Image: Wikimedia Commons / Bradshaw79

Manchester University accused of ‘putting profits before students’ in rent protest

Students at the University of Manchester are “occupying” an empty building to protest “extremely high” rent and lack of pastoral care during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The students have asked for their rent to be reduced by 40%.

Izzy Smitheman, an English Literature and French student at the university, said she was protesting at the Owens Park Tower in Fallowfield because the university had “put us on unsafe campuses, paying extremely high rent” and she felt there had been a lack of support.

Speaking to the BBC, she said: “They brought us here for profit rather than our safety.” She added: “We’ve tried protesting and withholding our rent but the university won’t respond to our demands with support.”

Ms Smitheman accused the university of using “fearmongering and threatening” tactics against students taking part in the UoM Rent Strike action group.

Another protestor, Ben McGowan, told the BBC that he had approached the university asking for a refund on rent paid for December, as new government guidelines would force him to vacate. However, the university had “refused to engage” and “threatened with fines”.

Barnaby Peter, who is part of the rent strike, said he had been told his contract would be terminated if he continued to withhold rent.

“We are being charged for things like use of common room facilities which are actually shut, among other things. We are also not being provided adequate mental health support.”

We’ve tried protesting and withholding our rent but the university won’t respond to our demands with support

– Izzy Smitheman

A spokesperson for the university said a “handful of students” were protesting in an empty residential building and they had been told “they shouldn’t be there” and they could be breaking Covid-19 public health regulations.

The university statement added: “We are already engaging with elected Students’ Union representatives about many of the issues being highlighted by the protestors.”

Ms Smitheman said: “We are forming a household. We are aware of Covid and are wearing masks and socially distancing.

“We’re not doing it for ourselves but for every other student on campus.”

On 12 November, the University of Manchester Students’ Union expressed their support to the striking students, posting on their Twitter page: “Solidarity to students occupying Owens Park Tower. 

“Your SU officers are meeting with university leaders daily to negotiate the demands our students have presented as well as a host of other things which have been prioritised by many students.” 

Greater Manchester police have offered their support to the university “wherever necessary” to deal with the students involved.

A spokesperson said: “We condemn any breaches of Covid legislation and the risk it poses to those present, the emergency services and the wider public.”

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