The inside story of how students took on the University of Manchester - and won

'I didn’t feel like I wanted to be paying for a room I didn’t want to be in'

Good afternoon Millers. For weeks our reporter Mollie Simpson has been speaking to the students leading increasingly noisy protests against the University of Manchester.

For most of the time, it looked like the students were fighting a losing battle, with the university mostly ignoring them and the Christmas holidays threatening to snuff out their campaign.

Then, this week, they got a breakthrough. Mollie sent this fascinating report last night, which really captures the thinking of the students involved and how they felt as they struggled to get themselves heard.

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By Mollie Simpson

“I have a test tomorrow,” Ve tells me, but she hasn’t studied for it yet. She has spent the last two weeks with fifteen other students occupying the Owens Park Tower in Fallowfield. She’s an earnest 18-year-old Religion and Theology student, with deep eyes and a nervous smile, possessed of remarkably high spirits considering how turbulent the last semester has been. 

When she joined the occupation, the other students were effectively strangers to her. All of them have been taking part in a “rent strike” for the past month — a coordinated attempt to make the University of Manchester charge students less in light of the pandemic. When I speak to her on the phone, she’s exhausted from the occupation. Her early days at university have been spent self-isolating instead of drinking, and rent striking instead of smoking joints.

Ve, a Religion and Theology student. Photo by Dani Cole / The Mill.

She puts me in contact with her friend Chris on Whatsapp, whose profile picture is of a black labrador sitting next to some daffodils. He’s a 19-year-old Law student, softly spoken and polite. He tells me many students arrived to find mice and rats in their flats and malfunctioning electricals. “It just wasn’t nice,” he says. “When we had to isolate we weren’t told how we would get access to food or washing.”

It wasn’t long before Ve and Chris had joined the Socialist Worker Student Society, a campus wing of the Socialist Workers Party. “We are a revolutionary socialist group who actively campaign against all forms of oppression, imperialism and attacks on our living standards,” the society says on its website.

As coronavirus spread like wildfire throughout student halls, the university struggled to meet the demand for food supplies and tests. Complaints started to surface on social media and tensions rose. One fresher Fin, an 18-year-old English Literature student, says he decided in September to withhold his rent indefinitely, before there was a formal rent-strike campaign.

Fin, who studies English Literature. Photo by Dani Cole / The Mill.

“Don’t get me wrong, my student gaff was nice, but the rent for what you get is extortionate,” he says. “Some people had rat infestations.” He had been to the odd protest before but says it has been the last few months that have radicalised him.

The campaign began in early October when Ve met Izzy and Chris at a small protest in Fallowfield. Izzy is 18 and studies English Literature and French. She is quiet in person but is “the girl with the megaphone” at protests. “It was just a few of us and we were among the first to set it up,” Ve says. “Face-to-face classes were cancelled once we got here. I didn’t feel like I wanted to be paying for a room I didn’t want to be in.”

The corridor outside Chris’s flat was too narrow for social distancing, and he often brushed up against students from different households. Inside, the fridges were broken and the ovens wouldn’t work. Within a few weeks, Chris tested positive for Covid-19, but he wasn’t told how he would access food or washing. “The standard of living just wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to pay all that money for nothing.”

“I loved the idea of students coming together to take matters into their own hands,” Ve adds, and I can almost feel her eyes shining. “And the protest looked awesome, flares were going off, hammer and sickle flags and banners everywhere.” The campaign’s main demand was an unlikely-sounding 40% rent reduction for the remainder of the academic year.

Izzy, who studies English Literature and French. Photo by Dani Cole / The Mill.

Despite their grievances and enthusiasm, it was a small, slow start. There were a few sparsely-attended protests. “The campaign was pretty poorly run at first,” says Fin. “They put a few things out on social media but I wasn’t convinced. They weren’t really rallying others.”

By the end of October, Lisa, a 19-year-old Economics student who was running the rent strikers social media, told me 215 students had joined the strike by withholding rent. But the protest didn’t seem to have cut-through on campus, and if anything it was diminishing in size. One student, Em, dropped out of the rent strike for personal reasons. And one working-class student, who wishes to remain anonymous, left the movement, telling me they couldn’t afford the potential penalties incurred by rent striking.

Then the students got a lucky break. Without warning, the university erected 12-ft fences around some of Fallowfield’s halls, sparking an immediate response from students on social media. Within hours the fences were trending on Twitter and national journalists were on the scene.

Lisa was one of 700 students who tore down the fences that evening. Suddenly the protest movement had been galvanised. The university apologised and was on the back foot. When Lisa got home at midnight, the rent strike Twitter account had gained 2,000 followers. Support came in from Labour MPs, lawyers, unions and Sally from Hollyoaks. Lisa was the only person in her flat rent striking and admits she had felt alone. But after the fences incident, “Suddenly, everyone was on our side,” she says.

