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New Zealand student death: calls for welfare overhaul after body lay in room for month | World news


A report into the death of university student Mason Pendrous – and the month-long delay in discovering his body in his dormitory – has called for better pastoral care of vulnerable first-year students amid a rise in isolation and reliance on online rather than face-to-face interaction.

The 19-year-old e-commerce student was found on 23 September in his dorm room at Canterbury university, Christchurch.

Pendrous had been dead for a month, New Zealand police said, and his father has expressed anguish that his son’s absence was not noted from university classes, tutorials or meals.

Former high court Judge Kit Toogood was commissioned by the university to investigate the substantial delay in discovering Pendrous’ body.

Toogood was not tasked with investigating how and why Pendrous died, and a coronial investigation last year was inconclusive due to the state of decomposition.

In the months before his death Pendrous withdrew into his room, staying up on his computer all night and sleeping during the day, Toogood found. He skipped meals and disengaged from his university studies, isolating himself and withdrawing from friends and acquaintances.

A 2017 restructure and the closing of the reception area at the Sonoda residence meant there has been no Campus Living Villages (CLV) staff member routinely present throughout the day.

A staff member on site might have meant they had more contact with Pendrous “whether he welcomed it or not”, Toogood said.

From interviews with students, Toogood discovered many students were spending increasing amounts of time alone in their rooms, as the number of online lectures boomed, and they chose to socialise on their computer rather than in person.

This made it difficult for students, university staff and accomodation providers to build rapport and trust, and meant wellbeing issues could be missed, Toogood found.

The principal reason for the delay in discovering Pendrous’ death was that his absence from 26 August to the 23 September 2019 was not noticed by any fellow Sonoda resident, or by CLV staff.

Primary factors contributing to this were the closure of the reception at Sonoda in 2018, the absence of regular room checks, Pendrous’ decision to stay in his room for “extreme periods” and not socialise with other residents, and the lack of face-to-face contact between staff and students.

Toogood recommended student living providers place more emphasis on face-to-face interaction between students and staff, require students tell the facility if they plan an extended break away, and do weekly room checks.

In response the University of Canterbury said it plans to introduce a buddy system for first-year students, boost orientation programmes, and introduce an early warning system to be activated when students start disengaging from classes and tutorials.

Following Pendrous’ death the New Zealand government created a new offence that makes serious breaches of student pastoral care punishable by a fine of up to NZ$100,000 (£50,000).

Education minister Chris Hipkins said his death had “exposed the limitation of our current system”.

“Halls and hostels charge a premium for their accommodation and parents have every right to expect a high level of care for their sons and daughters … students should also be assured that there are minimum standards of safety and that there is support available to them if they need it.”

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