Get private companies out of University accommodation


A few weeks ago, a student was found dead at the University of Canterbury. The discovery of the 19 year old who was estimated to have been dead for 8 weeks. It has kicked off a storm about whether profit-making companies should be in the business of managing tertiary accommodation.

Many students in halls are young people away from homes for the first time in their lives. Many will be nervous, and have no friends. They will not be in familiar environments and will be feeling stressed at having to fend for themselves all the while getting their studies underway.

In a country with an on-going mental health emergency, it seems that one of Christchurch’s biggest employers, the University of Canterbury has failed to heed the message: looking after student mental health is essential. It seems that Campus Living Villages has failed in its primary duty of care to the people that inhabit the villages it is responsible for looking after. And its Chief Executive has not helped things by saying:
“IF something needs to change…”.

No “IF’s”, “BUT’s” or “MAYBE’s” mate. Your company mucked up. Your company can fix up.

Then it can leave the tertiary accommodation sector.

I see no place for private companies in tertiary accommodation. If there need to be, they should be New Zealand companies operating to New Zealand law. A foreign company operating under a minimalist management model where the ratio of Residential Assistants was kept to a bare minimum – 54 students for every R.A. More importantly the two R.A.’s were only working part time, which further reduces the amount of contact time they had with their charges.

It is the culture that should be truly alarming. A human being dead for weeks would have been entering a horrible state of decomposition by that point – how could someone not have noticed the smell or perhaps other biological indicators such as ants or flies or maggots(!)? Why did no one from his courses contact the halls to see where their student had gone or to see if he was even still going to University – eight weeks is a full term plus mid-semester holidays and maybe a week longer?

And to the poor parents who thought their boy was going to be safe at the University that presumably he had chosen to study at and begin what for me was the most exciting chapter of my academic life, how do you explain what happened? CAN you explain what happened? I am not sure one honestly could.

Simply conducting investigations is merely the beginning of a much bigger process if University of Canterbury wants to recover the portion of its reputation that is now decomposing. It needs to boot out the Australian company. Its New Zealand replacement needs to have very clear terms of engagement set down including minimum full time staffing levels, a 24/7 help line, a supervisory panel making sure that all parties are compliant with their responsibilities.

How lucky I am that I live in the same town as where I went to University. I only had to cycle in or catch the bus. I knew from the outset numerous people there from Burnside High School and made more friends fairly quickly in Geography and Geology. The staff there were great and if I or another student was struggling they would pull us up to make sure we were okay.

Not everyone has that fortune. For some life at University can be very lonely. It does not need to be like this.

And if we want to stop another death, nor should it be.

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