Parliamentary inquiry finds lack of transparency in country's uni hall sector

Imogen Wells
Source: 1News

A report released today has laid out recommendations for the country’s university student accommodation providers.

The inquiry, held by the Education and Workforce Select Committee, was prompted after several halls of residence continued to charge students for rooms they weren’t able to access during the nationwide lockdown.

Submitters to the inquiry, though, said the pandemic merely exacerbated issues faced by residents for years.

“There were definitely some pretty harrowing stories where students felt like they had been exploited,” said Green Party tertiary spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick.

Comments made to the select committee highlighted in some cases there was confusion over who ran the service, whether or not the cost was in-line with other providers and a lack of transparency over what to expect.

“We heard some really harrowing stories during our inquiry from students who spoke of discrimination, poor treatment with mental health disclosures and experiences far short of the inclusive community and support promised in marketing,” said Swarbrick.

The recommendations include improving transparency over who runs and owns the accommodation.

Halls of residence are both owned privately and by the universities themselves.

1 NEWS contacted private student accommodation owners UniLodge and Campus Living Villages for comment.

Campus Living Villages declined to comment and UniLodge did not respond to the request.

The report also asks for more students to be involved in decision making and for more robust internal dispute resolution processes to be put in place.

University halls are currently excluded from the Residential Tenancies Act, which means residents aren’t guaranteed the same consumer protections offered to renters.

The Ministry of Education is also developing an independent disputes process for students to access if an agreement isn’t reached with their accommodation provider following a dispute.

Universities chief executive Chris Whelan said most of New Zealand's tertiary education providers already do what the recommendations ask.

“If you’re a good provider, you’re already delivering on those recommendations. We’re confident universities are already 95 per cent complaint,” he told 1 NEWS.

Another issue highlighted in the select committee process was students feeling unsupported.

A number of them said mental health issues weren’t well looked after and felt residents' advisers had too much expectations put on them.

The report calls for improved training for all accommodation staff.

One former RA, Taylor Cooney, said she was lucky to have such a supportive management team at the halls of residence she was working at — otherwise the job could’ve been difficult.

“It’s a big task to suddenly be given almost 40 people to kind of mentor and look after. I imagine it could be quite overwhelming if you didn’t have that connection or support from the team,” she said.

A permanent pastoral care code is also being developed with plans to be in place by January 2022.

At the beginning of 2020 an interim pastoral care code was introduced following the death of Mason Pendrous at a Canterbury halls of residence in 2019.

It laid out general duty of care requirements for tertiary providers to give their students and also recommended accommodation providers review their systems.

Whelan said the new code expands on the interim one.

“It goes further in sensible places and we’ll taking those on board.”

As they are only recommendations, there is nothing to force providers to implement them.

The Government is expected to respond to them by August this year.