Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 42, November 21, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Students Fight for their Right to Education:

Manchester Students Step Up Fight

Students have responded to the assault on their right to education by the government and university authorities, as they have been treated as incidental and collateral damage in the Covid-19 pandemic. As if the fiasco over A-Level results and the consequent shambles in university selection were not enough, students have been enticed into attending the universities they have been allocated only to face draconian lockdowns at halls of residence at a number of universities. Their enforced isolation has been accompanied by online tuition only. The situation has highlighted once again the incoherence of the government's guidelines, which play fast and loose with the human factor and come as executive decisions without the involvement of the people or the professionals concerned.

Manchester University is a case in point, where since November 12, students have been occupying a disused 19-storey tower block at Owen's Park halls of residence in Fallowfield.

The occupation was begun with the aim of forcing a meeting with the university's Vice Chancellor, Nancy Rothwell. "We will not leave this building until the university of Manchester agrees to meet our demands, and takes student safeguarding seriously," a spokesperson for the occupiers said. "Students have been scapegoated for this crisis, blamed for rising 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."

This is the latest development in action currently being taken by students at the University of Manchester over accommodation standards and expenses, tuition fees, the available learning facilities, and support for health and wellbeing, under distancing and lockdown conditions.

The occupation comes in addition to a rent strike that began on October 5, demanding a reduction in rents and changes to tenancy agreements to provide a no-penalty break clause, along with better support for students in halls.

The approach of the university has been characterised by imposition without the engagement of students in any decision-making. The tipping point was the erection overnight of a fence around the halls on the day England entered its current national lockdown. The halls were fenced off without warning or reason given - later justified by the Vice-Chancellor as there to prevent non-residents accessing the area. Parts were pulled down in protest and the fence was removed the following day. The university has since launched an internal inquiry into the decision erect the fence and the "poor communication" surrounding it.

Students are raising concerns about the cost of rents, the fewer facilities currently available due to virus, and the need for better mental health support. An occupying student tweeted: "We've tried protests, we've withheld our rent and we're being ignored! So, we're occupying the tower until they respond to us!"

The students also launched a petition calling for a partial refund of tuition fees. Those charged by Manchester are £9,250 per year. After recording over 200,000 signatures, the petition was debated in Parliament on November 16.

Labour MP Chris Evans accused the government of having "greatly mistreated" students. "Blame 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," he said. "The government's lack of engagement with these issues is severely damaging."

Replying to the petition, the Government simply said: "Higher education providers must deliver high-quality courses. If students are unhappy, they should first complain to their provider, or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education."

For its part, the Department for Education stated, with what presumably were meant to be soothing words: "We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we have prioritised their education and wellbeing from the start of this pandemic, by supporting universities to provide a blend of online and in-person learning in a Covid-secure way." Universities "should ensure all students, regardless of their background, have the resources they need to study remotely."

In attempting to justify the University of Manchester's position and shift blame to the students, a university spokesperson said: "We are aware of the protest by a handful of students in an empty residential building. We have made it clear to them that they shouldn't be there and that they may also be in contravention of current national Health Protection Regulations. 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 stand of the Manchester students has gained wide support. Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We stand in solidarity with students, who are forced to see themselves as consumers - and are not getting what they thought they were paying for." She added: "You cannot simply cut off funding for universities during a pandemic so any reduction in tuition fees or refunds would need to be made up by the government."

National Union for Students President Larissa Kennedy said: "You only have to look around to see that of course students have been mistreated by the government. We've been consistently ignored, and when we're not ignored, we've been scapegoated as responsible for the second wave. It's no wonder students are angry: we're seeing a new wave of rent strikes, occupations and action."

The university has since announced "a reduction in rent, more flexible accommodation contracts, and increased study spaces". This rent reduction amounts to just 5%, and has been rejected by students, who have pledged to continue their occupations and strikes in January. Furthermore, the university response does not take into account the involvement of students in resolving their concerns. It certainly does not reflect a concern for the overall right of students to a worthwhile education. Nor, it may be added, does it show any recognition of the extra burdens facing lecturers in their role in the pandemic.

The context of the actions taken by these students is one where the approach taken by the government has been to "balance the risks and benefits", within which universities were reopened as a second wave was beginning to develop, with students marginalised and treated as a source of rent and tuition fee revenue. The resulting situation is one of serious Covid-19 spikes within the accommodation blocks where students are living and studying, largely online. These students are currently getting few of the benefits and all of the risks.

Education is not in fact a matter of balance, but a right that governments must guarantee whatever the circumstances. With the overall aim being the well-being of the people, of which education is a vital component part, an approach can be found that allows students and universities to contribute to stopping, rather than spreading, the virus.

It is the government, which refuses to engage with lecturers and their unions, or to put the well-being of staff and students as the guiding principle of their actions, and which makes everything an issue simply of law and order, that is irresponsible. The solution lies in consciously mobilising students, staff, and those in the surrounding communities, so that they are empowered to work out collectively how to provide and receive education, to look after each others' needs so that none are left to fend for themselves, in a manner that guarantees their mutual well-being and the health and safety of all.

(The Independent, The Manchester Tab, Mancunion, People's Assembly)

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