Tension mounts between UoM student protestors and police as tuition fee demo is cancelled following threats of arrests

  • Student organisation SAFER demands partial refunds for students' tuition fees 
  • Protestors say pizza delivered to them in solidarity was intercepted by security
  • They say universities have become 'privatised machines' under the government

A demonstration at Owen’s Park by University of Manchester students over the refund of tuition fees was abandoned after police threatened to arrest protestors.

Student organisation SAFER are demanding a partial refund of fees for the year, and expected a large number of students for the demonstration on Thursday evening.

On the day of the planned protest, police asked that protestors do not turn up at Owen’s Park in Fallowfield, despite the police being informed by event organisers earlier in the week about the socially distanced protest.

The Northern Quota spoke to a SAFER representative, a third year drama student who did not want to be identified.

They said: “We felt the university were putting profit over people and wanted to be a voice for students.

“Specifically, we want to be able to pay what the Open University charge, the undergraduate honour student fee of £6,192 per annum.”

GOV.UK state that a large gathering constitutes 30 or more people in a space, with police citing this as illegal under current national restrictions.

The student group said Greater Manchester Police warned them that arrests would be made and fines issued to any protesters who attended the demonstration.

We reached out to Greater Manchester Police for a statement and received this response:

“We have been working alongside partners at the University of Manchester and Manchester City Council to encourage the organisers to do the right thing to ensure their own safety and the safety of the wider community.

“Thankfully the organisers of the event engaged with officers and have agreed to hold the event in a safe way as to protect themselves and the wider public.

“We continue to follow the national principle of the 4 Es approach and work to engage, explain and encourage before resorting to enforcement where there are blatant breaches of the legislation.”

The protest was staged entirely indoors aside from the small committee of SAFER representatives who read student testimonies. 

SAFER said: “We want our frustrations to be heard and for the university to work with us to plan reductions in tuition fees for the year.” 

Universities have faced criticism from students about the decision to charge full tuition fees during the coronavirus pandemic.

SAFER also demand clarity around why the full fees are still needed, when learning is no longer done on campus for the majority of courses.

The group’s representative said: “Responsibility lies in two areas: university administration is responsible for physical and financial responsibility; they should provide clarity on where our fees are being spent.

“The fees should reflect the diminished level of teaching. The Disability Advisory and Support Service (DASS) have had a number of testimonies which need to be heard.

“Then the government: we think universities should consult with the government. They should work together to come up with a plan to support our financial safety.”

The protest was cancelled following a call from police to a SAFER committee member.

The group’s representative said: “It was frustrating it came so late in the morning. The police said if we go ahead then there may be arrests and fines despite our promises to protest safely.

“We are a non-profit student organisation so can’t subject ourselves to financial repercussions, plus it wasn’t safe to ask protestors to come.

“This decision coming so late in the game seems like a scare attack, but we won’t let them damage our momentum.” 

The SAFER committee met at 8pm on Thursday with megaphones to read out student testimonies, reasserting their demands and asking students in halls of residence to make their voices heard.

The protest aimed to generate traction before the debate in the House of Commons on Monday (16 November). The current petition has 219,000 signatures.

The official governmental response in September put the accountability for charging full tuition fees on universities.

It stated: “Universities are autonomous and responsible for setting their own fees, up to a maximum of £9,250 for approved (fee cap) providers.

“In deciding to keep charging full fees, universities will of course want to ensure that they can continue to deliver courses which are fit for purpose and help students progress their qualifications.

“Any refund would be a matter for universities, so we are not considering a write-off of tuition fee loans.”

The SAFER representative said: “There have been contradictory statements released about where the decision lies, UoM said the government, but the government are saying it lies with the university body.

“It’s very confusing, there is responsibility on the government as they have let universities become these privatised machines.

“They should look out for the problematic situation they have created.”

A group of students from University of Manchester took over a disused student accommodation building with similar aims yesterday in a bid to draw attention to their calls for reductions in rent.

Kirsten, a first year history student living in Oak House halls of residence, Maple Court, is part of the team for the tower lock-in which is still ongoing. 

She also took part in the indoor protest over tuition fees and rent.

Kirsten said that an email from UoM had been sent to all students yesterday morning warning that anyone who went to Owen’s Park that evening would be fined.

She said: “We instead made noise and showed solidarity. The police came with video cameras, we were really loud with the music we were playing, and we banged pots and pans inside to make sure they didn’t fine anybody.

“At 6pm the police came onto our campus, two of my friends spoke to the police and asked permission to peacefully protest in pairs, wearing our masks. The officer told her that they would be fined.”

Kirsten claims that when her friends argued that this was unfair as they were not breaking any rules, one officer said: “It’s my word against yours, let’s see who they believe.”

Eight police vans were dispatched to the Fallowfield campus                                      Image: Kirsten

When she went outside her flat, Kirsten told police officers: “I’m not in Owen’s Park, I’m outside my accommodation. My friend grabbed me and pulled me inside, we then shouted out of the top window.

“Eight officers stood in a row, plus there were eight riot vans out front.

Police lined up in a row outside Oak House halls of residence                     Image: Kirsten

“University of Glasgow tried to send us pizza but the pizzas sent weren’t allowed into the tower our group are occupying.”

Another concern for the students who protested from their flats last night is the waste of resources and police time.

Kirsten said: “Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of UoM, doesn’t want to speak to the students, so sends them instead.

“There is no need for how much money has been wasted: £11k on the fences alone. There are bigger problems than what we did last night, it was crazy.

“This is our home, everyone who had corona kept their distance. If the university are using that as an excuse it just doesn’t hold up.

“I’d like to ask the police, ‘Who’s side are you really on?’

“How can you disagree? We’re looking at the bigger picture in our fight against the government.”