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From the Chair: Universities call for robust, flexible code

12 November 2019 | news

Derek McCormack
Vice-Chancellor, AUT

Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to catering for the needs of students in university accommodation is neither practical nor desirable, say universities in their submission on the Education (Pastoral Care) Amendment Bill

Universities have nearly 179,000 enrolled students and provide around 16,500 beds across accommodation that ranges from halls of residence for first-year students through to independent living and apartment living for more mature students.

Around 60% of this accommodation is for first-year students and another 14% for a mix of first and subsequent year students; 27% is for mature and postgraduate students. About 20% of these beds are supplied by non-university providers, with the rest operated by universities.

University communities—staff, students and their parents—were greatly affected by the recent news of the discovery of a university student’s body in student accommodation in Christchurch.

While the delay in discovering his body was tragic, it was an exceptional circumstance—nothing like this has happened before.

New Zealand universities accept the inevitability of mandatory standards for the pastoral care of students. But we are concerned that the Bill’s urgency is pre-empting the findings of current reviews underway related to recent events in Canterbury. Legislation driven by emotional considerations is often flawed and not well positioned to achieve the right outcomes.

We do want to work with Government to ensure that a workable, realistic Code of Pastoral Care is developed that covers both domestic and international students. 

Universities take their responsibilities to deliver pastoral care very seriously and already provide and manage a safe environment. Managing the increasing complexities of individual student care are challenging, however, and a ‘safe environment’ does not mean that harm will not ever occur.

Some of the measures proposed in the legislation remove the rights of adults to live independently in their home in their own way. Universities don’t want overly prescriptive or intrusive codes, and want to ensure that any introduced code is principles-based, reasonable, practical and consistent.

We want a robust code based on the current self-regulating model used for assuring the quality of pastoral care for international students, which is administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) through delegation to UNZ. Ensuring that the scope of such a code is clear will be key to preventing unnecessary, costly or unintended consequences.

Universities are primarily places for teaching, learning and research. The experiences and expectations of our students differ widely, and how we respond to them will need to reflect these differences; by necessity, universities must be flexible, and the code must reflect that.

Adults are entitled to privacy and independence. They also have the right to not engage and to opt out, which in turn can affect the lengths to which universities go to contact or engage students. Currently universities and students have a relationship that establishes responsibilities and obligations for both parties. While universities are being held to account in the proposed legislation, students must also engage with the services provided. Intrusive practices and interventions may not be tolerated or acceptable to students who have a right to act as independent adults.

The more draconian provisions outlined in this Bill risk unintended consequences, such as students becoming more reluctant to seek help, and a shift in the emphasis from caring communities to one of compliance. This may lessen the quality of student experience, placing students and providers in situations of greater risk.

Delivery of pastoral care is not limited to accommodation staff. Staffing roles across each university contribute to students’ pastoral care (eg, ancillary staff, professional services and academics). Setting an arbitrary ratio of residential advisors (RAs) to students to improve pastoral care would be misguided. While they are an important part of a broader system of care, RAs are mostly engaged to build a sense of social community within halls and to recognise and refer issues of concern. Universities have qualified and experienced staff delivering wellbeing, health and counselling services.

We want to ensure that any system that is put in place is robust, flexible and recognises the realities of university life. We are therefore looking for wider engagement with the tertiary sector—including pastoral care practitioners and students—in developing the interim and permanent codes.