AUT leaves student accommodation in the dark during lockdown with no safety precautions in place. Why were residents still forced to pay rent?
By Jack Pirie
Disclaimer: Before writing this article we approached the Vice Chancellor to discuss various student issues. After setting a date he later chose to postpone this interview for over a week. For this reason, this article has been written with the various evidence provided from staff members, residential assistants (RA) and AUT hall residents. In the next issue we hope to see
a follow up of what the Vice Chancellor has to say in response.
Hopefully by now we all know that communication between AUT and its student body has been less than consistent, to say the least. After guarantees from the Vice Chancellor and AUT of an improved relationship with its students after its rocky start at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be little to no evidence of this “progressive relationship.” How do we know this? All we have to do is look at the current situation with AUT Student Accommodation.
That’s right people, the tea continues to spill here at AUT and there has been absolutely no attempt to clean the mess up. In case you need to be briefed on the current situation surrounding the Student Accommodation debacle, here’s a quick right run down of what is occurring. Students are being forced to pay rent whether they are still living in the halls during lockdown, or even if they decide to move home and reside somewhere else.
Many students residing in university halls of residence made the decision to go home and spend level 4 with their close family and loved ones. In times of a pandemic this decision seems justifiable. However, in an official letter sent out to residents, AUT Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack says “very few students were in situations that meant they had to leave.” According to an RA who has asked to remain anonymous from Wellesley Street Accommodation (WSA), this was not the case at all. The WSA RA tells us that leading up to lockdown “we had 48 hours to get ready, no one wanted to be there because there were no safety precautions, no social distancing and absolutely no plan in place” to prepare for alert level four. This statement from Derek McCormack comes across as both bold and insensitive, given that we know that AUT did next to nothing in contacting or assisting residents during this particularly turbulent time. With no consultation or check-ups, how was our
Vice Chancellor able to even gauge the situation, let alone presuppose that students were in an environment that could support them in the midst of a pandemic? Does this presumptuous statement from the VC insinuate that leaving to be with loved ones, in a stable environment, is an insufficient reason to leave the accommodation? We will leave that up to you to decide.
The same WSA RA tells us that they can only describe the management into alert level four as “a shambles.” RAs were reaching out to AUT and CLV (Campus Living Villages) in order to get some sort of information update on anything that might help them better understand what was going on. Despite the multiple emails sent, no reply was seen. Over lockdown there were 100 students residing in WSA out of the usual 500 residents, meaning 400 students had moved out as a result of getting ready to enter alert level 4. At the time lockdown was announced, WSA had no head manager, no guidance and no leadership, “the safer option
was to go home,” says WSA RA. The only communication that the RAs had received during the lockdown period was a message sent via Facebook to see when some of the RAs were returning to work. Residents were expected to pay $300 a week to effectively secure their room. However, a $60 utilities credit was issued to residents who had since moved home.
AUT does not own either of the accommodation buildings that students reside in. The Vice Chancellor says, “We don’t not make a profit from offering on- campus accommodation. Whether students are there or not we have ongoing costs including our regular rent payment to the owners.” However the operational costs of these living facilities are met by AUT who independently contract CLV. All RA’s are under a contract with both CLV and AUT, and at the end of May this contract will move to an entirely AUT contract. Mistreatment towards RAs has been well documented in the past; we understand that RAs are often the first responders to
issues which they simply aren’t trained for, including overdoses, alcohol poisoning and mental health events.
Anonymous WSA RA tells us, “At times you don’t feel like you’re trained to deal with those situations. We’re the first responders, and we’re only paid minimum wage.” The sole training that RAs receive, is a one day mental health and first aid workshop, and to be left in the dark to deal with these issues on a regular basis, alongside the many other issues that have risen during a pandemic, is simply unacceptable. In moving forward, we would like to think that AUT recognises the faults at play here, and provides amendments to these contracts to better support both RAs and residents.
At the time lockdown was announced, WSA had no head manager, no guidance and no leadership, “the safer option was to go home,” says WSA RA.
Additionally, a resident in WSA has said that “they [AUT] like to flaunt their prime location, social environment and access to student services as an excuse to make their rent astronomically high, yet the elevators break down almost every day, the roof leaks, broken insinkerators, towel rails broken. Even the front gate fails to work. We are paying for a building that’s in no way fit to house students.” It is clear that the AUT halls were simply not a stable
enough environment for students to stay in during the lockdown period.
The lack of communication between the institution and student body is AGAIN dreadful. This time AUT has blatantly ignored questions from its own staff members concerned with the student accommodation issue. As prior to lockdown a senior lecturer submitted a question to the Vice Chancellor regarding how students in accommodation will be looked after during that period of time.This question was meant to be addressed during a meeting, only for the question to be moderated out in order for the Vice Chancellor and AUT to tippy toe round an extremely relevant question. This either shows their unwillingness to answer questions that will affect people’s everyday life OR it shows the sensational lack of management and organisation. Let’s all hope it isn’t both.
Some staff members have failed to see the validity of this situation as they claim they only see few students fighting for this cause in various zoom calls that have been held, to which AUTSA staff member Jesse Jones made the clear point “that regardless of whether 4 or 400 felt this way, it’s important that students feel heard.” The Vice Chancellor has said, “AUT is not established to provide financial assistance. That role is the government and we have added our voice to the calls for the government to increase student support at this time.” Leaving us questioning why, only now have AUT decided to lobby the government knowing that they were never going to be financially able to assist students?
With the situation developing day by day,with politicians and media outlets getting involved, isn’t it time for AUT to be held accountable for its actions? When will these questions that desperately need answering be addressed? People are mad and just want to know what is going on.Can anyone give the people the answers they deserve?