Uni students forced out of college accommodation still paying thousands in rent

Australian university students and their families have been left tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket after several Melbourne colleges they were meant to live at this year refused to refund their costs.Key points: University students are chasing thousands of dollars in refunds from accommodation providersMany students have moved back home during the coronavirus pandemic and are not using university facilitiesStudent unions want refunds, but universities say they have helped with grants and scholarshipsMany have signed “watertight” accommodation contracts that mean they must continue to pay rent on residential facilities they have not been able to use for months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.In many cases, requests by students for refunds and rental reductions have been refused, despite some of their families having been hit hard by job losses due to the pandemic.Some universities are instead offering students study credits, scholarships or waiving penalties for breaking contracts, which means families of those students are not getting their money back.Others are being forced to pay out their entire contracts — some of which have locked students into a 12-month arrangement that has left them paying for empty rooms in Melbourne, while they have moved back to their homes in regional Victoria and interstate. Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from September 17 with our coronavirus blog.Lucia Bowles, 18, from Bendigo in central Victoria, paid $17,735 to live at University College — a charity-listed facility — on Melbourne University’s Parkville campus during semester one. Her family paid for 18 weeks’ accommodation at the dormitory, but Lucia was only there for six weeks before she returned home to Bendigo because of restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.”I just don’t think the amount of rebate that they’ve given to the kids that haven’t been able to be there is fair,” Ms Bowles’s father, Matt Bowles, said.University College has not offered to refund semester one fees to students, but Matt and Lucia Bowles said they had been offered $3,000 in credits for semester two.University College did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Melbourne University was also contacted for comment.Coronavirus questions answeredBreaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast.Read moreAn Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) spokesperson told the ABC registered charities were expected to operate according to their charitable values.The nation’s university regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, said it had received no complaints from students about accommodation services during the pandemic.Students caught up in contracts, tenancy agreements University College has not responded to multiple requests for comment.(ABC Central Victoria: Tamara Clark)Other students have also paid as much as $13,000 to on-site student accommodation facilities they are not staying in because of coronavirus.Melbourne University students said University College had waived the fee for breaking the accommodation contract, but was still expecting the terms of the contracts to be fulfilled. For those who had demonstrated hardship, the college had offered a $1,000 scholarship to go towards semester two fees. “Obviously, no-one could know that COVID was going to kick in at the start of the year,” Mr Bowles said.Lily Graydon moved from Perth to Melbourne to study at RMIT University and said she had been unable to break her “watertight” agreement with Centurion Student Services at Dwell Village, North Melbourne.Ms Graydon’s agreement is different from Ms Bowles’s because it is a tenancy agreement. However, educational institutions are not regulated by the Residential Tenancies Act and were not included in Victoria’s Omnibus emergency measures introduced in response to the pandemic. Dwell Village says it has helped 141 residents who were able to demonstrate genuine need or financial hardship.(ABC Central Victoria: Tamara Clark)’They should cut their contract’A University College contract for a boarding student shows that if a resident is absent for any reason within the contract dates, they will not receive a refund.Mr Bowles, along with other families who have spoken to the ABC, have also learned they will not be receiving a refund from their student accommodation provider. Some students have paid to live at University College in Melbourne, but have been unable to due to the pandemic.(Supplied)Ms Graydon is now living rent-free in a Brunswick share house with a friend but still paying Centurion Student Services $470 each week for a space she has not lived in since April.Despite her contract running from January 1, 2020, to December 31, 2020, she said she left the residential complex because without face-to-face learning she saw no point in being there, felt isolated due to Melbourne’s strict lockdowns, and she believed she had a higher chance of contracting COVID-19 in the accommodation facility than at her friend’s house.”If people want to leave, they should just cut their contract,” she said.Dwell Village told the ABC it had been handling requests on a case-by-case basis and had helped 141 residents able to demonstrate genuine need or financial hardship.Students need to ‘get a break’Former Law Institute of Victoria president Geoff Bowyer said students who signed RMIT and Monash University tenancy