How the Manchester Student Protests should warn universities to
include students in COVID-19 decision-making
By: Antonia Boorman
Last Thursday night, students at the University of Manchester flocked to the streets to protest the new fencing that had been put up around the university accommodation to force lockdown upon the students. The fencing cost over £11,000 to put up, inspect and to be removed just hours later. This was an extreme waste of university resources that could have been put to much better use, such as investing in better mental health support for students. Students claim the fencing made them feel “trapped like inmates”.
But the protests weren’t just about the fencing being enacted. Many students claim that the fences were the last straw regarding increasing tension around lack communication and mental health support from the university.
Lack of Transparency and Communication
The lack of transparency and communication to students from the university was a prominent issue. Students had not been informed of the fencing and instead awoke to the barriers without warning. Additionally, students’ swipe cards were disabled making them not able to access certain buildings other than their accommodation. Students reported that increased and rash security increased students stress significantly.
Students across the UK are being treated like children rather than the legal adults they are. The measures which universities and the government have enacted especially for students, such as the fencing and enforced lockdown, signify the lack of respect these institutions have for students and young people. Rogers, a university student at the University of Manchester reported that the fences made students feel “like they don’t trust us, it feels like they’re locking us in our rooms”. Simply put, middle-aged or working-class adults would not be treated this way, and neither should students be. Therefore backlash in the form of protests and rent withholding is perfectly appropriate. As legal adults, students are within their democratic rights to demonstrate, as stated in Article 11 of the UK Human Rights Act.
Mental Health and the impact of COVID-19 on students
Students have been told not to travel home under the new lockdown restrictions put in place by the UK Government last Thursday, and instead have been recommended to stay in their university accommodation until the end of the term. The National Union of Students (NUS) has reported that being locked in university accommodation could have serious negative impacts on student mental health. NUS president Larissa Kennedy reported that with regards to the pandemic, students were continually “policed, threatened and blamed to appalling levels”. Many students across the UK have reported feeling blamed for the increased spike of COVID-19. Even here at QUB, students report that its unfair to punish “all students for the actions of some” and that “if something goes wrong it's always the young people to blame”.
The lack of mental health support at universities across the UK for students is unsettling, even pre-pandemic. Students and young people are disproportionately affected by the virus in terms of its effects on their mental health. Yet instead of supporting students, universities treat them like children without autonomy by erecting fencing and forcing lockdowns, all without communication or inclusive measures such as including student representatives’ voices or listening to student unions. Lockdown in itself has negative implications for mental health but being literally fenced could worsen this.
Mental health is at an “all-time low” for UK students, especially for Freshers (First-Year university students). As teaching moves online and students are forced into lockdown in their accommodations, many students are asking what they are paying such extortionate fees or incurring significant debt for. Being stuck in a tiny room without socialisation and staring at a screen all day is enough to damage anyone’s mental health. Loneliness, anxiety, stress and depression have all increased exponentially among students and the devastating lack of support provided by universities puts up the question of why we, as students, are paying so much in tuition and fees if we are not getting a true experience or even the support we desperately need. Students haven’t done anything wrong and therefore shouldn’t be treated as prisoners.
The fencing restrictions were reportedly a result of the introduction of England’s new month-long lockdown restrictions. Additionally, in line with the restrictions, universities were encouraged to move all teaching online for the foreseeable future. Yet, COVID-19 rates on the University of Manchester's campuses have been continually falling over the last month. According to recently published university data, cases at the University of Manchester fell from 2.94%, of the student population, to 0.16% in the last few weeks. As well as falling COVID-19 rates in the surrounding areas, according to data from Public Health England.
In summary, if the cases in Manchester were falling, then why enact the fences? Students were already feeling trapped by not being allowed to travel home until the end of the term. Physically trapping them is not only ironically metaphorical but is just disrespectful. Furthermore, acting in a way that will result in protests and unrest is problematic when trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The University of Manchester should have acted with more foresight, or even thought to consult with student representatives on possible reactions, to prevent demonstrations that inevitably will increase the rates of COVID-19. This can act as a good example to other universities to be more respectful of students wellbeing and intentional with their COVID-19 policies. At the end of the day, students should be treated with the autonomy and respect that they deserve.