face teaching. All the people who are coming from outside Manchester and from abroad had already signed contracts for very expensive accommodation, either private accommodation or in student halls. This was done on the promise that there would be some face to face teaching. That email, the week before term started, made it feel like there was a deception. It felt like the university knew that this was going to be the case but didn’t tell students because they didn’t want landlords or their own student accommodation to take a financial hit. The university has essentially defended landlord’s income and their own rental income before defending the interests of students.
So that’s when the seeds of mistrust were planted. Then we also heard the staff were receiving emails saying ‘yes we know your work load has increased but you have to do this’, backed up by threats of redundancies. So that was pissing the staff off.
At that point no-one was particularly organising around any of this. What I’ve noticed about these protests is that they are mostly spontaneous and only after a protest has happened do groups begin to organise around it. You’ve got all the groups, like the Labour Party, the Young Communist League (YCL) and other groups, thinking something should be done but actually they were taken by surprise by the spontaneous protests.
In Manchester there were two big events. First was Manchester Metropolitain University’s lock-down of student halls because of covid – that caused massive panic amongst the Met students – and they started putting up all those protest posters in their windows and someone stuck up ‘9k for what?’ So the YCL, Manchester Tenants Union and other groups all came together to form a group called ‘9k for what?’ and then we realised there were groups called ‘9k for what?’ forming all over the country so we all came together to form a national group with branches at the different universities.
Then the other spontaneous event which had a big impact was when Manchester Uni put up the fences around accommodation halls. That led to people just panicking and coming out, angered by the uni acting in such a disgusting way. The Uni had lied to them about the teaching and now it was locking them in. They’d got the students here on false pretences, were overcharging them and now this. All in the general marketisation of education. You see the general deterioration of respect for the students, for their conditions and the conditions of staff. That fence was a final straw. People just began coming out of the building and ripping the fences up. Then a student welfare group called SAFER really focussed on that and organised a protest just on the question of student welfare. That gained wide support and that campaign and ‘9k for what?’ have been responding to these spontaneous actions. Its like prodding a beehive, you prod and prod and then suddenly the thing erupts. Really the problems has been going on for a long time, this marketisation of education. The corona virus has just amplified everything and the beehive has exploded. Now the bees are organising themselves and fighting back.
Normally when you do an occupation you occupy somewhere that is strategic but because all the uni staff are working from home it was very difficult to find such a place. We chose a building more for its publicity focus. Manchester Tower in Owens Park is an iconic building, a piece of the Fallowfield skyline and we thought if we get in there, cover it with posters we’ll get publicity and we did. Virtually all the newspapers had pictures of it. We wanted to bring to the forefront a critique of Manchester Uni and because the staff were supporting us its really brought out things. Yes the students were pissed off because they had spent all this money on nothing but there is much more behind it all. All these recent events are a catalyst for something that’s been building up for a long time. These universities have just become businesses I think the support we’ve got, from the public both for students and the staff, is more than we’ve ever had.
We’ve tried to involve the overseas students as much as we can but of course their responses are very mixed but all of them have their own problems on top of ours. For example they haven’t been told when or if they can go home for Xmas but they have to book flights, that can’t be done at the last minute.
Because the universities have been marketised, the students aren’t seen as part of the university any more, as people deserving respect, but just as sources of income, as customers. We’re not communicated with as adults.
I think students are being conned but there are now lots of interesting discussions going on about what’s happening to education. We don’t get half the services that we’re supposed to get and we don’t get face to face teaching – all this and they still want to charge us 9k a year. People are realising the Uni doesn’t give a shit.
A new student committed suicide not long after arriving this term. Even his father came out and said this was the university’s fault. They refused to accept any responsibility and when they put that fence up, right outside the window of the flat where he committed suicide, they hung a notice on the fence saying ‘put up to protect student welfare’. Things like this have all fed into people’s awareness of how the uni is going. The marketisation of education becomes visual. The dynamics which where there already now become openly apparent. When push comes to shove the university will defend its bottom line before anything else.
Previously, a lot of people who had been campaigning on campus for a while may have seen it through Labour Party eyes, put a lot of emphasis on Labour, but that’s dead now and people have been joining other groups like the YCL but also you see more grass roots campaigns springing up, like the 9k for what? or rent strikes,. You’re seeing a lot of people who weren’t involved in stuff getting active now and coming up in a more grassroots way and I think that’s more where the left is now. People begin to see electoralism is dead and they are turning to more left wing parties, to a more radical outlook. Even the people still in the Labour Party are turning to doing more grass roots stuff and I think there’s a lot more unified action from the different left groups all getting involved in the same campaigns, like the rent strikes. After the death of the Corbyn project things feel less factionalised, people are coming together on campaigns without the electioneering and party politics getting in the way.