Ignored, Enraged and Blamed: The British Students Holding It Together

University students across the UK speak up regarding the lack of support they've received from the Government this year, and University of Manchester students win rent reduction following protests against fencing around their accommodation.

WORDS Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

Students across the UK have been completely abandoned, left alone to fend for themselves over the pandemic. A long silence followed by a swift move to online teaching left students across the UK wondering what lay ahead in their rather pricey education.

After months of silence, students begged the government to acknowledge their struggles and provide some sort of solution. Following these pleas, the government suddenly remembered that students did exist but instead of offering a solution, they saw an opportunity to avoid blame. Students went from being forgotten all together to becoming the scape-goats for an incompetent government.

With no access to an effective and regular testing system or a comprehensive and clear set of rules to follow, it was already looking bleak for students, both starting and returning to their university studies. On top of the worries that come with returning to some semblance of a life pre-Covid, students have been burdened with the blame for the government’s short-falls, and are now facing the possibility of policies eerily similar to that of a police-state.

The guidelines in place for the past month allowed for more movement than experienced in the previous lockdown – you could leave your home with members of your household whenever you wanted and meetings with one member outside your household were also permitted. Similar rules are now in place depending on which tier you find yourself in.

Although there was no rule banning people from leaving their home, first year students attending the University of Manchester woke up one day to find themselves being fenced into their accommodation. Overnight, the institution had surrounded the accommodation building with metal fencing – a dramatic and unnecessary ‘precaution’ which aimed to deter students from entering or leaving.

In defiant protest, the students tore down the fencing holding them in all while donning their masks and being respectful of social distancing. In a video shared to the Manchester Students Union Twitter page, one student rallied the group, “they only decided to do this after they had our money from the rent…they made us come here yet they continue to blame the students for the spread of the virus!”

Manchester students pull down the fencing around their accommodation – @BenMcGowen

The University has since apologised and removed the fencing, opting for a less authoritarian way of implementing the new government guidelines. The Vice Chancellor and President of the University issued a statement explaining their intent behind the fences, “The fencing was intended as a response to a number of concerns received over recent weeks from staff and students on this site about safety and security, particularly about access by people who are not residents. There was never any intent to prevent students from entering or exiting the site.”

Student timetables were released unusually late this academic year and no indication was given as to whether teaching would be virtual or not; these factors pushed many students back to their term-time residents to simply sit alone and be taught through a screen. In light of the second lockdown, students had been told not to return to their family homes which left many, like me, alone and with no support, despite the horrendous impact these isolations have had on students’ mental health across the UK.

At least one university student has committed suicide since the start of term and yet there has been little support from the government or universities across the UK for student mental health services. Instead, students have been blamed for the spread of the virus, held in their housing and been threatened with further bans on returning home over the christmas break.

“A mere month after moving into my accommodation (Staniforth House), one of the eight people in my flat tested positive for the virus and I was forced into isolation with this group I had only known for 4 weeks. Though it was a good bonding period, I felt quite lonely and was effectively separated from my family and everything I had known before. I had only had the opportunity to attend one in building lecture and the quarantine period left me feeling removed from other students in my class. During my flat’s quarantine we weren’t offered any help in getting resources from outside; the building staff told us to ask other students living in the building to fetch food shopping for us instead of offering any help. We weren’t even allowed to go to the laundry room to do our washing – we were told mop buckets would be provided to hand wash our clothes but these never materialised. I felt abandoned by the accommodation staff, it was as though we had been forgotten about. Though I am back at home now for Christmas, I am terrified to go back and face the possibility of a second quarantine period.” – Anonymous first year student attending Birmingham City University.

Manchester students rally together to protest unfair renting costs – photograph by Joel Goodman

The overarching question that looms over this student crisis is: why were students sent back to their universities in the first place?

The government didn’t even mention university students until they began to blame them for the surge in cases; there was no guidance from the UK government to reduce the risk imposed or to move learning online, and universities were advised to remain open during the second lockdown.

It was inevitable that there would be a spike in cases, so how do we end up in this situation where students are being sentenced to house arrest and being banned from walking around the cities in which they reside? The answer is simple, money. Universities and private landlords needed to guarantee the income from student rent. By releasing timetables late and giving no indication as to whether teaching inside the building would resume, students had no choice but to move closer to where they study and pay rent to live in isolation.

