The University of Manchester student occupation and rent strike – Interview from the occupation


“Senior management at the University of Manchester continues to ignore the demands of worried and angry students who have consistently felt as though the University is actively working to downplay their concerns.”

Student Occupier taking part in the rent strike and University of Manchester occupation.

Logan Williams interviews a student occupier taking part in the University of Manchester rent strike and occupation.

Can you briefly just set the context of why the occupation has taken place?

Last month, around 350 students in university halls chose to withhold their rent to protest the University increasing rent during a cost-of-living crisis. What started with small discussions in nearby pubs spiraled into a campaign which saw hundreds of students get involved. The total amount of rent being withheld by the payment date was over £500,000, and students have yet to pay the rent until the University agrees to cut rent for the remainder of the academic year, provide a partial refund on the October rent payment, and promise not to increase rent for the next three years.

The University announced that it made a surplus of £119 million for the 2021/22 academic year, and still made the decision to increase rent on students for the 2022/23 academic year. Furthermore, the recent financial report of the University of Manchester reveals that they have over £1.5 billion of unrestricted reserves, enough to give each of the 41,000 students over £36,000. The plan to begin an occupation was made by students angry with the lack of movement from the university, and on the 8th of February more than 50 students took control of three key University buildings: the Samuel Alexander lecture buildings, the Engineering building, and the high security John Owens senior management building.

What are spirits like within the occupation?

Spirits in the occupation are high, despite threats from contract security and a lack of comfortable sleeping space in what is a high-stress environment. When we aren’t maintaining and holding barricades against security, we watch films and documentaries on the big TVs in conference rooms, design political banners, and plan ways to increase pressure on the university. A fourth building, the Simon building, was occupied by UoM students, which provided a significant boost to morale. We’ve now held the building for over 120 hours, and have been successfully holding out security so far, which is boosting the confidence of everyone involved.

Is this occupation part of a broader student fightback across the university?

Absolutely, the demands of the occupation include supporting the position of the UCU, as well as real action from the University to tackle the real terms fall in maintenance loan which is pushing students deeper into financial struggle. Students at Warwick, Sheffield and Leeds have also been participating in occupations and direct action this week, and I think we will see action will spread across more universities over the next few months. While the cost-of-living crisis is impacting millions of people across the country, students are on the front line of the crisis, as corporate greed pushes prices up for food, rent, essential items and bills.

What has the response been from the wider student body?

Overall students at UoM and other universities have been very supportive. Hundreds of students have declared their support on social media, and regular food and support packages have been dropped off at the John Owens building to help occupiers inside. A social media poll targeted at UoM students by the Manchester Tab newspaper saw over 80 percent of students indicate that they supported the actions of rent strikers, including the occupation.

This doesn’t just demonstrate that students see the necessity of the escalation but also highlights the great lack of trust between students and university management and shows that more and more students are coming to the conclusion that direct action is an effective way to push for change.

What has the response been from university management?

Senior management at the University of Manchester continues to ignore the demands of worried and angry students who have consistently felt as though the University is actively working to downplay their concerns. We know that they’re feeling increasing pressure from both the strike and the occupation of university buildings but they want to hold out for as long as possible to preserve their reputation and because they understand that a victory for students at UoM will massively increase the confidence of other students around the country to take action.

How can the broader student and labour movement support your occupation?

We’ve already seen massive support from both the broader student and labour movements, with local organisations such as Greater Manchester Tenants Union, Manchester People’s Assembly, and trade union branches passing motions in support of the occupation. Support from MPs like John McDonnell, as well as trade union leaders like RMT president Alex Gordon has demonstrated to student strikers and occupiers that they have massive support from the wider labour movement and boosted morale greatly. A public statement supporting the Rent Strike and occupation has also been signed by many groups and public figures within the labour movement, and getting more signatures on the statement is critical for putting more pressure eon the University of Manchester.

Probably the most important thing that students can do is take action at their own university, as the issue of the marketisation of higher education is a national struggle which needs to be fought by students and the UCU side by side in every university in the country. In the same way which students at UoM were inspired by the RMT, CWU and other unions who are currently engaged in industrial action, I hope that students across the country will join in our struggle and organise their own rent strikes and occupations.

  • The students interviewed has asked to remain autonomous for safety reasons. You can follow the University of Manchester Rent Strike on twitter for more updates about the occupation.
  • Logan Williams is an activist for the National Education Union and an organiser for Arise Festival. You can follow him on twitter here.
Featured image: Banner held at the University of Manchester student occupation. Photo credit University of Manchester rent strike twitter.

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