University staff may be fired if student accommodation 'holding fees' aren't paid: Victoria University vice-chancellor

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

The Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington says students’ education will suffer if they don’t pay a $150 weekly ‘holding fee’ for student accommodation they can’t access.

A group organising a rent strike at Victoria University of Wellington has grown to 1000 members in less than 24 hours, after the university announced the fee last week.

Students say they were originally told they wouldn’t have to pay for rooms they were advised to leave during the Level 4 lockdown.

In an email sent to 1 NEWS dated April 16th, students were told the following:

“Students will not be charged for any time they are not staying in the halls due to closure or other reasons related ot Covid-19.

“Fees due for the second instalment will be credited towards when the lockdown is lifted, and you arrive back in the hall.”

Some students say they were given 48 hours to pack their things and leave when the Level 4 lockdown was announced.

Ministry of Education rules mean those students must now stay where they were during Level 4, and can’t return to their halls until the country moves to Level 2.

Students who couldn’t return home before the lockdown were moved to Weir House and are paying a 75 per cent room rate, but the original occupants of those rooms say the university is double charging by asking for a holding fee from the original tenants.

In an email to students yesterday, Victoria University vice-chancellor Professor Grant Guildford said the halls operate as a “cost-recovery ancillary operation”.

“Without the hall fees being paid we are having to cross-subsidise the halls from the tuition revenue – disadvantaging the quality of the education of all students.”

He said the other option was to fire staff.

“Or we cut the costs of the halls which would means a lot of staff (including RA’s) losing their jobs which is the last thing we want to see happen," he wrote.

The university says it has not received the Government wage subsidy, but several of its halls have.

The Helen Lowry Hall Board has been paid $54,688 for 11 staff, and Victoria House incorporated has been paid $46,288 for nine staff.

Campus Living Villages, which operates Victoria Universities Te Puni and Everton Halls, as well as both of AUT’s halls and several halls at the University of Canterbury, been paid $915,789 for 150 staff.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins and other education officials are understood to be meeting with student groups tomorrow to hear their concerns, but he told 1 NEWS he “wouldn’t expect” halls receiving the Government wage subsidy to be charging students for empty rooms.

AUT is charging students full rent for unoccupied rooms, around $300 a week, but says students staying away from their university accommodation will receive a $60 ‘utilities credit’.

AUT students 1 NEWS has spoken to say they don’t know when they are receiving that credit, and most have paid more than $1000 for their empty rooms since the Level 4 lockdown started.

Victoria University student Azaria Howell is helping organise the Victoria University rent strike, and says she was disappointed with the response she received from the vice-chancellor.

“We weren’t really happy about it, it made it seem like the only option was for students to get a worse education, or that RAs would lose their jobs."

“It’s really unfair for students who are struggling, I lost my job when we went to Level 4.

"I think it’s preying on students who don’t have a lot of money at the moment. I’m one of these people, when we’re forced to go home and pay money for a room we’re not in, it’s just rubbing salt in the wound.”

In her press conference today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called for universities to act with compassion.

“The message we have strongly been sharing to anyone who’s in a position where they’ve got tenants, be they commercial or residential, is to apply compassion at this time. It’s a tough period for everyone and we want to see humanity in everyone’s approach.”

The New Zealand Qualifications authority says universities are independent from the Government and are able to set their own pricing structure for accommodation and similar services.

“These are commercial decisions which are managed entirely by universities themselves,” NZQA Chief Executive Dr Grant Klinkum says.

But there’s pressure on the Education Minister to step in, with the Green’s Chloe Swarbrick and National’s Nikki Kaye writing to officials in support of Victoria University students.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster said he’s contacted the university about the situation which he says “doesn’t seem fair and reasonable”.

“As a council we are not charging for services that people can’t use. It should be no different for other organisations.

“They seem to be trying to claw back costs but the question is, is this the right way to cover your costs?”