University ‘hotels’ may face bookings clampdown
Questions arise over legality of independent bookings of university guest house rooms, despite the practice being common abroad
Shirley Zhao and Johnny Tam
At least four universities might be operating de facto hotels without licences by allowing visitors referred by university students or alumni to book rooms in their residence halls or guest houses.
Pupils from Foshan in Guangdong had been staying on the sixth to ninth floors of City University's Lee Shau Kee Hall until earlier this month.
The group came for an English summer camp organised by a non-profit education group.
A receptionist at the Canada-China Culture and Education Association said the pupils did not participate in any activity at the university but paid up to HK$500 each for accommodation in the hall from July 15 to August 9.
She said the organisation had obtained the university's approval to book the rooms and that the pupils could not have booked rooms individually.
University student Isaac Yeung has been living in one of the university's 11 halls for a year. He said few students stayed in halls during the summer break and that the Student Residence Office had set aside the upper five floors for visitors.
Jerry Huang Chengyi, an architectural engineering student at the university, said he had booked a room in a hall for a friend through the office, which required him to make the reservation a month in advance.
A spokesman at the residence office said it had stopped accepting all outside reservations since May apart from bookings referred by departments.
He said the university was currently reviewing its accommodation reservations policy.
According to the Hotel and Guest house Accommodation Ordinance, property owners are operating a hotel or a guest house if they provide sleeping accommodation for a fee to anyone on their premises.
They must obtain a licence before offering accommodation for periods of less than 28 consecutive days.
The Home Affairs Department said operating an unlicensed hotel or guest house was a criminal offence and that an offender could be fined up to HK$200,000 and jailed for two years, plus a fine of HK$20,000 for each day during which the offence continued.
But whether or not any particular case had breached the ordinance was subject to individual circumstances, it said.
Lawyer Vitus Leung Wing-hang said that if the guests were really related to the referrers, the practice might not be a breach of the ordinance. But he added that it was easy for anyone to ask a random university member for a reference to get around the rule.
"If anyone can ask for such a favour, it'll be like a hotel," said Leung.
The Chinese University's Yali Guest house, which provides 36 rooms, has also been accommodating outside guests.
On its website, rooms are priced from HK$490 to HK$650 a night.
The university said the guest house was set up to provide non-profit accommodation for visitors on official exchanges, and that reservations could only be made with referrals by the departments concerned, although other university members could also book rooms.
The University of Hong Kong said its Robert Black College, which has 60 rooms, accepted only bookings referred by university members, except for guest house staff. The guest house's website shows referrers can be students, alumni or staff.
A spokesman said the institution received about 200 visiting scholars every day, so there would not be many rooms left for other guests. He said halls and residential colleges may also accept a small number of visitors not joining in any university activity over the summer.
"This is a popular practice in universities around the world," he said.
It was formerly disclosed that Baptist University's NTT International House reserved 30 per cent of its 164 rooms for outsiders referred by staff, students or alumni. The university has since changed its policy to accept reservations only from those referred by its departments.
Education sector legislator Ip Kin-yuen said universities had had summer accommodation arrangements for a long time, but that visitors referred guests and not outsiders.
He said institutions should make it clear in their reservation policies that the residence halls or guest houses were not for the public and that their managers should follow the rules strictly when processing applications and check-ins.
The University of Science and Technology and Lingnan University both said all reservations for their rooms must be made through departments or offices that issue invitations.