With their capacity to work limited by their commitments to study, university students don’t earn very much. In the current rental crisis, they’re placed in an especially vulnerable position where they may often have to choose between being exploited and having a place to stay – and for international students, all these difficulties are intensified many times over.
Australia has one of the largest markets of international students in the world, with many coming under the impression that the quality of education in Australia is high, and the cost of living is reasonable (although neither is particularly true). International students contribute about $25.5 billion to the Australian economy according to Universities Australia
, and, on average, constitute over a quarter of all universities’ revenues.
They’re an incredibly large part of the university ecosystem, and now that the pandemic has ended
, many students are returning to a much more volatile rental market in Australia. Vacancy rates hit at an all-time low for Sydney this year with just 1.4% of rental units being available for those looking, and nationally it’s even lower at 1%. Rents are increasing, higher than before the pandemic, and universities have also been selling off their own student housing recently., culminating in a real affordability crisis for students.
In August last year UNSW made a statement that they were partnering with Iglu to develop the largest student accommodation precinct in Australia in the car park next to NIDA, with a lease secured for the site. UNSW’s announcement touted the development as offering
“’premium’ ” student accommodation, housing 1066 student apartments.
Tharunka reached out to UNSW for comment. A spokesperson responded:
“UNSW Sydney, like many other universities, is aware of the challenges imposed by the high cost of housing in Sydney and is currently exploring ways to provide support for students including low-cost options. We are seeing a high demand for student accommodation aligned to rental market conditions. Our on-campus accommodation is fully booked but we do offer a waitlist as there is usually some movement.”
“Plans for the space encompass the Iglu student accommodation, retail space, University space and a publicly accessible open space. The project will deliver accommodation for 1000 students to reduce some of the pressure on housing availability “
Considering the poor state of the rental market – low vacancy rates, long waitlists for on-campus accommodation and an exploitative private rental sector – this sounds pretty good for students, right?
The thing is, purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) is not a good solution to the problem – at least not how it’s working now. These PBSA’s are really expensive, and Australia’s sector in particular is unlike that of other countries.
“I think what happens with a lot of young international students is that their parents will send their kids to a PBSA (like Iglu) for maybe a semester because they feel it’s secure, they’ll meet other students and be looked after, and then they move out” says Alan Morris, Professor for the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at UTS.
“In the US for example, there’s far more accommodation provided by the universities, and I think it’s fairly subsidised and reasonable. Whereas in Australia, most of the purpose-built student accommodation is owned by corporations like Scape, Iglu, Unilodge etc. They’re big companies, profit-oriented and very expensive. A studio in Redfern with Scape is around $720 a week. They’re very sizable corporations and it’s clearly seen as a lucrative thing to do. Very few students can afford purpose-built student accommodation. It’s really the top few percent.
In June, UNSW’s Education Collective held a protest against the Iglu application in conjunction with locals, pushing for more affordable housing as opposed to premium housing. It was reported by City Hub that the Iglu development at UNSW would have apartments likely costing upwards of $650 a week.
With such a prohibitive price point it’s becoming increasingly clear that the units are targeted towards affluent international students.
But what about the rest?
There’s a common misconception that international students are cash cows. Public policy doesn’t help dispel that. Full tuition fees, little financial support, and few concessions are provided. But the reality is that the international student population is a highly stratified group.
In speaking about the diversity of the group, Professor Morris remarks that, “international students are ‘very divided’.
“At least 25% or more are highly precarious and vulnerable. Even the moderately secure students could have things change very quickly. If they lose their jobs or their parents lose their jobs, they can find themselves in serious trouble.”
“Many international students come from countries with very weak currencies compared to Australia’s. Even if they come from fairly middle-class homes, like from India, converting the rupee to Australian dollars can be shocking.
“I think there is a lot of mythology with international students and their capacity”.
With the remainder of the international student group that have less financial security to afford PBSAs (and those who only stay for a short period), the private rental sector is where they have to turn. And with private rentals comes a whole new cavalcade of issues. International students usually come to Australia with no previous rental history, no awareness of the regulations in the market, and little knowledge of their rights. This makes them especially prone to power imbalances in their tenancies.
“Landlords are less prone to rent to international students, they’re more subject to exploitation, they don’t have cars, they don’t know the city. It all becomes very challenging for international students. They don’t have the social connections a lot of local students have”, says Professor Morris.
“When younger students find themselves in situations where the landlord also lives in the dwelling, it can be extremely problematic. They don’t know their rights and may be bullied. Those power dynamics can be very dramatic.
Ava Tan, an international student at UNSW, described herself as lucky as her parents were supporting her financially. However, she pays for her share house accommodation in cash, her rent has been increased three times within a year (the limit is once every 12 months), and she only receives 30 days’ notice, as opposed to the required 60 days written notice for periodic tenancies.
“I definitely do not feel secure about this and I do not doubt that the rent will increase again. I’d love to look for a new place but I’m also still a uni student and would like to focus on my studies,
.” she told us.
Although these informal arrangements may be acceptable to some, it reflects a larger problem that many students, especially international students, aren’t aware of their rights.
Khyati Zaveri is another of the many international students who has faced problems renting in the private sector. Most notably, her rental property agent wouldn’t agree to fixing a contract.