University of Auckland halls of residence charging students for unoccupied rooms

The University of Auckland.
The University of Auckland. Photo credit: Getty Images

A University of Auckland (UoA) student feels it's ridiculous halls of residences are still charging fees to people who moved out at the beginning of alert level 4.

Michael Howell, who lives in UoA's Waipārūrū Hall, told Newshub he feels ripped off that students from other universities aren't required to pay for their accommodation during lockdown.

Victoria University of Wellington students had their hall fees waived during level 4, but Howell says he's paying nearly $270 a week for a room he isn't currently living in.

"We've had to pay the entire time whether we chose to stay there or not. It's a ridiculously high number - it's $268 a week that we have to pay from the day we left to the day we return... We can't go back and get our belongings if we want to go back and [then move out]."

He says the alternative for students who don't want to pay for accommodation during lockdown is to cancel their room and move out entirely. But if they do, students must pay $1500 as an early cancellation fee and Howell believes they won't be able to return until level 2 to retrieve their belongings.

"I do [feel ripped off]. In saying that, I understand the university has fees to pay and people to pay."

As a form of protest, Howell hasn't been paying his weekly accommodation fees but fears there may be repercussions later on for not doing so.

"It's obviously a charge on my account and it's still there, but I haven't paid it because I don't think we should be paying for something that we don't have access to, we don't have the facilities we were promised.

"I understand it's a difficult time for everybody, but I don't think students should be forking out nearly $300 a week - that's discounted, albeit, from the $400 per week - for something that we're not even getting when lots of us aren't even in work during the lockdown."

He hasn't received a late fee penalty, but says it's clear in their contract there is one for people who don't pay on time.

"I'm cautious that there might be some repercussions that come up from that."

Howell, who works as a casual worker, is relying on his weekly student loan payments to help pay for his hall, but that still isn't enough. 

"I get $238.54 a week which doesn't even cover the amount I'm expected to pay. So the loan that I can take out doesn't even cover the accommodation I'm paying for, which is a bit bonkers really."

He says he doesn't qualify for the student allowance - a weekly payment to help with expenses that doesn't get paid back - and instead receives his weekly payments under student loan living costs which he's required to repay. He believes students have once again got "the short end of the stick".

"I don't understand why students are still having to pay when some workers are already benefiting from the Government's handouts.

"Our workers around the country are getting a wage subsidy, we have businesses getting subsidies from the Government... but students, all we got was the opportunity to take out more of a loan."

The Government announced earlier this month that course related costs would be increased by $1000, bringing the total that could be borrowed this year to $2000. Course related costs must be repaid as part of student loans.

UoA spokesperson Lisa Finucane sent Newshub the letter students received notifying them of the accommodation fees update and why these changes were made. It says the university was "working very hard" to ensure students' needs were met both academically and in the services it provides, but it had to review the financial impact of COVID-19.

"Those of you who made the decision to move out temporarily during the lockdown, but are still on an active contract in a fully-catered hall, will have your room account credited $130 per week. This will apply until you are able to move back in or Monday 6 of July (whichever comes first) and will back-dated to Monday 30 March," the letter says.

"Those of you who remain on-site in accommodation with us during lockdown, your fees remain unchanged."

It says the university is unable to access Government support, such as the wage subsidy scheme. And since student accommodation is an ancillary business unit within UoA, it isn't subsidised from tuition fees or Government tuition subsidies. This means they're "required to break-even financially, but do not make a profit".

"This is unlike other New Zealand for-profit accommodation providers, whether they are fully private or operate on behalf of tertiary providers on an outsourced model. These are able to access wage subsidies and other forms of government assistance."

It says while halls are saving on food costs and some utilities, other costs, such as cleaning, have significantly increased.

"Please be assured that we are doing our best to minimise costs and maintain services to you. The University is not making money off our residents during this difficult time."

Students who are still living in fully-catered halls and need financial support are encouraged to apply for the university's new COVID-19 hardship fund.