Student action knocks back transnational

– Sam Oldham

It is no secret that tertiary students in New Zealand are financially burdened. After the educational reforms of the 90s, the average student is today shackled by a lifetime of debt, only exacerbated by rising food and petrol prices and the rising cost of rent.

However, there is another threat to the welfare of many students that is not often addressed – the corporate ownership and profit from student hostels at many universities.

The hostel, or hall of residence, is the popular choice of most first-year tertiary students around the country when deciding where to live as they venture to new cities to engage in full-time study. These hostels, although coordinated by the universities, are most often under private ownership, usually by large domestic companies or multi-national corporations.

Victoria University of Wellington offers four major halls of residence to its prospective first-year students, and a number of minor hostels. Of these, only two are owned directly by Victoria University, the others by private enterprise. So the profit of only two halls is reinvested in students, the rest going straight to the private sector.

This private ownership of student accommodation has led inevitably to further profit-driven exploitation of an already vulnerable sector of society. When a hostel is acquired as an asset of a property company, it is instantly corporatised, providing the lowest quality service possible at the highest possible return.

That is, until students resist.

Unicomm, consisting of three hostels – McKenzies, Cumberland, and Education House – houses just over 500 Victoria University students, and is owned by the Dutch transnational finance and asset company, the ING Group. With a total revenue of over 76 billion euros last year, ING is this year the ninth largest corporation on the planet.

The conditions at Unicomm have long been of a poor standard, but are said to have reached their nadir throughout 2008. Through the Australian company Campus Living Villages, employed by ING to manage Unicomm, the two corporate giants this year began a programme of intensive renovation to repair structural faults in both Cumberland and McKenzies and give Unicomm a more marketable appearance for 2009.

These renovations have included the use of industrial power tools, including drills, jackhammers and deafeningly loud concrete cutters, often six days a week, for extended periods. This noise would usually begin at around 8am and continue most of the day. The worst of the construction noise was situated in the McKenzies Hall of Residence, which contains a massive indoor atrium, amplifying and carrying the slightest sound.

Both Cumberland and McKenzies have leaked extensively, damaging residents’ property and causing mould to such an extent that mushrooms grow on interior walls. The plumbing of both buildings is weak and has repeatedly burst, resulting in entire floors of residents being temporarily relocated to motels, and raw sewage leaking into hallways.

Residents of both McKenzies and Cumberland, tired of endlessly filing written complaints and fruitlessly signing petitions, began organising in early August this year. Exasperated at the conditions they had been subjected to, and also angry at having been offered services they did not receive, large open residents’ meetings began being held each week, in which students were able to freely voice their frustrations and discuss solutions.

Finally, the discontent of Unicomm residents culminated in protest action on the Victoria University Open Day, in which prospective residents considering McKenzies and Cumberland as their potential homes for the following year were met on the street by current residents wielding placards and banners, hoping to deter them.

The outcome of this protest action was encouraging. Representatives of both ING and Campus Living Villages were in the country the following week, entering into negotiations with Unicomm residents in an attempt to appease them, to avoid having their company names further denigrated.

After an offer, a full-hostel residents meeting, and a counter-offer, ING paid the residents of McKenzies and Cumberland reparation of over $100,000 last month – $80,000 in direct financial compensation and the remainder in the provision of extra services such as free laundry.

In this instance, the reaction of residents to their exploitation by corporate landlords has been a success, but it was just that: reactionary. Although Victoria University and ING blamed a communication failure and negligence for the issue, residents of Unicomm and other student hostels believe it to be systemic.

As a student of Victoria University, and a resident of Unicomm, I am convinced that as long as the operation of student hostels is driven by a profit motive, students will continue to receive poor quality services at crippling prices.

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