Students at Wellington's Victoria University say they feel blindsided after being asked to pay a "holding fee" for student accommodation they won't be staying in while the country's still at Level 3.
Before the lockdown students were sent an email reassuring them they wouldn’t have to pay for rooms they had vacated.
"Some of you may feel you want to return home at this time. If you do so, we will hold your room and not charge you during this crisis period," the email said.
But yesterday students received an email asking them to pay a $150 per week "holding fee" for their rooms, despite not being able to return until Level 2.
"We continue to hold your room and take care of items you left there. After the fee waiver period ends on 28 April, we will be charging you a weekly fee of $150 for those who intend to return to the hall as soon as they are able."
Ariana Stewart is a student at Victoria and is the co-president on the Executive Committee for Weir House. She says it’s an extra blow for students who were given 48 hours to leave their accommodation and return home.
"I wasn't expecting it at all because the previous email made me feel relieved telling us we would be alright financially, I thought this is awesome they're not gonna make us pay until we return. Then to get that other email suddenly, it blindsided me and shocked me," Ms Stewart said.
Ninety per cent of rooms at the university’s halls of residence have been vacated - 2677 vacated rooms in total - but the university says it needs the money to pay for the upkeep of the halls.
"With the country moving into Alert Level 3 on Tuesday 28 April, and anticipating a shift to Alert Level 2, we are now embarking on cleaning halls, scaling back up our pastoral care support processes, readying our catering service and other aspects of our halls experience,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
The university says it incurred costs of more than $2 million during the five-week lockdown period where accommodation fees were waived for students.
“These costs have not been offset by the Government’s wage subsidy scheme and instead require us to cross-subsidise the halls of residence from tuition fees," the spokesperson said.
"Tuition fees are paid to meet the costs of the teaching programmes for all of our students. They are not paid to meet the operating costs of the halls of residence which are occupied by just a small proportion of our students.
"As a result, this cross-subsidy cannot continue unabated and it is now time for students who wish to retain their rooms to begin to contribute to the costs of the hall operations.”
Students at the Weir House hall of residence say the situation is even more confusing for them, because other students who couldn’t leave the university are now occupying their rooms - and paying a 75 per cent rate - but the original occupants still have to pay the holding fee.
"Our rooms are occupied with students who are paying for the rooms regardless, and now we're asked to pay $150 for a room we are not in," Ms Stewart said.
Green Party tertiary education spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick says the situation has brought to light a "swathe" of cases across the country where university students are receiving inconsistent treatment.
"We know there are a number of different university halls which are contracted out, that is putting an interesting spin on things as we follow down the rabbit hole and see where accountability rests," Ms Swarbrick said.
She says it's possible the Victoria University situation is a breach of the pastoral care code for domestic tertiary students, introduced at the start of this year.
"The excuses we're hearing from accommodation providers seeking to milk these students while they're not there simply don't add up."
Property law experts 1 NEWS has spoken to say halls of residence usually aren’t covered in the Residential Tenancies Act, and because Covid-19 is a unique situation, it won’t be addressed in contracts.
"I would be surprised if there is a contractual right for the University to impose this new payment regime on students in Alert Level 3 to hold rooms," one property lawyer told 1 NEWS.
"In saying that, it's equally likely there wasn't a contractual obligation for the university to give a 100 per cent discount on accommodation during the lockdown period. So it perhaps becomes a balance of fairness between the parties – outside of the strict contract terms."
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says he's asked officials to look into the situation at Victoria University, and to meet with student union representatives to hear their concerns.