2 Sep 2021

Lack of fee waiver information disappoints students stuck in halls of residence

8:52 am on 2 September 2021

Some university students feel frustrated they weren't told what would happen to their accommodation payments before the 72-hour travel window shut two weeks ago, and are now feeling stuck in their halls.

Generic Library / Students

Some students wouldn't be in halls of residence if they had known about a fee rebate or waiver if absent. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Last week almost all universities announced students in halls would have their accommodation fees waived or rebated for those who left for lockdown. Fees will resume normally once students can return to their halls, which is likely to be under alert level 2.

The University of Canterbury is currently not offering a pause on its fees for hall students. Bit it is discussing the possibility with the private partners that operate its halls.

Over 6000 students remain in halls of residences across the country, with most accommodation buildings operating at half full. Otago has the most, with almost two thirds of its students remaining. University of Victoria has about 30 percent.

And while student advocates have said it is good students aren't going to be charged while they can't return to their accommodation, more may have vacated their halls within the travel window if they'd known earlier.

New Zealand Union of Students' Associations (NZUSA) national president Andrew Lessells said messaging to students should have been proactive.

"They should have been clearer with students who did decide to stay, [about] what living in a hall at level four would be like - it is like a managed isolation facility, except it's a bit more rubbish," Lessells said.

Shanay, a first-year University of Victoria student, agrees that's what her hall feels like in lockdown.

Victoria students were on study break when lockdown was announced, and Shanay had been picking up extra shifts at work to help pay for her hall fees, which reach to about $2000 per month.

She said she wished she'd known about the fee wavier before it was too late to move.

"My whole understanding was that, I'm paying - I pay almost two grant a month, so I should just stay, because I'm working to live here. If it was communicated beforehand, I wouldn't be here. Because I don't particularly like being here," she said.

The University of Auckland is the only university that told its students about the accommodation wavier while the travel window was open. Just under half its students remain in their accommodation.

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick, who holds the party's tertiary education portfolio, believes many of the universities were caught off guard by the lockdown, but other outbreaks had always been possible.

"I am really encouraged by the moves of particularly the University of Auckland and frontloading and pre-empting what was going to happen for the two weeks, so that students had certainty. But once again, we've seen that that's not the same kind of approach that was taken across the board," she said.

Last year several universities did not implement full fee waivers for students in accommodation, after closing most halls ahead of lockdown.

Hall students, particularly from Victoria University of Wellington, threatened to strike accommodation fees after the university tried to resume partial fees while the country was at alert level 3 last year.

Swarbrick instigated the national Student Accommodation Inquiry last year, in response to the outcry of students concerned about their rights as residents in halls.

"Student accommodation providers have a legal obligation to the welfare and pastoral care of students who are in student accommodation. So, it is the case that it is incumbent upon them to come up with these solutions," Swarbrick said.

A new code of practice for the pastoral care of domestic tertiary and international learners comes into effect next year, which outlines new expectations that all tertiary institutions must meet for learners' safety and well-being.

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