The head of Universities New Zealand says university accommodation providers could have responded better to last year’s national lockdown.
The admission comes on the first day of the Government inquiry into student accommodation, which was sparked by the issue of university halls charging students for empty rooms during Covid-19 Alert Level 4 last year.
Many students across the country moved home when the nation moved to Level 4 last March.
Some university affiliated halls charged students full rent for their unoccupied rooms, some charged a partial amount, and some didn’t charge at all. At some universities, the charge varied across halls.
Eighteen-year-old AUT student Daishah Morgan says she’s still recovering financially after having to pay double rent for about 6 weeks last year.
After moving out for Level 4 she says she had to pay for her university room, as well as financially supporting her mother whose benefit had been cut.
“It was a grand or two, it did dig in… it’s hard because it’s not always the same situation for everyone, when you go home there might be some more responsibilities that you have.
“I had to work to make ends meet, I missed out on a lot of opportunities to just have fun.”
She says she got a partial rebate several weeks later, but felt unsupported.
AUT’s vice-chancellor Derek McCormack told the inquiry students made their own choice over whether to move out or not, but declined an interview.
The head of Universities New Zealand Chris Whelan says the response from universities could have been better.
“We didn’t have the mechanism to be able to sit down and see how each university was approaching this….We took too long to get to where we got to ... in hindsight would have done it differently,” he said.
He wouldn’t rule out students being charged for empty rooms in the event of another lockdown, but said the issue would be “approached very differently” in the future.
“As a sector we now have mechanisms in place with student voice that means we can very quickly get around the table and we can very quickly come up with some common consistent and fair approaches for all of our student residents.”
The inquiry has received submissions from students, parents of students as well as university and student accommodation representatives.
Along with concerns about universities' handling of lockdown, students talked about a lack of support from universities and the insufficient training provided to residential assistants or RAs.
Student Miriam Lindsay said she was scared to arrive at university and find that her RA was another 18-year-old student.
“Wellbeing wasn’t the first priority. I met this girl who was supposed to be looking after me and she was the same age as me, she was quite inexperienced and was expecting to deal with 30 plus students being our mum, our counsellor, whatever we needed at the time. That was a bit scary moving in and realising all you have is another 18-year-old.
“We were told we’d have wellbeing checks. My RA tried her best to commit to it but it was basically box checking, they were supposed to come into our room and check if we needed extra support but when we did need that support there was no structure to provide it.
“I had a friend with very severe mental health issues. I asked another RA what support they could provide. They weren’t even sure what they could do for her.”
A parent of a student, Lee-Ann Hall became tearful as she spoke of students being “left alone”.
“It is not right that the students were charged when the college had applied for the wage subsidy… it is not right my daughter received no phone call or communication from staff throughout lockdown to check on her wellbeing or mental health or how she was coping with coursework.”
She said the system where RAs are charged with student wellbeing is “children looking after children, young people looking after young people”.
“They can fall through the cracks and become extremely vulnerable … it is not right they are left alone to navigate these times.”
Former RA Liam Wairepo says RA’s often aren’t equipped to deal with the situations they’re confronted with.
“The role of an RA is to provide pastoral care and academic support. There's a lot of things that aren't in the job description things that come up - sexual abuse a lot of mental illness, the question is are RAs equipped to handle this?”
Universities New Zealand’s Chris Whelan says that’s an issue they’re tackling.
“We certainly think that is a problem, we're trying to do a lot more on that. This year as a sector we're trying to get common standards around things like mental health support for students and making sure they have good training.”
Green Party tertiary education spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick says there needs to be more consistency and transparency around student accommodation.
“There’s no universal approach here. Some universities have trusts which facilitate student accommodation provisions, some have decided to contract out, as far as I'm concerned and students are concerned they'd like transparency.
“We can see that some people in not for profit or university run student accommodation typically have a pretty good experience, those in highly commercialised student accommodation typically don't. We need real clarity on the purpose of student accommodation.”