Victoria University of Wellington students refuse to pay $150 per week 'placeholder fee' for unoccupied rooms

Angry students living in the Victoria University of Wellington's on-campus housing are planning a rent strike after the school refused to waive fees during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

The students have created a Facebook group calling for university housing residents to "advocate for a rent strike of the $150 per week fee in place for unoccupied rooms during alert level 3."

Before New Zealand went into the COVID-19 alert level 4 lockdown on March 25, students living in the Halls of Residence were told they didn't need to pay for their accommodation if they weren't living there during the lockdown.

However on Friday an email was sent to students informing them they would need to pay a "holding fee" for unoccupied rooms from April 29.

In the email, a copy of which has been provided to Newshub, director of Student and Campus Living Rainsforth Dix says the $150 fee will cover "holding the room and taking care of items left there".

One of the strike organisers, Maha Fier, told Newshub they feel the university is taking advantage of students during the lockdown.  

“The university is unjustly exploiting students [and] leaving students with even further financial stress.”

Fier said students who aren’t playing face the prospect of having their contracts cancelled.  

She said lots of students are angry and unable to pay the fees. 

The ACT Party's youth wing, Young ACT, have supported the rent strike, saying charging a placeholder fee is "unacceptable".

The party also slammed other universities who are charging fees while students don't live there. 

"What happens if the students do not pay placeholder fees is unclear, but to hold students' belongings to ransom during a crisis is unacceptable - and to charge them for a service they aren't using is criminal," Young ACT said in a statement on Sunday. 

"Young ACT is calling for a total fees strike from all hall residents impacted by these policies. Students should not pay their fees for the duration of level 3 as the universities have no claim to make students pay it. 

"Our universities should immediately rescind this policy and not use a crisis to further bleed the wallets of students dry."

On Saturday, a Victoria University spokespersons acknowledged that the fee is an "unwelcome charge", but stressed that it's actually a bargain. 

"Instead of paying all the costs of the halls, the university will now move to a policy of passing on 100 percent of the savings from the partially empty halls to the students through the discounts it is offering," they said. 

The spokesperson said the university has incurred costs of more than $2 million since the lockdown began. 

"It is now time for students who wish to retain their rooms to begin to contribute to the costs of the hall operations. 

"We will charge a weekly fee of $150 to hold rooms for those who intend to return to the hall as soon as they are able. This fee is heavily discounted. We are also discounting a portion of the activity fee students pay," they continued.

"With the country moving into alert level 3 on Tuesday April 28, 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."

Students who are financially struggling are urged to apply for hardship support through the university.