The occupation began a week later. The students needed to keep up the momentum. Chris says they wanted to do “something quite provocative, something that will make a good story.” The tower itself is an old red brick building that now sits empty in the centre of student halls, known for once housing university alumni Ed O’Brian, Jack Whitehall and Rik Mayall.

Among the occupiers was Hannah, a final year student and member of the Young Communist League who didn’t need to rent strike but wanted to lend her experience as a seasoned activist. New to activism and uncertain about whether it would work, Ve, Izzy, and Chris didn’t know anyone else in the occupation or have any reason to trust them. Among the other occupiers was Lucy, a journalist for the student paper The Mancunion, and other freshers for whom the label “revolutionary” was a novelty.

Hannah, a final year student. Photo by Dani Cole / The Mill.

Inside, they settled into a bizarre routine. For Chris, the experience was like being in prison for two weeks: with cold showers, limited sunlight against whitewashed walls, in an empty but fully furnished building. Fin started off organising supply drops of vegan milk, playing cards, mugs and saucepans to occupiers, “But that got a bit boring,” he says. “I joined the occupation a week in, which was much more fun.”

Occupations are a well-worn move in student activism, and this one was hardly putting the university’s nose out of joint. “A disused tower wasn’t quite the most disruptive place we could occupy,” says Ve. She admits the students were having doubts. “We were running out of ideas, we didn’t know if it would work,” she told me. 

And then a video of 18-year-old Somali student Zac Adan being stopped by university security guards emerged on Twitter, and quickly went viral. The video shows two security staff pinning Zac against the wall of a student flat asking to see his student ID — the suggestion being that Adan was racially profiled. The university says it is investigating the incident and told The Mill: “We want to reiterate our firm commitment to zero tolerance for any form of racism, aggression or intimidation, as well as all other forms of discrimination.”

For the second time in a month, the university was in the national news. “That scandal really made our job easier in keeping our movement in national attention.” Ve says. “Obviously it’s not a good thing that someone was racially profiled,” she adds, “But it showed the university up for what they are.”

A group of the rent strikers. Photo by Dani Cole / The Mill.

The protesters caught the attention of activists at Extinction Rebellion, who lent them a projector. On one of the main university buildings on Oxford Road they projected the message ‘STAND UP TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MONEYCHESTER’. Lisa shared it all over social media. 

For weeks the university had stone-walled protesters. The student in the occupation worried about the upcoming Christmas holidays, which would end their protest. But then Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the university for over a decade, offered a meeting.

It was a Zoom call with Kwame Karteng, the general secretary of the student union, and other elected student representatives. Rothwell made an offer that surprised the students on the call: the university would grant a 30% reduction in rent for the first half of the academic year. That’s the equivalent of four weeks rebate or between £400 and £900 off per student, and the university says it amounts to £4 million in rents.

Within minutes news got back to the students in the tower and was greeted with euphoria. “I’m ecstatic. I feel like a winner,” Fin told me soon after. “I’ve already been invited to loads of parties and been offered free beers by my mates, I’m going to be celebrating so hard.”

The students looking out from the tower. Photo by Ben McGowan.

When Ve found out she was sat watching The Trial of the Chicago Seven while Hannah gave her a stick and poke tattoo of the tower as the sun was beginning to set over Manchester. “It all felt very powerful. And painful,” she told me. “It was my first tattoo and first occupation. I was the least experienced in the group. But then I heard that we’d won, and I was floating on air.” 

One of the first things Ve did was run to tell the caretaker that the university had also promised no redundancies for maintenance staff. “He was thrilled,” she says. From her bedroom, Lisa made the announcement on social media, and Fin, Chris, Izzy, Hannah and others left the tower that day, loudly blasting out Loaded by Primal Scream on a speaker.

A university spokesperson said: “The agreement acknowledges that the unavailability of some facilities due to national COVID-19 restrictions has had an impact on the student experience. The meetings also agreed to more rapid action in other key areas, including working together to improve safety and security in halls of residence.”

“There’s a feeling of relief, but I don’t think students feel lucky,” Fin tells me. “They feel like, finally, they’ve got what they deserved.” He knows they got a helping hand from the administration’s missteps. “The university really piled unforced pressure on themselves there, they did the work for us, really.”

Suddenly, the students are fielding calls from campuses around the country. There are rent strike campaigns up and running at Goldsmiths, Bristol and Cambridge. Oh and all the students we interviewed for this story say they are planning to continue the rent strike next term, with a new set of demands.

“Without blowing smoke up my own arse it’s pretty ballsy what we did,” says Fin.

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The portraits in this story are by The Mill’s trainee reporter and photographer Dani Cole.