June 2005 issue

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Modern living

Language travel students are expecting more than ever from their accommodation in terms of both quality and choice of provision. As a result, many schools are developing or enhancing their provision, while specialist accommodation agencies are also more commonly used. Gillian Evans reports.

Student accommodation is undergoing a stunning metamorphosis. The typical host family accommodation remains popular, but these days, the emphasis is on quality, and schools usually offer a plethora of other options too such as residential accommodation, flat share, hostels, bed & breakfasts and hotels. "As standards of living rise, so do expectations," confirms Andy Quin, Principal of Embassy CES & Bellerbys College in the UK. "Our students are from high socio-economic groups in their own country, so expect high-quality accommodation here."

Home from home
Most agents and schools report that host family accommodation remains the number-one choice among their clients. For short-term students especially, host families are often seen as the best choice because, as Jan Passoff at Star - Student Travel Agency Russia, in the USA, points out, "students can spend a lot of time communicating with 'host parents' and get a lot of practice for the short time of their studying". Another advantage is that host family accommodation can sometimes be the least expensive. Lou Orlando, President of the New York Accommodations Centre in the USA says, "Homestays are the most popular due to the economy involved. Breakfast and dinner are included at our low cost of US$250 per week."

However, like all other types of student accommodation, host families are now expected to offer more. According to Orlando, Japanese students, in particular, expect broadband Internet access, access to plenty of hot water for long showers and frequent family excursions. To meet this demand, Orlando says, "We have an ongoing project equipping many of our host families with broadband Internet service to allow the student unlimited Internet access 24/7. We also have begun a structured family activity for the students. This is recorded on an activity record and kept at the host family."

Because of the cultural and linguistic advantages of host family accommodation, this option can also appeal to executive language learners, and some schools offer executive host families, something which Jackie Helfenberger at Akzent Sprachbildung in Switzerland says she greatly appreciates being able to offer. "Executive families offer superior accommodation and a rather academic background which enables communication over business issues," she explains.

But modern demographics are changing host family provision in some countries, particularly the bigger cities. Helfenberger believes schools must keep them informed of such changes. "Can we still expect a family-type of living in big, cosmopolitan cities, or are the majority of these hosts single, young people? If we know from the beginning, we can steer expectations [in] the right direction," she says. She also believes host families are losing their unique selling point (USP). "The problem is that families tend to have less time available for students, but the main USP for selling family accommodation is communication practice."

Gaining independence
But this is not the only reason why the appeal of host families [also known as homestay] is waning. Young people, who are often seasoned travellers, are now looking for independent options. As Cameron Lloyd at Shafston University in Australia comments, "Homestay is a unique experience and is very valuable but the students also love the convenience, privacy and independence of living in a room on campus." He says that, as a consequence, they have experienced a "small shift away from homestay to other forms of accommodation".

Embassy CES & Bellerbys College in the UK has also experienced a drop in demand for host family accommodation. Quin suggests this is owing to the changing nationality trends at the school. "The trend towards student residences has come mainly from the Asian countries, which have been strong over the last few years in EFL schools, so this is why demand for this has been greater. Without wishing to generalise too much, the students interested in the cultural experience tend to be those from Western Europe, where numbers have been static or declining," he explains.

The type of courses on offer can also affect demand, with older students on longer courses preferring independent living options. Anna Clara Sainte-Rose at IS Aix-en-Provence in France reports a surge in requests for hotel or hotel residences, which she believes is linked to the increasing average age of their students. She explains, "The request for more independent and economical solutions has gone up since we started offering long-term courses [of] three months or more on a regular basis."

Lack of supply
Currently, demand for residential accommodation seems to be outstripping supply. "Every day more and more students - especially young adults - ask for residential accommodation," reports José Pascual at New Link agency in Spain. "The problem is that it is very hard to find this type of accommodation outside the summer and, during the summer season, all the residences fill up very quickly, and we disappoint lots of students because we are not able to offer [residences]. Most of the students who look for residential accommodation postpone their trip abroad until the following summer if we tell them that all the residences are booked up."

Acutely aware of the need for high quality, year-round residential accommodation, many language schools and accommodation agencies have been investing in this type of provision. In Mexico, the Baden-Powell Institute is building a complex of 10 small apartments within walking distance of the school, according to the school's Executive Director, Eugenio Cortes, while at Seneca College in Canada, the "campus residence is brand new and also doubles as a hotel and conference centre", says Martine Allard at the school. Embassy CES & Bellerbys College in the UK has also invested in new residential facilities. The school has purchased 250 rooms in a 900 room purpose-built student residence in Greenwich, London. All rooms are single and include private bathrooms and Internet access, says Quin.

On-campus advantages
University campuses are also being modernised to satiate student demand for quality. In New Zealand, AIS St Helens' residence now provides both single and double suites as well as the usual single, twin and multi-share rooms.

On-campus accommodation has the added bonus of university facilities on the doorstep. At Galileo Galilei Escuela de Español in Spain, Cristina Navarro reports, "[Our] residence is located on campus and surrounded by sports facilities that students can use. It has 400 single and double rooms, all with private bathroom, telephone, Internet connection and air conditioning."

