OPINION: University halls are a minefield of mental health problems. The kids in these halls are 17 or 18 years old, and this is their first time away from the support of a family unit. They're homesick, in a highly stressful academic environment, and struggling to make friends.
Their families are often paying up to $ 500 a week for a place in the halls and all the support they are supposed to get along with – but often, their only lifeline in crisis are residential assistants (RAs) – older students who live with them.
Being an RA is emotionally draining. I personally know RAs who stay up all night, terrified and shaking after taking suicidal students to the hospital. Who have walked in on students cutting themselves. Who have held sobbing first years who just survived sexual assaults.
Even at the less serious end, many RAs will deal with exam stress breakdowns, someone in tears over a breakup, or students who need medical attention.
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I've seen it from both sides. As a first year student, I suffered from depression. The confident (perhaps annoyingly so) person I had been in high school faded into a reclusive cocoon that I didn't escape from for several months.
As a senior student, I was the editor of Critic, Otago University's student magazine. We reported extensively on RAs being pushed to their limits while being chronically underpaid.
About a decade ago, Otago University offered free rooms for RAs. Now, they are required to pay full rent, and are an employee of the hall. Yet despite working for 17 hours a week, their pay is not enough to fully cover rent.
A student's death on the grounds of the Sonoda campus in Ilam went undiscovered for weeks.
Many RAs are working second jobs or taking out extra student loans, just to get by.
At other universities, halls have slashed budgets by cutting RA staff numbers and reducing their support.
Traditionally, a ratio of one RA to 15-20 residents has been considered a good number.
At Victoria University's Te Puni Village, it's 33 students per RA.
According to the 2020 University of Canterbury accommodation guide, the number for Canterbury University's Sonoda Village, where a student is found dead in their room for nearly eight weeks before being found, is 54 students per RA.
That's just two RAs supporting the entire hall of 108 residents.
Sonoda is owned by Campus Living Villages, a billion-dollar Australian corporation. They have made a business model out of hiring the minimum number of RAs, and pushing them beyond their capacity while charging upwards of $ 400 a week.
Campus Living Villages has put the pressure of this tragedy on two kids in their early 20s who were juggling a part-time job with a full-time study. That is an absolute disgrace.
Universities have a duty of care for students living in their halls. When they are entrusted to care for privately-run companies, as Canterbury University does, they often fail in that duty.
Halls can get away with charging exorbitant costs because students are convinced that if they don't go to the gym they won't make any friends and miss out on an essential university experience.
Parents and students should expect, and deserve, a level of support far greater than they are currently receiving.
Sonoda let their students and their students' families down with harmful cost-cutting and inadequate pastoral care. But they are far from alone. Every university in New Zealand needs to step up their game to protect their students.