A group of Manchester University students face expulsion over a rent strike that saw more than 350 collectively withhold more than £2m.
The university is taking action against 11 of its students in a bitter row over rising rents and what some students claim is a failure to provide adequate financial support to those who are struggling during the cost of living crisis.
The students helped organise a rent strike in January, collectively withholding £500,000, which gathered momentum and led to more than 350 students refusing to pay rent again in April.
The action escalated to students barricading themselves in the senior management building on campus for a week – and in another building for 38 days – due to what the students described as “a failure of the university to respond to requests to negotiate”.
Manchester University successfully applied for a possession order from the high court to have the students removed and secured a 12-month ban on occupations on the campus.
Students occupying the building at the time were forcibly removed by bailiffs.
The university said the disciplinary hearings are being held over property damage and injury and intimidation of staff during the occupation, which the students deny.
Ryan Belhadj, a third-year physics student, said the investigation by the university had caused significant disruption and left them worried about their futures. “Two students in their final year are facing the threat that they will be expelled or have their graduations pushed back. They didn’t even tell us what we were accused of until after the investigation concluded.”
He said they were presented with 600 pages of evidence to go through and they will be required to present their defence the day after the end of the exam period.
“The disciplinary action is scaring people and the university is winning. If it’s successful, it will have a chilling effect on free speech for years to come.”
In an NUS vote of more than 11,000 students in March, 97% of Manchester University’s student body voted to back the students, demanding the university drop the disciplinary action.
The potential punishments range from warnings to expulsion and the students believe the university is making an example of them and attempting to misrepresent the students as a “small, extreme and violent group”, claiming the university was lying about them injuring staff.
The university disputes the figures involved and said the proportion of students not paying rent in January was similar to the same time the previous year.
Each student with an outstanding bill was initially fined £25 and the university said 255 students have been referred to a “third-party agency” to collect the outstanding rent.
A Manchester University spokesperson said the institution was taking disciplinary action, alleging “injury to and intimidation of our staff”, as well as damage to property and disruption to teaching.
“These internal disciplinary actions are ongoing, and it would be unfair to prejudge any outcomes at this stage,” they said. “The students involved will have the opportunity to participate in hearings.”
The spokesperson added: “We understand that the cost of living situation is having an effect on students and many of them are worried or in difficulty. Working together with the students’ union, we have taken unprecedented, sector-leading action totalling payments of £9m to support our students.”