Living in a student residence also has the advantage for international students of being able to mix freely with domestic students. In the USA, Sherrie Kelly at the American Language and Culture Institute at California State University San Marcos reports that, for their long-term students, on-campus accommodation is the most popular option. "Students want to be a part of the campus life," she relates. "They hope to make friends with American peers – 95 per cent of our English language students plan to continue their education in the USA so student life is highly valued."

Marilyn Bell at Bell Accommodations in Canada says that student residences is their most popular option. "Students find themselves with other English-speaking students and, for the most part, they love it and their English really improves," she says. "It's hard for students to meet [others] of their age – this is a great way to do it."

Accommodation agencies
Accommodation agencies, such as Bell Accommodations, work with schools and/or agents, providing accommodation for their clients. Roberto Passarelli of ICL – International Center of Languages agency in Brazil believes such agencies can provide a very high quality service. "In Canada, most placements are usually done by an agency, and the results seem to be better than when the students are placed by the school," he asserts.

In the USA, Educational Housing Services (EHS) offers a range of high standard accommodation options for students. It currently manages over 2,200 beds in five student residences in New York City, housing approximately 4,000 students from around 24 educational institutions and over 25 countries, according to EHS President, George Scott. The residences feature professional 24-hour security staff, designer furniture, fitness centres, lounges and communal space, computer centres, colour TV and high-speed Internet access. Increasingly such provision is becoming the norm. As Scott observes, "Internet access is an absolute essential service; it is no longer a variable."

CasaSwap.com is a relatively new entrant into the field of accommodation services, having evolved from a website focused on home exchange between students. Mikael Klint explains its origins as, "the solution to a widespread problem of finding accommodation when going abroad, a phenomenon particularly critical in big cities". From these beginnings, CasaSwap now also offers an area for renters, searching for accommodation and an area for home-owners/landlords, offering accommodation. Klint reports that language schools are keen to use the site to rent or sub-let vacant apartments for students.

Growing expectations
It is clear that schools must increasingly offer a range of accommodation choices, if they are to win the popularity vote with students. According to Anatole Bogatski at AIS St Helens, this not only means types of housing but also optional extras. "We have removed the pre-paid meal portion of our room cost in order to give students greater choice in where to buy their meals – on or off the campus," he explains.

As countries become richer and more accustomed to the language travel tradition, expectations also evolve. "Japanese students have always had the highest expectations," says Bogatski. "This reflects the affluence of their own society. Korean students come second with the Chinese students prepared to 'rough it' a little more." Even this, however, is changing quickly "as modern Chinese students arrive in Auckland with higher expectations", he says.

Host family regulations

"Homestay accommodation is a delicate area," asserts Andy Quin of Embassy CES & Bellerbys College in the UK. Living with a host family can be the best or the worst of experiences for students, and most quality schools work hard to ensure consistent standards at host families. But, surprisingly perhaps given the importance of this area, there are few regulatory bodies that actually monitor accommodation provision.

One of the most regulated markets in terms of host family accommodation is Malta, where the Maltese Tourist Authority (MTA) is responsible for monitoring the sector. It issues licences to host family providers and inspects a random sample of host families each year. Beatrix Strauss, Accommodation Manager and Student Counsellor at Geos Malta Language Centre reports that, since the MTA took over the monitoring of host family provision in the country in 2002, "the situation and quality has improved". However, some school sources feel the MTA should do more to ensure minimum standards are met.

In other countries, some accrediting organisations and language school associations include guidelines and codes of practice for student accommodation provision. For example, the British Council's English in Britain Accreditation Scheme includes accommodation in its scheme, which Quin says is fundamentally important. "Without external checks, unscrupulous operators could thrive," he states.

In New Zealand, the Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of International Students, introduced by the Ministry of Education, stipulates how schools should manage the quality of student accommodation. According to Adrian Kerr of Aoraki International College in New Zealand, the code of practice "ensures regular communication [with host families], record keeping and emergency provision". Any complaints would, says Kerr, find their way to the government. "[This is a] competitive industry," he continues. "Schools will suffer if their management of such things is indifferent."

In other countries where there are no regulations regarding student accommodation – and even in those where there are – it is the responsibility of the language schools themselves to ensure accommodation standards. Cameron Lloyd at Shafston University in Australia reports that they continually monitor their host families to ensure standards remain consistent, and have introduced "comprehensive contracts with families".

At Galileo Galilei Escuela de Español in Spain, Cristina Navarro says, "We check our host families regularly and also we look carefully at student comments in the questionnaires they fill in on arrival and departure. If we notice something is wrong, we talk to the family and it could be that we don't work with this family again."

Tough action on substandard host families is also taken by Baden-Powell Institute in Mexico. "If any problem arises during the student's stay, we change the student to a new host family where that problem won't possibly exist," says Eugenio Cortes at the school. He adds, "A family that has intentionally failed to offer what it has originally promised is no longer kept within our host families. No exceptions are made."

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