Staniforth House is a popular student accommodation block for many students attending university in the UK’s second biggest city, Birmingham. This particular building is owned by Unite Students, the UK’s leading student accommodation provider who own 140 similar accommodation blocks across the UK.

Staniforth House, Birmingham, UK – UniteStudents

A standard room in one of their 8-10 person flats will set you back £154 a week – that’s about £600 a month. For argument’s sake, let’s say you rent that room year round; that costs you £7,200 a year. Unite students can house around 500 students in each block of flats, which means they rent to around 70,000 students across the UK. Now let’s say that the government forces all university teaching to move online, meaning all these residents decide to stay at home to study this year instead. That’s a loss of £500 million for Unite Students alone.

According to government statistics, there are around 2.4 million UK students currently studying in a university setting. That would be a loss of roughly £1.1 billion in rent if students decided not to return to their various sites of student accommodation and privately rented properties.

The Government are not only using students as a scapegoat for their own incompetence, but are also abusing their power to ensure landlord income doesn’t dip. It’s hardly surprising when, in the UK, we are practically run under a system of ‘government by landlord‘, where a quarter of all ministers – including Boris Johnson – are currently collecting rent while answering to a parliament where one in five MPs are landlords.

It wasn’t just the fencing that the students of Manchester were protesting against. After the fences were gone, they switched their focus and started demonstrating against the lack of support shown by the campus staff.

I felt abandoned by the accommodation staff, it was as though we had been forgotten about. Though I am back at home now for Christmas, I am terrified to go back and face the possibility of a second quarantine period.

Anonymous first year student at Birmingham City University

The students have now been granted an ‘accommodation package’ promising to reduce rent by 30% for the upcoming January payment, as well as pledging to open up more social study spaces that can be used in accordance with the social distancing guidelines. A massive win for the student population, putting a whopping 12 million back into the pockets of Manchester students – but they’re not stopping there.

Manchester students continue to protest despite the accommodation package. Currently, many are calling for the removal of various senior members of university staff; a petition calling for a referendum of no confidence received 400 signatures in just 5 hours, allowing the entire Manchester University student body to vote ‘no confidence’ in Nancy Rothwell (Vince-chancellor of UoM). The students are making their opinions heard – they claim that the senior staff members have shown complete disregard for the welfare of both students and staff throughout this first term in order to keep money coming into the university.

Students in St Peters Square protest to reduce tuition fees – @FournierBarnaby

The students have seen the power they truly hold – by raising their voice in concern they managed to improve the situation for so many around them. This has spurred them onto other subjects; the student body are now also protesting to reduce tuition fees, arguing the online teaching model is not as beneficial or costly, so why should they pay the full tuition cost? This is an argument echoed by many students across the UK. Will others find inspiration in the efforts of Manchester students and join them in protest?

For students, Covid-19 is more than a public health crisis; it’s a mental health crisis that they’re willing to stand against.

It could be said that Manchester students have started a revolution!  We’re now seeing students in Sussex, Oxford and Liverpool also calling for rent strikes. Decreasing the amount of rent that students need to pay would allow for that money to go towards other necessities. The impact of job losses or reduced furlough income has left many facing money troubles with seemingly few options to improve their standing. For students who don’t live in accommodation sites and instead rent from private landlords or live with family, rent strikes are redundant. Instead, many are seeking to gain an increase in maintenance loans to cover the loss of income affecting them, or those they live with. 

“I strongly believe that having no change (increase) to maintenance loans feels wrong, having to be at home near all the time means my bills have gone through the roof (better wifi for accessing lectures, increased use in electricity and heating). I feel as I have been left in the cold”  – Bertie Ayres, Third Year Student studying at BIMM.

For students, Covid-19 is more than a public health crisis; it’s a mental health crisis that they’re willing to stand against. For Boris Johnson and the Conservative government, Covid-19 isn’t even a health crisis but instead an economic one. To them, one death is a tragedy, 100 is a statistic and 60,000 is an economic crisis.

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