6 Nov 2019

MPs urged to set minimum staff-to-student ratios in uni hostels

6:22 pm on 6 November 2019

An advisor to students in a Dunedin hostel has told MPs that tertiary institutions should be more accountable for the care of their students.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Liam Wairepo, a resident advisor in a Dunedin student hostel, told the Education and Workforce Select Committee most advisors were ill-equipped to deal with serious problems such as sexual assault.

"You always hear stories about horrible things happening in colleges and hostel situations and the stress of that does actually affect the RAs and we see some horrible things with sexual assault," he said.

Mr Wairepo was making a submission on the Education (Pastoral Care) Amendment Bill, which seeks to ensure students live in safe environments and hold education providers accountable for breaches of a proposed code of pastoral care.

The government introduced the bill after it was revealed the body of a dead Cantebury University student went unnoticed in his hostel for at least two weeks.

Mr Wairepo said the advisors in his hostel worked with about 25 students each but a minimum ratio of one staff member for every 16 students would be ideal.

He said the advisors received about two weeks of training on topics including fire safety, alcohol and drugs, and how to support students, but they needed more training on sexual assault.

Hostel staff supported the government's bill, which included a fine of up to $100,000 for institutions that failed in their duty to prevent serious harm or death to a student, he said.

"I know that everyone that I've spoken to in college in Otago is extremely supportive of this and it will make a great difference I believe," he said.

But the Association of Tertiary Education Accommodation Professionals warned the committee that the government was moving too fast.

President Amy Lavini said it called for a review of standards and regulations last year but it was worried the government had not consulted with students and hostel staff about its bill, which is expected to take effect on 1 December.

"I guess we're concerned at the way in which the government has responded to a single situation that hasn't yet been finalised in terms of investigations," she said.

Ms Lavini said the bill took a punitive approach and it needed to provide better support for the people who worked in hostels.

"When you're asking us to prevent serious harm, what tools and means do we have to do that," she said.

Ms Lavini said hostel staff were feeling the effect of public concern about how hostels were run.

"If a call is not returned people are accusing our administrators, 'well that would have been my child that you'd left dead'. That's the kind of thing we're dealing with in terms of the backlash."

Ms Lavini said 10 years ago hostels were dealing with behaviour problems such as alcohol abuse, but now mental health was the main focus.