Manchester Uni starts halls fences inquiry amid 'pressure cooker' on UK campuses

6 November 2020, 19:03 | Updated: 7 November 2020, 07:08

By Ewan Somerville

The University of Manchester has launched an inquiry after security fences were erected around students’ halls of residence as the second lockdown began in England.

Students pulled down the barriers on Fallowfield campus on Thursday evening in scenes of furious protest, after accusing bosses of “locking us up” and being “penned in”.

The fences had been put up around blocks and communal areas as a “security measure” to “help avoid the mixing of households”.

Students told LBC of feeling anxious, isolated and angry when the "prison-like" perimeter fences appeared without any warning or explanation. One banner on a torn down fence read: "PAID, BLAMED, CAGED".

The university has launched an inquiry into the events to look into how and why the decision was taken to put up the barriers.

But student leaders have warned the issue was a flashpoint for a widespread boiling pot on UK campuses with many first-year students feeling they were pressured back to campus on false pretences.

Protests erupted at Manchester University on Thursday night
Protests erupted at Manchester University on Thursday night. Picture: Ben McGowan
Student leaders have warned Covid campuses are now 'pressure cookers'
Student leaders have warned Covid campuses are now 'pressure cookers'. Picture: Ben McGowan

They have criticised a lack of mental health support as England entered a four-week national lockdown, with universities staying open and students told not to return home during term time.

The fencing cost £11,000 for four-week hire, installation, inspection and removal of 534 metres, the institution confirmed. Workers removed any remaining metal barriers on Friday morning.

In a statement on Friday, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor of UoM, said: “Firstly, I want to apologise again for the distress caused by putting up the fence yesterday and the very poor communication surrounding this.

“I am determined to find out what went wrong and to learn from it. As a matter of urgency, I have commissioned an inquiry into these events.”

Read more: Manchester Uni students pull down lockdown fencing around halls

Read more: Manchester Uni student speaks out on tearing down 'prison-like' fences

Manchester University has launched an inquiry over the fencing (pictured on Fallowfield campus)
Manchester University has launched an inquiry over the fencing (pictured on Fallowfield campus). Picture: Ewan Massey
Students pulled down the fences last night
Students pulled down the fences last night. Picture: Joe Hindley/PA

An inquiry – conducted by a former vice-president for teaching, learning and students – will examine how and why the decision to erect the fence on the campus was taken and how this decision was communicated to students.

The report will be submitted by the end of the month and the vice-chancellor will meet with student representatives from the halls “as soon as possible”.

Prof Rothwell added: “I know the events of yesterday were distressing for many students on a personal level at what is already a very difficult time. I’m sorry for that.

“I also regret that our actions led to protests and unrest at the residences last night.

“The fence has been removed today and, in consultation with students, additional security measures will be put in place to help to keep all of our residents safe.”

Read more: Manchester Uni students 'fenced in' as lockdown barriers put up around halls

The National Union of Students warned simmering tensions on other campuses risked erupting like in Manchester. "We’re seeing what can only be described as a pressure cooker atmosphere on university campuses right now,” said Larissa Kennedy, the NUS president.

Earlier Manchester student Billie, co-president of the campaign group Student Action for a Fair Educated Response, told LBC: “You put young people – a lot of them under the age of 20 - all in, like a box, surrounded by strangers in an environment where they’re anxious and scared at everything going on in the world right now and you think their mental health isn’t going to be impacted by you putting up fences around their accommodation with no prior warning?

“This can’t be allowed to continue and students must be, must be prioritised at this time, otherwise we are going to see a lot more terrible headlines.”

Similar rows over alleged heavy-handed enforcement of Covid rules and tensions between security staff and students have been reported at universities in Cambridge, Lincoln, Leeds and Nottingham.

Student campaigners at other universities, including Glasgow and Liverpool, have organised solidarity marches with Manchester for next week, with others considering rent strikes.