agreements might be able to have the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal consider whether relief could be granted if a contract had “harsh or unconscionable” terms.Court cases in the United Kingdom have begun to question tenancy agreements and whether a reasonable person would enter into a tenancy lease or contract if they knew a pandemic was coming.Under Australian Consumer Law and the Fair Trading Act, a contract that is impossible to carry out for reasons beyond all parties’ control becomes a “frustrated contract”. If it falls into that category, it means a student accommodation provider would have to refund money for the services not provided, but it could keep some of the balance to cover expenses. RMIT Student Union president Daniel Hoogstra says students should not be paying for a service they are not using.(Supplied: Daniel Hoogstra)RMIT Student Union president Daniel Hoogstra said student accommodation facilities needed to give students a break.”If students aren’t in a situation where they can actually stay there and be using services, why should they be paying for them?” he asked.National Union of Students president Molly Willmott said there were a lot of students across Australia frustrated because they were paying for services they were not receiving.”The fairest solution here is there needs to be a remission of funds,” Ms Willmott said.”Money is tight everywhere right now, it’s not just universities and colleges, it is the families who are paying for these services. And it is unfair to be able to take all of that money and not give it back when the service isn’t upheld.”A Consumer Affairs Victoria spokesperson said if the student and accommodation provider were unable to meet the conditions of the contract due to coronavirus, the student might be eligible for a refund depending on the circumstances.”Accommodation providers are encouraged to be flexible and exercise goodwill towards students,” the spokesperson said. “Students should carefully read the terms and conditions of the accommodation provider, so they know their options if they have to change or cancel their arrangements.”Some universities suspend rental fees A dormitory room at the Clayton Urban Community student accommodation hall.(Supplied)A Monash University spokesperson said it was not penalising students who chose to return home during the pandemic and its subsequent lockdown periods in Victoria. But a Tasmanian student, who asked to remain anonymous because she was still enrolled at Monash University, said she had spent just 36 nights at the university’s Clayton Urban Community halls before moving home due to the pandemic earlier this year.Yet because her contract runs from January 16, 2020, to December 17, 2020, she says she has been paying $43.25 a day/$302.75 a week in rent all year.Find more local newsIn a statement, the Monash University spokesperson said that Monash Residential Services (MRS), which runs the university’s accommodation facilities, had advised all residents on March 23, 2020, that they had “the opportunity to cancel their accommodation leases and leave their room without financial penalty”.”Under normal circumstances, students would be liable for the room rental until the end of the residential contract, or until the room was leased to another student,” the statement said.”The waiver of the terms is on the condition that students fully vacate their rooms and remove all of their belongings.” Read more about coronavirus:But the Tasmanian student said she had not received any communication from the MRS or the university in relation to being able to break her lease.She said she had been unable to retrieve her belongings after moving home, and wanted a rent reduction because she was not using any of the accommodation facility’s utilities.Other students also studying at the university, but living at home, said they were still paying rent to MRS and that they, too, wanted a rent reduction because they were not using the utilities such as electricity, water, and wi-fi.But the Monash University spokesperson said MRS had, since the start of the pandemic, assisted many of its residents with packing and storing their belongings when they couldn’t return to remove them — for a “small fee”. The spokesperson said MRS was also offering payment plans and had temporarily waived fees for late payments. Monash Student Association president James McDonald.(Supplied: James McDonald)Monash Student Association (MSA) president James McDonald said the union was “deeply concerned” that students had said they were having great difficulty in cancelling their contracts with MRS.”MSA continues to urge MRS to reduce the cost of rent for those living on campus to ease the financial burden on students as we confront the greatest economic crisis since The Great Depression,” Mr McDonald said.A La Trobe University spokesperson said the university had put a hold on rental payments for students who chose to move out of student accommodation and return home to study online. A spokesperson for Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, in regional New South Wales, said the university had only charged accommodation fees for the time students had actually lived on campus.A University of Queensland spokesperson said students living in the university-owned accommodation were only charged a fee for the time they had resided there, and the university had waived all contract cancellation fees.What you need to know about coronavirus:

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