University of Manchester criticised for 'numerous failings' in halls fencing report

3 December 2020, 18:50 | Updated: 3 December 2020, 19:43

Fencing was put up around many blocks and communal areas at Manchester University
Fencing was put up around many blocks and communal areas at Manchester University. Picture: Ewan Massey
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The University of Manchester has been criticised in a report for "a number of failings" after fences were erected around students’ halls of residence.

Students at the university complained of feeling “locked-in” after fencing was put up around their halls ahead of the second national lockdown on Thursday 5 November.

Workers were filmed erecting large stretches of barriers around communal areas and blocks on the Fallowfield campus, home to thousands of mostly first-year students, as England’s new shutdown began.

The Fallowfields Inquiry report, published on Thursday, "identified a number of failings in process and decision making", the latter of which was also described as "rushed".

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

Read more: Manchester University students pull down lockdown fencing

Following talks with students, representatives, senior management and staff involved in the incident, the probe criticised both the execution of and communication around the building of the fences.

At the time, the university said it was designed to make entry and exit points clearer as it stepped up security patrols and coronavirus health messages.

However, many were left wondering whether or not they could leave and accused managers of failing to give any prior warning or explanation before it appeared.

That same day, some students took to pulling down the fencing following a furious protest on the campus, followed by university bosses later confirming they would take all the fencing down the following day.

Read more: University launches fences probe amid 'pressure cooker' on campuses

Watch: Manchester Uni student speaks on tearing down 'prison-like' fences

The University of Manchester's actions were referred to as a "mission creep" in the report, which also condemned the lack of communication with students and any hostility directed to them by staff.

However, it added that staff acted in “good faith” to address all incidents that impacted on student safety and it said workers were put "under undue pressure and burden" due to the pandemic.

Protests erupted at Manchester University and some of the fences were pulled down
Protests erupted at Manchester University and some of the fences were pulled down. Picture: Ben McGowan

Recommendations from the investigation include rebuilding trust with students via improved communication and collaboration.

A new Campus Management Group will also be launched to prevent similar shortcomings in future projects and to allow students to voice their concerns.

However, it says the "unacceptable and antisocial behaviour", such as not socially distancing or hosting house parties, of some students at the Fallowfield site "continues to cause alarm".

Thomas Sutton, 19, who lives on the Fallowfield Campus told LBC: "I expected this year to be different to normal years for sure, but I didn’t expect numerous protests on campus and various incidents from happening.

"The fencing and bringing of riot vans and tactical aid units was an unbelievable act for which I believe Nancy Rothwell should take responsibility."

Ben McGowan, 18, who took part in the rent strike and occupation at Manchester University told LBC: "I think the inquiry confirms everything we already knew.

"Nancy Rothwell has no regard for students' well-being beyond profit and this is just another instance, in a humiliating series of incidents, for the university where they’ve failed to communicate with students and, through their own arrogance and incompetence, acted recklessly and without thought of the consequence of their actions."

Earlier this month, one student left LBC's Nick Ferrari horrified after telling the presenter that he woke up to discover fences around their halls with security guards joking about "trapping" them in.

First-year student Leo Quartermain took part in the protest because he woke up to the fences with no prior warning.

"The university's been quite lacking with communication ever since a few weeks in when a student died and heavily suspected it was suicide, even then they haven't communicated with us," Leo said, adding, "people just feel ignored."

"We woke up to these fences, not knowing what was going on and it all kicked off."

The university launched an inquiry into the events on Friday 6 November to look into how and why the decision was taken to put up the barriers.

In total, the fencing cost £11,000 for four-week hire, installation, inspection and removal of 534 metres, the institution confirmed.

In a statement on 6 November, 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.”

Prof Rothwell added: “I know the events of yesterday (5 November) 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.”

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