Victoria University students living in catered halls of residence have been told to pay $150 a week to hold rooms they can't live in.
Students complained on Twitter last night about the "placeholder fee" they'd just been told they must pay from Wednesday, a day after the level 4 Covid-19 lockdown ends and the slightly-less restrictive alert level 3 come into place.
Another told student newspaper Salient they felt like they were "being strong-armed out of money".
"I have now been forced to choose between paying hundreds of dollars rent for a room I'm not legally allowed to enter, or drop out of university."
Under level 3 people can return, one-way, to their home region, but the Government is still encouraging people to stay home where possible to stop the spread of the potentially deadly virus. Most tertiary education is expected to be done through distance learning.
Accommodation fees were waived to support students through the lockdown, the university said in a statement today.
But they would also continue to pay staff, including residential assistants, to protect their livelihoods and "to ensure these talented people remain in our employment so they can once again care for our students when they return to the halls".
"The university has incurred costs of more than $2 million in its accommodation services during this period. These costs have not been offset by the Government's wage subsidy scheme and instead require us to cross-subsidise the halls of residence from tuition fees."
Asked how much the university had received under the wage subsidy scheme, a university spokeswoman said: "The university has asked the Government to consider an application for the wage subsidy for staff in its accommodation and early childcare services and has not yet received an answer."
She did not know when the application was made.
The statement went on to say tuition fees were paid to meet the costs of the teaching programmes for all students, not the operating costs of the halls of residence, which were occupied by a small proportion of students, the university said.
"As a result, this cross-subsidy cannot continue unabated and it is now time for students who wish to retain their rooms to begin to contribute to the costs of the hall operations."
The university was instead "moving to a policy of passing on 100 per cent of the savings from the partially empty halls to the students through the discounts it is offering".
Students were given 48 hours' notice to leave their halls, or be moved into other halls, before the lockdown.
Several students expressed dismay on social media at the fee request, including those in self-catered university accommodation, who have been told they will receive only a $120 reduction on their weekly rent.
"This includes the hall I live in, told we 'would not be charged during this time' by email when informed we had to leave, despite being apartments (very different to 1st year halls)," one tweeted.
"I guess 'this time' only included lvl 4 lockdown, despite not being able to return during lvl 3."
In the statement, the university said they'd held students' rooms with the items left there when they returned home.
"With the country moving into alert level 3 … and anticipating a shift to alert level 2, we are now embarking on cleaning halls, scaling back up our pastoral care support processes, readying our catering service and other aspects of our halls experience.
"We recognise [the fee] will be an unwelcome charge, but are balancing this against the need for the university to retain a viable high quality accommodation offering without undue cross-subsidisation from tuition fees."
Students could cancel their room contract, or apply to the hardship fund.
Green Party tertiary education spokeswoman Chloe Swarbrick, who tweeted her support to some of those affected, said students were already facing hardship under the lockdown.
"It's gutting to now see some universities pouring salt in the wound and charging students in already very costly accommodation for completely unfathomable reasons while they're not actually using those services.
"As a representative, it is my job to investigate this bizarre behaviour and see it ended fairly, in a transparent and accountable manner."