This week with my first year Criminology students, we are looking at protest and resistance through art and we have been reading, amongst other things, about border walls. From the Berlin Wall to the Derry walls, from the US-Mexico border to the West Bank wall, border walls are sites where people have come to protest, to risk their lives in crossing, and to express their emotion through painting, graffiti and sculpture. While walls have been used for millennia by groups seeking physical protection from attack, today, Carter and Poast (2015) argue, wall construction is predominantly about economic security.
With walls on the brain, it was interesting timing then to read the story about students at the University of Manchester’s Fallowfield campus who woke on Thursday to find two-metre metal barriers being erected around their accommodation. The fencing was designed to bar entry between different blocks and therefore inhibit household mixing during lockdown. The University had however failed to consult or inform the students of this before the fences went up.
Like students around the country, Manchester students had been encouraged to come to University to study. As is inevitable in close quarter accommodation, thousands of students across the UK have contracted COVID-19. While students had been promised blended learning – a mix of face-to-face and online teaching – the reality has been that many have not been able to attend campus because they are in the loop of recurrent periods of self-isolation as contacts and flatmates test positive or are awaiting test results.
We know now that in September 2020, independent SAGE advised against the movement of millions of students to universities, expect where students were doing practice or lab-based courses where attendance was critical. The scientific advisory group advocated a remote learning model until we were, as a nation, in a position of being able to manage the virus better.
But universities were concerned about losing accommodation income and having to offer fee reductions if students were advised to study from home in the Autumn term. Universities today are much like any large corporation: as well as teaching and research and a large staffing complement, they invest heavily in capital infrastructure – beyond just classrooms and labs, but in study centres, community engagement and business incubation spaces, sport and wellbeing, social spaces – and they invest in developing relationships around the world to solicit fee-paying overseas students.
Most institutions clearly felt that seeking to manage the COVID risk on campus, rather than at a distance, would reduce their economic risk.
Some have used the language of wellbeing to justify their approach. Mental health and wellbeing are critical issues amongst this generation of young people, as well as elsewhere in the community.
Yet, the ‘carry on despite COVID’ approach has not enhanced wellbeing, as the experience of Manchester and other students shows. As young people found themselves stuck in accommodation – in a new environment, with people they didn’t know well – they posted up amusing yet poignant signs with post-its and paper: ‘HMP MMU’; ‘Students not Criminals’; ‘Send Drink’ and ‘9k 4 What?’
Now under lockdown 2.0, universities have been allowed to continue teaching on campus, though “they should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible”. Within this grey zone, staff are therefore required under contract to teach on campus as normal, even where learning could be online. Students have been told not to go home.
I was struck this evening by Michelle Obama’s tweet celebrating the victory of President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris. She said that they would “restore some dignity, competence, and heart at the White House” [my emphasis].
There was no governance rulebook for COVD-19 and mistakes were inevitable. We are all great armchair critics.
What has been lacking however, is the heart to acknowledge and learn quickly from mistakes and the heart to recognise the human (as well as the economic) impact of decision-making.
Rather than keeping out intruders, the Fallowfield fences were meant to contain the COVID risk and therefore the economic risk to the University. Over the day on Thursday, University of Manchester senior management realised their mistake and promised to remove the fencing. What had seemed a good technical fix in a management team meeting, likely looked rather different from student mobile footage of the site, broadcast on national media.
By the evening, students had taken the matter into their own hands and torn the fences down.
Carter, D. B. and Poast, P. (2017) ‘Why Do States Build Walls? Political Economy, Security, and Border Stability’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61(2), pp. 239–270. doi: 10.1177/0022002715596776.