28 Apr 2020

Charging students for accommodation could breach new law

6:52 pm on 28 April 2020

New Zealand's student body president says university halls that are still charging students for accommodation could be in breach of a new law designed to protect them.

Student hall of residence Cumberland House.

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Halls linked to Canterbury, Auckland, Otago and AUT universities are offering partial rebates, while Victoria is charging students a placeholder fee from today.

The Education Pastoral Care Amendment Act came into effect after the death of Canterbury student Mason Pendrous, whose body lay undiscovered in a hall of residence for weeks.

The Act sets out a general duty of pastoral care that tertiary education providers have for domestic tertiary students, and specific requirements for those who provide student accommodation.

It reads: "Providers are required to support the safety and wellbeing of students and improve the consistency of standards in student accommodation."

New Zealand Union of Students Association president Isabella Lenihan-Ikin said the Act leaves a gray area for students left out in the cold due to Covid-19.

"It's really hard to determine if there's been a breach. But given the fact that [the Act] was born from the tragic death of a student in accommodation, there is a focus on accommodation. And I think at a time where students aren't in halls of residence and they aren't getting pastoral care support, it is very murky as to whether they are receiving the pastoral care requirements stipulated in the new Act."

The Ministry of Education is currently not allowing anyone who left university halls prior to lockdown to return during alert level 3.

Lenihan-Ikin said students should get in touch with their university's student union and their vice-chancellor directly.

"We're also working nationally to ensure that there's a consistent approach and there is some national cohesion during this uncertain time."

Partial rebates for Otago, Auckland, Canterbury students

Otago students have received partial rebates of $120 each week since lockdown began, a university spokeswoman said.

Otago halls cost about $400 a week, depending on the college, she said.

The rebate will continue "until lockdown conditions enable us to welcome students back to their colleges".

"The $120 represents our best estimate of the actual savings we are accruing through the students being away (mainly food-related, but also some other items) plus an additional factor on top of that. We estimate the actual savings at $80 to $90 a week, so the additional component on top of that is $30 to $40 per week."

The halls had remained open, with about a third of residents remaining there during lockdown, she said.

No one from the University of Auckland was available for an interview.

But in an email, the university confirmed it was providing rebates of $130 each week for students in catered halls and $60 a week for those in self-catered halls.

Auckland University sent letters to students earlier this month stating: "The university is not making money off our residents during this difficult time."

"Please be assured that we are doing our best to minimise costs and maintain services to you."

While it was saving on food costs and some utilities, cleaning expenses had significantly increased, the letters said.

All of Canterbury University's halls are managed independently. Some have offered students a 50 percent discount, but others have not received this.

"Some halls affiliated with UC have yet to finalise fee arrangements for the lockdown period, but have suspended fees in the meantime, and will set appropriate fees and send invoices when a clearer return date is advised by the Government," Canterbury's student services executive director Lynn McClelland said.

She said welfare checks were still being done on students in residence, and "UC is also calling students to ensure that they are safe and well."

Massey, Lincoln, and Waikato universities are not charging students.

Waikato states: "Accommodation payments are being suspended for all students who leave accommodation."

Statements on the Massey and Lincoln websites state accommodation fees will be held in credit for students who have paid in advance.

But Lenihan-Ikin said the fact some are charging and some aren't means student face unfair outcomes.

"The different approaches is fuelling this sort of melting pot of confusion which is so hard for students to understand, when all the services they're getting is pretty much the same across the country - irrespective of their university or tertiary provider."

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick has promised to address the situation with tertiary providers and asked people to send her correspondence they had received from their universities.

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