Students on rent strike occupy University of Manchester building

Student protesters have occupied a building at the University of Manchester, saying they will not move until the vice-chancellor meets with them to discuss their demands.

A group leading a rent strike on campus are calling for rent reductions, a no-penalty early release clause from tenancy contracts, and better support for students in halls of residences amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Protesters have hung banners from a disused tower onsite, saying “this is an occupied building” and “put students and staff before profit”.

“They have flares, as well,” Barnaby Fournier, a first-year on rent strike watching the occupation from the ground, told The Independent. “The atmosphere was pretty buzzing.”

He went on strike over the cost of rent while fewer facilities are available due to coronavirus restrictions, he said, adding he also wanted to see better mental health support. 

The University of Manchester rent-strike group said they would not move from the tower until several conditions were met, including the university meeting and agreeing to their original rent-strike demands, and promising no penalties for rent strikers.  

One student tweeted: “We’ve tried protests, we’ve withheld our rent and we’re being ignored! So we’re occupying the tower until they respond to us!”

Another student, Ben McGowan, told The Independent he was on rent strike over several issues he was unhappy with, including “a promise of face-to-face teaching that was reversed within a week” and “countless issues with accommodation”, such as flooding.

He said last week’s fencing scandal — where students woke up to find their accommodation surrounded by a fence — was the “tipping point”.

University of Manchester students told The Independent they received no warning about the fencing and did not know what it was for, before noticing it on the day England went into lockdown.

The university has launched an inquiry into the decision making and “poor communication” surrounding the fencing, which saw parts pulled down during a student protest the same night it went up.

The fence — which was put up around the Fallowfield halls of residence — was taken down the day after it was put up amid the backlash.

It was in response to concerns about non-residents accessing the site, and was not intended to stop students from coming and going, the vice-chancellor said

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “We are aware of the protest by a handful of students in an empty residential building. We have made it clear to them that they shouldn’t be there and that they may also be in contravention of current national Health Protection Regulations.

“We are already engaging with elected Students’ Union representatives about many of the issues being highlighted by the protesters. The University is fully committed to freedom of expression.”

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