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Call for investigation into students being made to pay for empty accommodation as many move back in

Tertiary students are set to start heading back to their halls of residence from Thursday, but there are calls for an investigation into student accommodation after many students were forced to pay for their empty rooms under lockdown.

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There are calls for an investigation after many were made to pay for empty rooms during lockdown. Source: 1 NEWS

AUT international student Hiroki Kondo says after seven weeks of paying double rent, he’s not sure if he can continue studying.

He was visiting a friend in Rotorua when Level 3 was announced, with a move to Level 4 two days later.

He says he couldn’t get back to Auckland in time, but he’s still had to pay more than $300 a week for his empty room at the Wellesley Student Apartments. He’s also had to pay for his homestay in Rotorua.

“If I was able to go back to Auckland and stay in the student hall, then fair enough, but for students who didn't have a choice to go back to Auckland, this decision that students need to pay for rent is not really fair,” Mr Kondo says.

As an international student, his tuition fees are more than four times that of domestic students, which he can’t get a loan for, and he says the extra financial pressure has left him doubting whether he’ll be able to continue study at all.

“To be honest I don't really want to go back to the student hall now, but for the money I'm paying, I kind of need to go back.”

Tertiary providers charging for empty rooms during lockdown has been a national issue, and the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations is calling for a Government investigation into student accommodation.

President Isabella Lenihan-Ikin says the pastoral care code for tertiary providers which was introduced this year hasn’t been able to provide students with any certainty or support.

“We think it’s really important that there’s a nationwide deep-dive into student accommodation, and there should be regulation to ensure it prioritises student welfare and pastoral care.”

While students have been coughing up, the property manager for Wellesley Student Apartments says AUT hasn’t paid this month’s rent.

Charta Property management says this wasn’t agreed upon, the university simply didn’t pay it.

AUT says that’s because it’s “negotiating” with Charta over rent relief, and that any savings will be passed on to students.

But given all 105 student apartments are individually owned by so-called ‘mum and dad’ investors, Charta says those negotiations will take some time.

Ms Lenihan-Ikin says that’s a “terrible model”.

“Student accommodation should be about providing students with a service that enables them to engage with an academic environment.

"We've seen this system where accommodation is about investment and profit come to light during Covid-19, and I think that requires a dramatic change.”

National education spokesperson Nikki Kaye says she supports the call for an investigation into accommodation.

“What Covid has shown is that we've seen students are very vulnerable. I think there are a variety of arrangements around public and private accommodation that do need to be worked through.”

It comes as the Government reveals it’s keen to get international students back into the country.

Education minister Chris Hipkins told TVNZ’s Q&A programme that international tertiary students are important to help get the economy going and he wants to get them back “as quickly as we can”.

“It may well be possible to build a two week quarantine, which is the quarantine we've currently got at the border into an international education programme.”

AUT says it’s offering a $60 a week utilities credit to students who decide to return to halls of residence, but Mr Kondo says that’ll be no use to him if he can’t afford to return.

“$60 credit per week is not even worth 1/5th of my rent, it’s so useless and pointless. The circumstances are making it difficult to continue studying in New Zealand.”