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OPINION: Charging a holding fee on empty rooms isn’t unreasonable

The following is an opinion piece and doesn’t reflect the views of Nexus Magazine as an entity but does add a voice to the debate.

I’ve always had a love hate relationship with opinion pieces, and I never thought I would be writing one. But this is something that I have done a fair bit of thinking about over the last few days so I thought “fuck it, why not throw my opinion out there onto the internet and see what happens”. Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) recently announced that it would resume charging rent from at least the 10th of May for students who have a room in their halls, despite them not being able to move back (at the time of writing, the first payment has been delayed by 10 days by the University). This created an uproar within the student community, with many labeling it as unfair since they were reportedly kicked out and are not allowed back, therefore paying for a room they’re not allowed to live in yet. 

Before level 4 kicked in, students were told to “get home ASAP, or be locked in for 4 weeks”. A move with intentions of minimizing risk of infection within the halls, or absolutely eliminating the risk altogether. 

The weekly costs of the catered halls vary, with the lowest being $210 per week, and the highest being $406 per week, a hefty price you’d have to pay for not being there. During the time that we were in  level four of lock down, all rents were put on pause until the 28th of April, which means students who are in catered accommodation haven’t had to pay anywhere between $1,050 and $2,030 in rent this entire time.

Let’s lay down some realities about the situation at hand from a business perspective: This is a completely unprecedented situation that no one knew they had to prepare for, VUW in my opinion took the most sensible route of asking everyone to go home to their families instead of potentially having to manage more students during this dangerous time, and increasing the chances of a cluster popping up within their halls. Textbook health and safety management right there, minimizing risk in an environment they’re responsible for. After this, payments for the next 5 weeks were made void, which is an extremely generous act by the University in itself, they took a $3 million loss in earnings on the chin for the sake of minimizing their students’ financial hardship during level 4. 

At the end of the day, the University is a business and they have to keep their cash flows up somehow during what is the brink of an inevitable recession because the best thing to have during a recession is cash so you can keep paying your overheads. Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford has said that the fee is for students who want to return to the halls after lock down, and it is to cover overheads such as staff costs, insurance and leases. Which in my opinion is totally fair enough, students have a contract signed with these halls and the costs of running them don’t just magically disappear when everyone goes home due to a virus outbreak. What they’re asking from students to pay for the next few weeks is only a fraction of what has probably been saved by students over the last 5 weeks and is being used to keep a business running, a business that is projecting a loss of up to $40 million, a business that educates thousands of people every year, a business that invests in this country’s future and takes the risk to do so.

The Vice-Chancellor has said with students refusing to pay this fee, they’re having to cross-subsidize tuition fees to cover the halls which is money that is usually set aside for teaching staff. This is a dangerous situation in the context of peoples’ jobs, they have said they will start firing staff if students strike this holding fee. If you’re refusing to pay the fee and people lose their jobs over it, who’s the more morally sound person here? Is it the University, who is asking students to pay a small fee to hold their rooms and help recover cash flow? Or is it the students, who have had a 5 week rent holiday and only have to pay a fraction of what they were before? I hate to sound blunt, but good people who work hard to put food on the table for their families WILL lose their jobs over this strike, and I think it is a far more act to put a halt on the income of households because you think the grim reality of a situation is unfair. Sure it’s rough, but sometimes that’s just how life is and you have to think about the bigger picture.

I’d like to summarize this controversial piece that goes against the grain of what I’ve seen in the media and stuff comment sections alike. The University isn’t being greedy for the sake of it. This is a business, not a charity, and they have costs of running a business. Students have signed contracts where they agree to paying rent, the University was incredibly generous to give them a rent break in the first place and $150 p/w is a small price to pay to keep your education going and peoples jobs secure. It’s even less than what it cost me for my room in my flat when I wasn’t living there for the lock down. Sure it was my choice to go home, but if you chose to go home in this situation would you still strike? It’s not an ideal situation, but sometimes you just have to take it on the chin. The University has done their part with their $3 million loss in earnings, maybe it’s your turn to sacrifice a bit.