This week, Dr Helen Forbes-Mewett, Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Sociology at Monash University shares some of the insights into her research on international student accommodation in Australia and issues in the sector.

What problems does Australia face in terms of accommodation for international students?

Australia does not have a history of providing accommodation for tertiary students in general. Limited accommodation has been available on some university campuses for students from rural areas, those who have moved from interstate or overseas. The majority of tertiary students in Australia attend educational institutions in their home city, so they tend live in the family home or in private rental with friends. This history is why there is not sufficient o-n or near-campus housing to cater for the many thousands of international students now living in Australia.

The nature of the tertiary sector changed quite dramatically in terms of structure and size with the unprecedented arrival of many thousands of international students leading up to 2009. This included university students as well as those who were enrolled in courses in the Vocational Educational and Training (VET) sector. Nonetheless, they all required accommodation and there was insufficient time and resources for it to be appropriately provided.

University accommodation exists at some campuses but it is limited and considered by many international students to be too expensive. Private purpose-built student accommodation is much more available and offers a good alternative in major cities but it is also considered to be too expensive. Consequently, international students turn to the private rental market where they seek low-cost shared housing, often in low socio-economic areas. Over recent years, some universities have increased their on- or near-campus accommodation to address the problem to some extent.

The tendency for international students to pool their finances to obtain private rental accommodation can leave them open to exploitation by landlords wishing to increase revenue. Students themselves sometimes overcrowd a rental property by ‘sub-letting’ space to others in an effort to reduce costs. This is common practice among international students who may have difficulty obtaining accommodation for a group of people so they sign a lease without indicating the correct number of people living there. These circumstances make it difficult for the students to report to the landlord when house maintenance is required and properties are often left in an unsafe state.

Australia seems to have turned a corner in terms of international enrolments at universities, which now look set to steadily rise again judging by AEI data. Will this cause pressure on the housing supply?

I think Australia is now in a better position to provide housing as the increases in international students are likely to be more gradual than in the past and therefore more manageable. This will give educational institutions and governments a chance to monitor the trends, and anticipate the expectations and needs of international students. I think there is also a greater awareness of educational institutions and governments in Australia that international students need to be well-informed and financially resourced.

What differs between Australia and the UK in terms of international student accommodation?

Given tertiary students in the UK traditionally live away from home, the provision of student accommodation is the norm. This has served international students well as the infrastructure is already in place. International student accommodation needs are closer to those of domestic students in the UK. In Australia, international student accommodation requirements are very different to domestic students, many of whom who remain living in the family home. Australia therefore does not have a history of providing student accommodation on a large scale.

Small private providers who have sprung up in response to a shortage of low-cost housing are unlikely to advertise outside Australia. Larger purpose-built student accommodation providers who offer more suitable options I would think would be more likely to advertise.  This could be a good measure for international students. If a provider is prepared to publically present as providing suitable student accommodation, then they would be more likely to be offering a safer option.

Are there any trends in international student accommodation trends that you have observed?

I have observed additional student accommodation over the last few years at a number of universities. These provide safe accommodation in supportive environment. International students often comment that it is too expensive but it is comparable with off-campus private rental accommodation. However, off-campus private rental accommodation often means students can pool their money to reduce costs. Unfortunately this may mean living in cramped and unsafe conditions. 

There is also more purpose-built student accommodation in major cities, which is also a good option. However, it is often not fully occupied because it is also considered too expensive. It would seem that the added benefits of being in a safe environment, often with 24-hour residential support, and the availability of recreation areas that encourage social interaction are not being factored into cost considerations. A decision to rent low-cost housing that is not well-maintained in the private market is far from ideal and can place students at risk.

What should/could be done, in Australia and elsewhere, to improve accommodation options for international students?

Providing accommodation is not always seen as the domain of international education providers. However, I think what is beginning to take place in Australia reflects a keenness to provide as much accommodation as possible and to provide advice and assistance. Universities in particular over the last few years have been providing more and accurate accommodation information so international students are better informed of options and costs involved. 

The difficulty for international students is that if their accommodation is organised before they arrive in the host country and it is not on-campus, they may chose an unsuitable area in terms of distance, transport, and safety. On the other hand, if they wait until after they arrive, they are often still very unaware of better choices of areas and forms of accommodation.

Understandably, in Australia in particular, it is unrealistic for accommodation to be provided on-campus for all international students. However, it would be ideal for short-term accommodation to be arranged for international students for when they first arrive. This would provide an opportunity to be given advice about better on-going accommodation options. Registered accommodation providers should be listed for students to choose from and this should be a requirement for first year undergraduate students.

Which country, in your opinion, is the gold standard in terms of accommodating international students?

There are aspects in all three countries observed in the study (USA, UK and Australia) that could be considered ‘gold standard’. In Australia, I have seen ‘gold-standard’ on- and near-campus student accommodation left unoccupied because it is considered to be too expensive. I have observed the same in UK. In the USA, where students are required to live on campus for the first year – this does not seem to occur. I think the security and support that is offered in conjunction with on-campus housing in the USA is gold-standard. To be labelled gold-standard we need to offer more than a roof over students’ heads. Undergraduate students in particular who need a home away from home would be best accommodated on or near-campus with residential support. Studies indicate that students living on-campus are more academically successful than those who are not and this is attributed to the support and safety structures they enjoy.

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