24 Mar 2021

Student residential advisors 'not the solution' to all accommodation woes

From The House , 6:55 pm on 24 March 2021

Student residential advisors to university halls of residence have told a parliamentary committee they need more support but are not the solution to all accommodation problems.

VUWSA President Michael Turnbull (left) and former engagement Vice President Joanna Li (right) speak to the Education and Workforce Committee about support for students employed by Universities as RAs

VUWSA President Michael Turnbull (left) and former engagement Vice President Joanna Li (right) speak to the Education and Workforce Committee about support for students employed by Universities as RAs Photo: Screenshot / Parliament

Parliament's Education and Workforce Select Committee is holding an inquiry into student accommodation which will feed into the development of a permanent code of practice for accommodation providers.

An interim code of practice was put in place through Parliament legislation following the death of a student in a Canterbury hall of residence which went undiscovered for weeks in 2019.

Speaking at the third reading of the Education (Pastoral Care) Amendment Bill the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins said the "tragic event and the subsequent information-gathering by the Tertiary Education Commission into the pastoral care arrangements of student accommodation throughout the country exposed limitations in the current self-regulating approach to supporting our tertiary students."

Before this Bill was passed a voluntary code of practice was in place which had not been revised for 15 years.

In June the Education and Workforce Select Committee launched an inquiry into student accommodation. Select committees are smaller groups of MPs from different parties which focus on legislation, petitions, and inquiries into particular subject areas. They are also the main point of contact with members of the public who submit their views to Parliament.

Submitters make written submissions but can also indicate if they would like to appear before a committee either in person or via video/telephone conference. Written submissions are published online and can be read here. A schedule of who is appearing can be found here.

This week the Committee heard from the Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association (VUWSA) which represents 22,000 students at the University, 3,000 of which live in a halls of residence.

The 3,000 students are spread across 13 halls of residence or house of residential accommodation which consist of catered, self-catered, undergraduate/postgraduate accommodation and domestic/international students.

"There's a large variance not only in the operation but also what makes up these halls," said former engagement vice president at VUWSA Joanna Li.

"There's also a concerning amount of variance in the management and ownership. Some of them are owned and managed by Vic (Victoria University). Some of them are owned by Vic but managed by another party and some of them are owned and managed by third parties."

Li said there is also an issue with support for students particularly the ratio of support persons to students.

"Out of the 3,000 students over these 13 halls there are only four what we call 'student support coordinators' which act as in-house counsellors. So that essentially means that those four SSCs have to run around 13 halls throughout the week trying to provide care for 900 students each," she said.

A lack of support for Residential Advisors (RAs) is an additional problem Li said. RAs are senior students employed by a University who live on site and are assigned a group of residents. They are often the first point of contact for residents needing assistance or support as they adjust to living away from home. 


"The amount of pay an RA got didn't actually cover rent which means that you had to pay to work and be there which I think we can all agree is inherently wrong," said Li who was an RA in 2019.


"The fact that this employment practice happens shows how unregulated this industry is and the fact the power imbalance means that lots of RAs feel helpless and don't want to ask for help because they're students but also employees of the University."


Following this general summary from submitters outlining their view to the Committee, MPs on the committee can ask questions.


Labour MP Marja Lubeck in Select Committee

Chair of the Education and Workforce Committee Marja Lubeck Photo: VNP / Phil Smith


The Chair of the Committee, Labour MP Marja Lubeck, said she noticed a recommendation at the end of the VUWSA's submission about the number of RAs and SSCs.


"You've mentioned four [Student Support Coordinators] for 3,000 [students] when you started off. What do you think is more balanced? You talked about it needing to be appropriately low but what do you see as a good ratio?"


"At minimum there needs to be one SSC per hall," said Li. "That cuts down on time running between halls to try and look at multiple students. It also means that they can address issues which are unique to every hall."


Li had 28 students to look after as an RA while one of her colleagues had 50.


"I think that there should be a ratio of about one to 20 maximum," she said.


Lubeck said a number isn't a "magic bullet" but asked why there was such a range.


"There are no guidelines at all," said Li. "They split up RAs according to convenience of floors which means if you have a big floor you just have more residents."


National MP Erica Stanford asked how much training RAs receive.


"In 2019 I got four weeks of training, in 2018 they got three weeks of training," said Li.


"But I think we have to remember that I, as a student going in as an RA, was 18-years-old looking after other 18-year olds. We are not the solution, the be-all and end-all to fix everything in student accommodation."


More training and support would be amazing but wouldn't solve the issues that have arisen, Li said.


Green Party MP Jan Logie asked about the pressures on RAs.


"If you wanted to explain in terms of that pressure on RAs and raising concerns when your job and your accommodation, in a city that lacks accommodation, is potentially on line, can you talk to that dynamic and if that's a concern?"


"To be quite honest, lots of students apply to be RAs because of how difficult the rental market is in Wellington right now. It's just easier to have somewhere to live close to university that you know is going to be warm than try and brave Trademe and look for something like that,"


"It does cause a lot of stress because it means a lot of RAs aren't mentally prepared to go into a job like this which isn't a fault of theirs, it's more a flaw of the bigger issues with Wellington's housing crisis right now but that doesn't mean they shouldn't have support."

The Education and Workforce Committee has received 151 submissions to the inquiry and is also hearing from the accommodation providers, universities, individuals, and advocacy groups. 

Its aim at this stage of the inquiry isn’t to pass judgement but to collect as many views as possible before forming its report. Submissions inform rather than dictate a Committee's findings.

Written submissions are published on Parliament’s website and those who appear before the committee are live streamed on the Education and Workforce Committee’s Facebook page.