Investigation: the residences system uncovered

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With the return of campus room deposits over the summer comes the usual round of complaints on Facebook and other social media outlets about the unfairness of charges levied by the Residence Office. SCAN investigated to see how the room charges are applied and if the process is really as arbitrary as students think.

The most frequent complaints seem to be that charges for replacing items do not match the actual cost of such items, and that students are charged for problems already there when they moved in.

“I was charged for the hot tap in my bedroom, but as far as I am aware the state it was in was the same as at the beginning of the year,” said Catherine Chorley, a second year Pendle student. “If it needs mending then I think this should be the responsibility of the College, not the student.”

The first piece of advice the University offers to students to try and avoid some of these problems is to carefully check their inventories on arrival.

“The room inspection results are always compared to the initial inventory before any charges are applied, so the completion of your inventory is essential,” said Dr Hilary Simmons, Head of the Colleges and Residences Office.

Jacqui Brian, Residences Officer for County College, explained in more detail how the room inspection process works. “At the end of the year we recruit and train room checkers to go through and inspect the entire residential estate,” she said.

Faults or damage found by room checkers are photographed then reported on a handheld computer if they think that the recorded damage warrants a charge. This information is relayed back to the Residence Officer, who decides whether to apply a charge based on photographs and the resident’s inventory. Spot checks of the inspectors’ work are carried out and the same team is used in all colleges to ensure consistency.

“Room checkers have no involvement in the final decision of […] whether to apply the charge to a student deposit,” Ms Brian said. “[They] do not stand to gain in any way from reporting faults that do not exist.

“We are keen to try to ensure that the process is fair,” she added. “We are more than happy to double check and carry out further investigation where a student feels that they have been unfairly treated.”

Damage to appliances often results in a charge far higher than the item is worth, but Dr Simmons noted that there is more to the procedure than simply buying replacement items from a wholesaler.

“Charges for items have to cover the cost of replacing the item, VAT, plus all the associated administration and labour costs and disposal costs,” she told SCAN. “For example, to replace a mattress, a new mattress must be ordered and then on delivery the mattress needs to be taken to the relevant room and the old mattress needs […] disposing of.”

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SCAN sought advice from a specialist in contract law, who advised us on the rights of both the residents and the department in cases such as this.

The first point for students to note when choosing where to live is the legal difference between living on campus and living in town. Deposits paid to landlords in town must be protected through a tenancy deposit scheme, implemented to stop abuse of deposits by private landlords. Rooms on campus, however, are agreed under terms closer to those of renting a hotel room.

“If you stay at the Ritz you pay a hell of a lot more for a cup of tea than if you stay at the Travelodge, but it’s your choice where to stay,” as our specialist put it.

Whilst the charges are set, all students can complain if they feel that the charge was unjustly made in the first place. However, the Residence Office does not have to use money to repair specific damages that students have been charged for, and it may include extra charges to cover the full costs of replacing items.

“[Residents] enter into a contract with this particular landlord and must put up with the scale of charges it chooses to use (within reason),” SCAN was told. “It doesn’t matter whether the money is used to rectify the damage or to buy a crate of Scotch for a staff booze-up – these charges are in the nature of damages and it is entirely up to the recipient what they are spent on.”

The University Residence Offices are in fact passing on charges levied by UPP (University Partnerships Programme), the company that manages University accommodation.

“Neither the University nor the student can really go behind UPP’s charges – the student’s relationship is with the University and the ‘actual cost’ to the University is what UPP charges the University, and it is this which is passed on to the student,” our legal expert said. University representatives stress that they take an interest in UPP’s charges and do not pass them on to students blindly.

Students who feel that a charge has been unfairly levied should write to the College Residence Officer setting out the details. Every appeal is investigated and refunds will be made if the case stands.

Some students we spoke to expressed concerns that if a college Deanery makes little money on fines towards the end of the academic year, the Residence Departments are then instructed to be harsher in aid of making money for the individual colleges. We tried to find out if there was any correlation between a low intake from the University Deanery and the money made by Central Residences by asking every Residence Officer on campus to submit to us their intake in the years 2008 and 2009, but none of these figures were forthcoming.

However, there is little evidence that such a claim is true. Deanery and residence charges are not linked and, according to University representatives, individual colleges do not report on total deposit deductions.

“There are some situations where a student might be charged for damage and also receive a fine from the Dean,” said Dr Simmons. “For example, if a student threw a heavy item out of an upper floor window or let off a fire extinguisher, they would be charged the cost of replacing the item as well as being fined for endangering others.”

Other than this there are few links between residence fines and Deanery fines. The two are collected and held separately of each other.

“College fines stay in the colleges to be spent for the benefit of all students, University Dean fines are central [and] used for dean and tutor development and training,” said Dr Matt Storey, University Dean.

Dr Storey added that the funds raised “are not that substantial” and the figures bore this out; the University Deanery made £4,470 in the academic year 2008-2009 and £3,170 in 2007-2008.

 

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