AUT Pushes Back Against Inquiry Into Student Accommodation

By Justin Hu (he/him)

News Writer


AUT vice-chancellor Derek McCormack has told an inquiry into student accommodation that the uni does not believe the sector needs major reform.


In a written submission to the parliamentary inquiry, the university told MPs that it disagreed with the premise on which the inquiry had been based upon. It added that the university believed “the vast majority of students thoroughly enjoy their hostel experiences.”


Oral submissions were heard by Parliament’s Education and Workforce Select Committee in March, including dozens from ex-hall residents and student groups who were heavily critical of the existing system.


MPs also heard submissions from universities and accommodation providers, who were largely in support of the status quo, including McCormack.


The inquiry was launched following perceived student mistreatment amid last year’s level four lockdown. In oral questioning, the VC retrospectively said the industry had been “flying blind” with inconsistent approaches at different universities.


Speaking on AUT’s position via Zoom, McCormack generally focused his oral submission on conveying that the university’s scale of accommodation was smaller and different to other universities.


“AUT has had a very low number of student accommodation beds. We're the second biggest university, but only have 709 accommodation beds [...] I’d like to emphasize the importance of understanding the very variable approach by universities to providing student accommodation,” said McCormack.


“The idea that there is disparate treatment assumes that all the accommodation should be consistent, that the standards should be the same, that the services should be the same, I think that’s problematic. The committee needs to consider that student accommodation needs to cover a range of cases,” McCormack continued.


Submissions by the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations (NZUSA) and five other uni student associations emphasised that the groups believed students entered into an industry without sufficient regulation.


“The system for student accommodation in Aotearoa New Zealand is broken. The lack of regulation and protection for students means that the system has become out of control,” the NZUSA authored in its written submission.


“Student accommodation has been treated by providers for the last decade, as a cash cow, as a way to make money out of students,” said NZUSA’s president Andrew Lessells.

AUTSA was one of only three university student associations that did not make a submission to the inquiry — alongside AUSA (University of Auckland) and WSU (Waikato University).

Students groups critical of the current system emphasised that halls are not subject to the Residential Tenancies Act and currently sit outside the jurisdiction of the Tenancy Tribunal. Many were critical of perceived power imbalances between universities, providers, students and RAs. Some recommended that student accommodation become not-for-profit endeavours nationwide.


AUTSA was one of only three university student associations that did not make a submission to the inquiry — alongside AUSA (University of Auckland) and WSU (Waikato University).


During last year’s level four lockdown, practices by student accommodation providers were under scrutiny amid complaints of mistreatment at multiple universities. Inconsistent policies between universities saw many students being charged for rooms they were unable to use as a result of the lockdown.


Students at AUT-affiliated accommodation were told to continue paying for their rooms, even if they chose to return home. One of the university’s providers, Campus Living Villages, was also accused of threatening to cut off students from student services for unpaid lockdown accommodation bills.


When questioned by Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick as to whether the university would have retrospectively done anything differently, McCormack said that all universities were "flying blind" in the first lockdown.


“There was not a consistent approach [between universities] because we were all flying blind in a difficult situation. [...] In a difficult situation, we did the best we could without making a tax on the services that would be provided to other students,” McCormack said.


The vice-chancellor added that the university had offered significant rebates and didn’t ask students to leave halls. McCormack also said: “I'd certainly change whatever gave us such a negative run in the press.”


Swarbrick, who is the Green Party tertiary spokesperson, led the charge against accommodation provider practices under last year's level four restrictions.


The now-Auckland Central MP described regulation around student accommodation as a “makeshift house of cards” and said the industry was a “wild west” amid the lockdown.


The inquiry was also fuelled by the 2019 death of Canterbury University student Mason Pendrous, whose body was only found decomposing in his student hall weeks after he had died. The death led to an interim pastoral care code which will now be revised into a permanent long-term code by 2022.


Oral and written submissions received in the inquiry are intended to assist the development of the permanent code. Recommendations on effective operational models for accommodation and halls conflict resolution are also expected from the inquiry later this year.