Government Tightens Students' Pastoral Care Standards

By Justin Hu (he/him) and Justin Wong (he/him)

The Government has announced stronger pastoral care standards will be in place for all tertiary students from next January.


Under a revised code of practice, tertiary institutions will have to follow more stringent wellbeing standards and domestic students will soon have access to an independent disputes resolution scheme.


Changes were sparked after the death of Canterbury University student Mason Pendrous at his student hall in 2019, where his body went undiscovered for weeks by staff.


An interim code of practice for students’ pastoral care was passed into legislation later that year and was followed by a parliamentary inquiry into student accommodation in 2020.


Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the new standards made clear that the responsibility was shared with education providers and it would further support the wellbeing and safety of domestic and international students.


“Releasing the new code is a big step towards improving student experiences.


“Having positive wellbeing and care is essential for young people to get the most out of their tertiary education experience, when they’re on campus or in university halls.”


The government also says that NZQA will be appointed as an administrator to ensure the code's new standards are being met by tertiary institutions. Education providers are also now required to have practices to take account of student voice.


The finalised code comes after a two- year campaign for improved standards by student advocates. It will merge the existing code for international students and the interim code for domestic students into a single permanent code for all providers.


The new disputes resolution scheme for domestic students will use a similar model to what has already been implemented for international students in 2016.


Domestic students will soon be able to access the service if they have financial or contractual disputes with an education provider that can not be resolved directly with the provider. The scheme will be run by an independent operator. The dispute resolution scheme for international students will continue operating separately.


New Zealand Union of Students' Associations (NZUSA) president Andrew Lessells said that the finalised code was a “very good start”, but required commitment from all parties involved.

“The implementation of the code will be crucial to its overall success. This is the start of better wellbeing and safety of learners, not the end.


“A code that empowers learners and creates consistency is a major step towards creating a barrier-free education sector.”


The release of the final code came after MPs had concluded debate on the parliamentary inquiry into student accommodation by the Education and Workforce Committee.


Throughout the debate, there was consensus amongst speakers that Mason Pendrous’ death had been the wake-up call that lawmakers needed to act, which prompted the enactment of an interim pastoral care code that laid the groundwork for the finalised code.


Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who led the charge against accommodation provider practices, paid tribute to Mason by quoting his stepfather, who had spoken about his death following the enactment of the interim code.


"He wasn't a young man that died alone — he's a young man that changed the law and it doesn't give me comfort, but it makes me feel a little bit happier that he's changed the world," the Green MP said.


Ilam MP Sarah Pallett said that tertiary institutions should be cognisant of the student’s death going forward.


“I would urge all of our tertiary institutes to keep Mason Pendrous in their thoughts as they work to make the positive changes that are so needed,” the Labour MP said.


MPs also recognised the struggles that students faced amid last year’s Covid lockdowns, which had prompted the original inquiry.


During last year’s Level 4 lockdown, practices by accommodation providers were under scrutiny amid complaints of mistreatment at multiple unis. Inconsistent policies between universities saw many students being charged for rooms they were unable to use as a result of the lockdown.


In response to allegations of mistreatment from students, AUT Vice-Chancellor Derek McCormack told the inquiry that “there was not a consistent approach [between universities] because we were all flying blind in a difficult situation.”


Completing their inquiry, the Education and Workforce Committee’s final report did not go as far as some submitters suggested.


The report stopped short of suggesting phasing out for-profit student halls and giving those living in halls the right to resolve disputes with providers at the Tenancy Tribunal, with it recommending to set up a disputes resolution scheme instead.


The committee said that they believed the scheme would be empowered to better resolve disputes between accommodation landlords and students going into the future.


More information about the implementation of the new pastoral care code will be released in the coming months and into 2022.