Lockdown on campus: how not to run a university

Close-up of chainlink fence.
Photo credit: Wokandapix on Pixabay 

Finn Joughin is currently studying for his A-levels at BHASVIC college in Brighton. Though new to journalism, he has had a play of his produced at Dorothy Stringer School. He hopes to publish more works in the future.

It was around this time last year, as we all began to familiarise ourselves with the new reality of lockdown, that I remember sitting down to dinner with my family and debating on all the different universities my brother, Sam, had thought about applying to.

The expensive but exciting London metropolis? Durham uni with its expertise in physics but lesser student life off campus? There was always the possibility of a gap year, though we all thought it’d be far too much hassle with restrictions, and he’d probably end up not being able to do much of anything.

Eventually, after weeks of discussion, my brother settled on Manchester and after getting top scores come July, he was given a place on the Fallowfield campus, again his first choice.

He was feeling confident as he set off for what was easily his longest stay away from home and, after lots of last-minute hugging, he was gone. Off to start his adult life, meet loads of new people and have fun.

Within weeks of arriving at Fallowfield, it became clear what kind of environment Sam would be living in. Despite the university’s early insistence that all students would need to live on campus during the semester in order to be available for the face-to-face teaching, that simply wasn’t true and for the vast majority of students all lessons were done online, even tutor groups of just five students and one teacher.

Sam mentioned his frustration at seeing the secondary school right next door welcoming in classes of 30 and yet he was expected to do all his learning within a cramped room. Less than two weeks in and the entire campus was forced to go into total lockdown and Covid spread like wildfire in such contained areas. Sam was stuck inside his tiny flat with his seven new flatmates who he still hardly knew.

The university, despite locking its students into rooms which may as well have been cells – and were certainly no bigger – provided very little mental health support and were resistant to any claim that the students deserved repayment for being advised to come in and pay rent despite it all being done on a computer screen.

The toll on the students was immediate. Some were sad, some were lonely. One of Sam’s flatmates, Jimmy, went home for a lengthy break despite the university’s insistence that students shouldn’t travel. In October, Finn Kitson, a 19-year-old second year at the university who suffered from severe anxiety was found dead in his halls. Many saw the university’s lack of mental health resources as a contributing factor.

Come November, the already angered students found themselves making their first national headlines. The night before the lockdown came in, without any warning being given, a massive metal fence was erected around the entire campus, the university claiming a need to ramp up “security measures”. Gates were locked and paths blocked, essentially forcing students to either stay in their flats or leave the university entirely.

Many students were unsure of what they were and weren’t allowed to do and, again, the university offered no support to students and no explanation. Within a day, angry crowds began pulling down large parts of the fencing and an immediate U-turn from the university was issued, with promises to take it all down the next day.

Only a week later and another PR disaster. Zac Adan, a first-year student, was pushed against a wall by staff members only metres from his accommodation and was accused of “looking like a drug dealer” despite having his student ID on him at the time. This act of racial profiling catapulted Manchester into the spotlight again and the university suspended the staff involved and promised to launch an investigation immediately.

If you thought November couldn’t get worse for the uni, well it took less than a week for another serious incident. Students, fed up with the lack of mental health support and no rent fee compensation, broke into the abandoned Owens Park Tower and declared the Students’ Republic of Fallowfield, refusing to leave until the university gave all students 40% off their rent fees.

For three weeks these students camped out there, being delivered food through the windows by friends and being guarded by security members. Eventually, after a video of a staff member slapping a pizza box out of a student’s hand spread around the campus, the university decided to cut their losses and offer a 30% reduction, which the students accepted, agreeing to leave the building.

At Christmas, many students went home but were unsure of their future at the university. Sam decided to stick it out but many voted with their feet and stayed away. Sam’s flatmate Jimmy had gone and seemed to have fallen off the radar.

Then, in February, things seemed to be looking up until students noticed the internet on campus was beginning to deteriorate. Sam told me that for about a month or so, the internet would be on/off, with many students being ejected from their online lessons halfway through.

With no other alternative but to miss out on large parts of his course, Sam ended up buying a total of 100GB of data just to keep up. By March, the university promised it would fix the wi-fi problem but soon after, the internet went down completely. For about five days, students had to make do with whatever they could afford to pay for.

Considering the basic contract promised free wi-fi, crucial when accessing lessons depends on it, it was remarkable to see the university once again offering no compensation – in money or in redoing lessons.

As all of this was going on, the vice chancellor of the university, Dame Nancy Rothwell, had been trying to deflect the blame for it all. Students had been calling for her resignation since the failure of the £11,000 fence system and again after the racism scandal, in which she claimed that she had sent a written apology to Mr Adan despite him never having received it.

By March however, the university was forced to take notice as a petition by the student union reached the threshold number of signatures. An online vote of no confidence in which all students could take part was to be held, and unsurprisingly 89% of the students voted against Dame Nancy. However, the university made clear the vote was not binding and argued that since the turnout was only 13%, she would remain in her position and that it continued to have full support in her.

Of course, what is not mentioned by the university is that the online vote took place at the exact time that the entire wi-fi system had gone down, which caused huge outcry from the students at the time.

What the university have also tried to sidestep is the ongoing row surrounding the huge, supposedly performance-related, salaries of university vice chancellors which on average are some 10 times the median staff rates. (Although to be fair to Dame Nancy, she did take a pay cut in these difficult times: 20%, down to a measly £260,000 last year. She’ll no doubt be on bread and cheese by the summer.)

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Sam was home for Easter, and, compared to how he was back at Christmas, it did seem like things were improving. He told me there’s far less security around campus and at least now he can go out more and experience some kind of uni life.

Looking back on it now, it’s clear that Manchester were simply not prepared to deal with so many students. There was far too little planning for university life in a pandemic, and the need for rent meant they dissembled to students about face-to-face lessons before locking them all inside with no sign of compassion.

The weight of these last seven months has been immense. We don’t know the total human cost yet, but many students have given up. Jimmy has dropped out completely now. He isn’t coming back next year, he may not come back at all. It’s a shocking outcome and a shameful indictment of the so-called ‘education system’.

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