For many of the thousands of tertiary students who have just settled into university halls of residence, not to mention their parents, the current parliamentary inquiry into student accommodation will be raising some uncomfortable questions.
The Education and Workforce Select Committee (EWSC) launched the inquiry in June last year in response to the 2019 case of Mason Pendrous who died in his room at Canterbury University's Sonoda hall of residence. Independent provider Campus Village Living runs the facility.
Following a critical inquiry into the tragedy, the law was amended. The education minister introduced an interim code of practice governing the pastoral care of domestic students. (The code has since been extended until the end of this year.)
The select committee inquiry's terms of reference acknowledge the Mason Pendrous case but cast a much wider net, effectively asking how the whole student accommodation sector is performing. Written submissions closed in July last year. Oral submissions close on April 7 this year.
The submissions so far reflect a wide range of student and administrative experiences. They suggest there are genuine, systemic problems with student accommodation in New Zealand that need to be addressed.
'More than just a room'
Halls of residence offer what is commonly assumed to be a "better start" for first-year students. Many of them will be living away from home for the first time. Marketed as "more than just a room", halls can offer meals, Wi-Fi, cleaning and laundry, health care, extra tutoring and "pastoral care".
This doesn't come cheap. Tertiary providers or contracted third parties can charge between NZ$15,000 and $21,000 a year for a small, furnished bedroom and (usually) a shared bathroom. Halls will typically be occupied only from late February to early November - about 40 weeks.
For parents, there is clearly a peace-of-mind factor involved in placing their trust in these providers. But how much do they and their children really know about what sort of pastoral care will be provided?
This is an important question. Residential assistants (RAs), typically older students themselves, handle day-to-day care. The ratio of RAs to students varies (1:32 at one university, 1:50 at another), and there is no regulation of these ratios or their training and remuneration, which are all decided by individual providers.
In cases of financial or contractual disagreement, students have none of the protections available to tenants in flats, including the right to give reasonable notice of an intention to terminate their agreement. Students probably know very little about their rights - limited though they are - before they enter into these contracts.
Students and parents versus providers
Submissions to the inquiry have fallen into two main camps: students, parents and student associations in one and accommodation providers in the other.
Some written submissions from students and parents have been disturbing. They include allegations of inadequate care in health emergencies and failure to properly monitor students' well-being when the country went into lockdown in March 2020.
Oral submissions have echoed those concerns. Students and parents have related personal stories of things going badly, including allegations of racism, financial greed, lack of communication over COVID-19 arrangements, lack of pastoral care and contractual or financial concerns.
On the other hand, providers have argued they are performing well. Calls for a greater student voice in accommodation governance have been opposed as unnecessary because students spend only a year in the halls.
This back and forth has extended to providers rejecting claims they are concerned mainly with profit. They say their priority is the welfare of students.
Students and parents have also complained of being ignored. Providers have countered by saying they act in a "timely and responsive manner".
Generally, providers (including the NZ Association of Tertiary Education Accommodation Professionals) submit they are doing a good job and regulation of their sector is unnecessary. But individual university student bodies, as well as the New Zealand Universities Students Association, are pushing for intervention and regulation.
Ten recommended changes
Given the apparent lack of legislative oversight, the arguments in favour of greater regulation should be listened to. These ten things would improve the situation:
- the section of the Residential Tenancies Act 1986 (RTA) exempting student accommodation should be repealed
- student protections (such as the right to terminate contracts early in certain circumstances) should be included in the RTA
- the interim code of practice should be strengthened to allow for student consultation processes, mandatory training and remuneration for RAs, and appropriate RA-to-student ratios
- the RTA should include a definition of the "services" that should be provided, including such things as meals, cleaning, tutoring, wi-fi, linen exchange, health and counselling
- there should be more transparency, with the provider self-reporting required by the interim code of practice made publicly available under the eventual permanent code
- security deposits paid by students must be held by an independent body, not by the accommodation provider collecting it
- the Tenancy Tribunal should be empowered by a change in the RTA to hear contractual and financial disputes involving student accommodation
- widespread problems with pastoral care need to be addressed, including insufficient training of accommodation staff, as well as lack of cultural competency and diversity
- if student accommodation is truly to be a "home away from home" it should be operated on a not-for-profit basis
- above all, the pastoral care provisions of the Education Act 1989 should be prioritised so students receive "a positive experience that supports their educational achievement".
Students deserve a safe and healthy place to live while they are at university. This consideration should be at the forefront of any law reform, and everything that happens in the sector should revolve around fulfilling that purpose.