University of Manchester security fence inquiry published

Failure to engage with students and poor project management blamed for incident that caused 1,000 students to protest in November

An inquiry into the installation of security fencing around a University of Manchester hall of residence in November – leading to student protests and national headlines – has concluded that “lack of engagement with students and poor project management” were to blame.

The temporary perimeter fence was erected at the university’s student residences site at Fallowfield on 5 November 2020 in response to reports from security officers and Greater Manchester Police (GMP) of an escalating number of incidents that broke the Covid-19 restrictions on large gatherings and mixing of households, as well as criminal activities, including drug dealing and assault, and safety concerns raised by student residents and staff.

A protest of around 200 students began that evening, with numbers growing to over 1,000 students at its peak. Students argued that they had not been warned about the fencing prior to its installation, that they felt as though they were being caged in, that their wellbeing was not being considered and that their safety was compromised by the fencing.

That same evening the university issued an apology to student residents for the concern and distress caused by the erection of the fence, and removed it the next day when it also announced that an independent inquiry would take place.

University of Manchester security fence inquiry: the findings

After speaking to students and their representatives, university senior management and the staff directly involved, the investigators found that:

  • Despite approval for fencing not being sought at the senior leadership meeting, the directorate of estates and facilities went ahead with the plan for perimeter fencing, engaging a contractor
  • Communication with students – in the form of an email, and signage – did not take place until many hours after the fence was erected at 9am. An email explaining the new security measures did not reach affected students until 3.20-4pm.
  • ‘Mission creep’ led to fencing going beyond its original purpose of restricting access points to non-residents, and was also used to target areas within the site where there had been large and illegal gatherings.
  • Those involved in student communications “did not feel empowered to challenge the schedule”
  • The day before the erection of the fence, the residences senior management team and ResLife coordinators warned that there could be a backlash from students: “There appears to have been a breakdown in how colleagues across Professional Services work together in this instance”, the report notes
  • Linking the fence to lockdown, in student communications, was “in hindsight problematic”, as it confused students as to the purpose of the fencing and gave the impression it was intended to restrict their movement

As a result, the University of Manchester has promised to implement the report’s recommendations: making student engagement more effective; ensuring tighter definition of delegations and project management within the professional services; making it easier to challenge pandemic responses; and working with students and staff to address Fallowfield site security, reinforce the need to stay safe and to address unacceptable behaviours.

“We accept the inquiry’s findings in full, and will implement the report’s recommendations urgently,” said Nancy Rothwell, University of Manchester president and vice-chancellor and Patrick Hackett, registrar, secretary and chief operating officer.

“Students should always be at the heart of our University, so we will work with them to find shared solutions to current and future challenges. We have already discussed the report and the issues it raises with elected student representatives in our halls of residence and our Students’ Union officers. We are continuing with those discussions and actions.

“We will also address aspects of our planning and project management. The report acknowledges that the staff involved were motivated by the best intentions – to improve the safety of students in response to many complaints and serious concerns (particularly from students themselves) – while working under pressure. However, the inquiry reported that in addition to student engagement, further authority or approval should have been sought on what was a project with major implications.

“We will follow this up with the relevant directorates and take appropriate actions. We will bring together a group of staff and student representatives to focus on improving student engagement and communications in our residences, and we will urgently address the issues of project approvals, management and execution.

“We are grateful to our former Vice-President for Teaching Learning and Students, Professor Clive Agnew and former General Secretary of the Students’ Union, Fatima Abid for their detailed work on this incident.”

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