UoM occupation UoM occupation. Photo: UoM occupiers

Students in Manchester are fighting back against the neoliberal university amid the cost-of-living crisis, reports Lucy Nichols

The education system in the UK is completely broken. Neoliberalism has seen the university become a business, where students are the consumers and staff become the product. The problems already present in higher education have been exacerbated by a decade of Tory austerity, the pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis. Knowledge is now a commodity, education is marketised, and students and staff must battle working, learning, and living conditions that range from poor to inhumane.

This is a problem echoed in many establishments around the world, although it is difficult to find a better example of the commodification of education than the University of Manchester, which is a phenomenally wealthy institution and one of the biggest universities in Europe. 

The last three years have been turbulent for the university, which has been rocked by controversy, staff strikes, and student dissatisfaction. We are now in a situation where the UCU has embarked on a course of industrial action; strikes are currently paused but certainly not over. Students have gone on rent strike, refusing to pay for halls of accommodation infested with rats, silverfish, and mould.

Now, students are occupying their university to demand rent and cash rebates, and in solidarity with their UCU branch.

The fightback

Students at the University of Manchester are no strangers to staging occupations, having previously occupied Owens Park Tower in 2020, and the total occupation time since the beginning of 2021 is roughly two months. In the last two weeks alone, students have taken four separate buildings, including the main administrative building for the entire university.

Although occupations are a regular occurrence at the University of Manchester, this most recent wave is unprecedented: no one has ever barricaded themselves into the historical and vastly important John Owens building before. The barricades lasted eight days, until the occupiers inside decided to join the struggle on the outside. They have organised a demonstration on 1 March, and hope to see support from students and local trade-union branches alike.

The action is in conjunction with an ongoing Rent Strike, where 350 students are withholding £500,000 in rent from the university. Another demand is for a £1500 cash rebate for every student, a drop in the water for the University of Manchester, which holds £1.5bn in unrestricted reserves. The final ask is one of solidarity, as students are demanding the university concede to the demands of the ongoing UCU industrial action.

Four different buildings have been occupied since Wednesday 8 February. The occupations have been taking place on a rolling basis, with the Simon building the most recently taken, and currently the only occupation. Students have been running workshops, teach outs, and film screenings from this reclaimed space, to which all are welcome.

In addition to the occupation, the Rent Strike, and the upcoming demonstration, students have planned a variety of actions, including the targeting of a Board of Governors meeting this Wednesday. They do not intend to stop protests until demands are met.

University backlash and public support

The power of these various actions is evidenced by the severe response from the University of Manchester. In the last fortnight, the University has refused occupiers food, locked all but one fire escape in the Simon building, threatened expulsion, and called the police on the occupation. Thirty officers were dispatched to the university but soon left without making arrests, or even entering the building.

The University’s harsh response to the protests has come with the revelation that a variety of accounts, appearing to have been run by UoM employees, have been harassing student activists on Twitter for a number of years. The security crackdown has become more severe since student activists outed these vile accounts.

Management is also refusing to negotiate with the activists, instead relying on the Student Union to relay information back and forth. The argument from management runs that the activists do not reflect wider student opinion, despite over 350 students rent striking, and hundreds more having demonstrated support through an open letter or via social media. The vast majority of students have been overwhelmingly supportive of the actions; even Manchester Young Tories signed the open letter (though swiftly recanted their support).

The occupations have also enjoyed wide support from the UCU. Lecturers have provided gifts of food, including a variety of baked goods, in addition to showing up en masse when students have called emergency demonstrations after threats from the University.

Outside of the university, the response has been incredibly positive. Jeremy Corbyn, along with five Labour MPs, a variety of notable figures from the left, and trade-union branches have signed a letter of solidarity aimed at the University of Manchester. The Manchester People’s Assembly, and Manchester Trades Congress have committed to supporting the student-led demonstration on 1 March, and press coverage has been overwhelmingly supportive.

Unified movements are fighting movements

The student fightback at the University of Manchester has not appeared out of a vacuum, nor is it particularly reliant on the small group of remaining activists that won the Rent Strike in 2020 (contrary to the apparent beliefs of senior management). It has sprung up as a reaction to material conditions of the students and staff in Manchester, and a desire to create a better environment for all. The campaign is run by deeply political students. It is a united front, home to students from a variety of political traditions and across the left-wing spectrum, all of whom understand the need for students to stand in solidarity with staff and all trade unions.

The widespread support reflects the new wave of union militancy in the UK, as more and more people believe in the idea that strikes can win. Though this is not a trade-union struggle, it is another example of a serious struggle, attempting to take wealth from an institution that hoards money and give it to a group of people who have lost more and more during the cost-of-living crisis.

Please encourage your trade-union branch to sign our letter of support, and if you are local to Manchester, please join us on 1 March.

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