Student death shock

Shock has been the universal reaction to the news last week that the dead body of a 19-year-old man appeared to go undetected in a Canterbury student hostel for eight weeks.

It is by no means the first time New Zealand has experienced instances where people have died and been belatedly discovered. These sad cases invariably result in a bout of soul-searching within communities, as we wonder how it happened and reflect on whether it could occur where we live.

From what we know of this story, it seems particularly poignant because of the setting.

How could this happen in a bustling student hostel, a place where we want to believe students, most likely away from home for the first time and learning how to make their way in the world, would be safe and supported? We should know that being a student is not a one-size-fits-all, laugh-a-minute experience and that, at any campus, there will be students who may be struggling to cope, but that is not what the hype tells us.

While much is yet to be revealed about the circumstances of this sad event, we know that it occurred at the University of Canterbury's Sonoda Christchurch Campus accommodation, a residential hall managed by Campus Living Villages whose headquarters is based in Australia.

Its advertising says the 108-bed hostel, with annual fees of $16,398, offers the advantages of a more independent living environment with the support and facilities of a traditional first-year hall of residence. It said it had two residential support staff.

''As a first-year hall of residence, Sonoda provides pastoral care, events and activities suited to a younger more vibrant and lively community.'' Feedback from current residents includes reference to its small size, its quietness, friendliness of staff and students, and the approachability of the residential assistants (RAs). It appears the young man who died was in a five-bedroom unit at the hall. The people in the other bedrooms have been moved out.

It seems the eight-week period included a two-week mid-semester lecture break, but it is still hard, from a distance, to fathom why nobody noticed the young student was not around.

It was possibly some comfort to concerned parents around the country to learn the Tertiary Education Commission contacted all providers operating hostels to ensure they had systems and processes in place to check on the wellbeing and welfare of their students. This included checking that there were no unexplained absences or issues.

The incident has revived questions around RAs highlighted last year by Critic. These regarded the adequacy of their training and support for dealing with those who have mental health issues, their rates of pay, the amount of unpaid work they are doing and whether there are enough of them to ensure they are not over-worked.

RAs, who are providing pastoral care, are generally a couple of years older than the students they are supporting and are also full-time students. At the University of Otago, there will be increased interest in plans for next year with more rostered hours for RAs and changed terms and conditions. The number of RAs is also to be cut by 10 down to 81.

The acting president of the New Zealand Union of Students Association, Caitlin Barlow-Groome, says it is easy for organisations to say they offer pastoral care but what does that mean?

She spoke highly of the support she had received at a hall at Otago but pointed out the ratio of RAs to students varied considerably between accommodation providers. She suggested a nationwide set of minimum standards would be helpful.

While we wait to hear what investigations will eventually reveal about the Christchurch death, it may be opportune to take a moment to reflect on our own pastoral role - whether we are doing our best to look out for each other, no matter where we live.

Add a Comment