As some of you may be aware, across the last few weeks a small number of our students have gained access to, and illegally occupied several of our University buildings, in protest around several topics. We fully acknowledge these issues and have summarised at the end of this piece what we have done (and continue to do) on these matters.
We also understand and support the rights of our students to peaceful protest – that freedom has been reflected in our reaction to date. However, a very small number of students have regrettably been involved in action that is unlawful and has significantly disrupted the experience of other students and staff across the University. This includes health and safety breaches, entry to private office spaces, and injury caused to colleagues.
I therefore wish to update you on what has happened to date, what steps we have taken and the disciplinary and legal steps we will regrettably need to follow.
What has happened?
On 8 February a small number of students began illegally occupying areas of MECD, Samuel Alexander, and the whole of the John Owens Building. We wrote to them to explain our concerns regarding the impact of the occupation on members of our University community and the implications of it continuing, and to provide advice to safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing of all affected (including those in occupation). While MECD and Samuel Alexander were vacated after a few days, the occupation of John Owens continued until 16 February. During this time, a small number of students also began to illegally occupy an area of the Simon Building. Since the students vacated the John Owens Building on 16 February, additional students have now taken up occupation in the Simon Building.
During the occupation of the John Owens Building, students gained access to private and locked areas, and damage was caused to several office spaces. Hundreds of professional staff faced the disruption of being unable to work in their usual way.
Students have now been occupying an area of the Simon Building for two weeks; we have given them formal notice to vacate the building on several occasions.
Our elected Students’ Union Executive Officer team have been in close dialogue with the occupiers on their issues (as elected by our students to represent their interests and are therefore the democratic body through which we liaise on concerns raised by our students). Despite meetings between our Students’ Union Executive Officers and our protesters, the occupations have not ended.
During these occupations, alongside the entry to private spaces we have been very concerned to see evidence of health and safety being severely compromised – both for the occupiers and our wider students and colleagues. Very sadly, several of our Campus Support and Security colleagues were injured when on two separate occasions a group of students rushed the doors to force entry. This behaviour is simply not acceptable.
University operations have also been disrupted; teaching had to be relocated at short notice, and more of our colleagues had to work remotely. In addition to the significant costs of these impacts, further direct costs to the University are also being incurred to maintain personal safety and security, conduct IT and data security checks, deploy extra cleaning services, and pursue proceedings for possession.
At the time of writing, we have approximately 10 students still residing in an area of the Simon building.
What will happen next?
As we process evidence of unlawful behaviour and other conduct which breaches our student disciplinary regulations, we will be notifying those involved that they will face formal University disciplinary action.
Separately, we are in the process of commencing formal legal proceedings to regain possession of our buildings.
As an organisation that takes pride in its sense of community and its wonderful students and staff, it is of course regrettable that these matters are resulting in us having to take action. I hope I have gone some way to explain why we have taken these actions and, will keep you updated.
Patrick Hackett Registrar, Secretary and Chief Operating Officer.
Further information on the issues being raised
On cost of living
We agree that the cost-of-living crisis presents significant difficulties for many of our students and our staff, as they do for many others across the wider region and the country as whole. As a University we have taken unprecedented actions, in collaboration with our Students’ Union, including multi-million-pound package of direct financial support in December and January, with further targeted financial support to those most in need to be rolled out in the coming weeks. Additional funds were also invested in wider student support initiatives in relation to the cost-of-living. This specific package of student support totals more than £9m of sector-leading investment. Students can apply to our long-standing Cost of Living Support fund (awarding non-repayable grants of up to £2,000). We have also provided additional direct financial support for our staff, bringing the total investment of financial support to both students and staff to £20m.
We fully agree that the 2.8% increase in the student maintenance loans provided by the UK Government is insufficient, particularly considering cost of living pressures and we are actively lobbying with others across the sector to encourage a review of this. Indeed, our President and Vice Chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell has been working hard on this with ministers.
We absolutely recognise that the shortage in supply of housing and particularly student accommodation is a national issue, and one which is affecting the whole of Greater Manchester.
We are working actively with our wider partners to monitor the rental market and put in place appropriate support, information, advice and guidance for our students.
We offer a wide variety of accommodation types, and our costs are very competitive both in the city and across our university peer group. We recognise the need to continually invest and there is ongoing investment in residences to update and modernise facilities as they age. Around £25m has been invested in refurbishments at Hulme Hall in the past 5 years, we are beginning a £20m programme of refurbishment work in Dalton Ellis and Oak House this summer and, have spent £90m on building Unsworth Park. Uttley House also saw £1.5m of refurbishment work to provide accommodation, a café and a study hub. We’re also working on a major investment and development strategy, to accelerate the planned modernisation of our student accommodation.
A small number of students are withholding rent from us, but the profile of rent payments in January 2023 remains wholly in line with those in previous periods. We are continuing to collect outstanding payments as normal, with the vast majority of our students having paid.
On staff pay, pensions and working conditions
We were very pleased to hear the news on 17 February that the University and College Union (UCU) have paused their planned strike action until 16 March and have been in negotiations with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) at Acas. The final pay offer for 2023-24 made by UCEA will now be implemented in March.
There is also welcome news on the USS pension. We need to await the formal valuation in the summer, but all the indications are that the USS is now in a positive balance and discussions will follow about restoration of benefits and cuts in costs, alongside significant governance reform.
Many universities, including ours have offered to enter discussions with unions about how we can improve employment contracts and working conditions. Local discussions with our own unions have already begun.