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The NSW government wants universities to take more responsibility for housing international students as Sydney braces for tens of thousands of arrivals for the return of face-to-face learning.
There are more than 28,000 international students enrolled in NSW universities but, as of Saturday, education providers are required to deliver a minimum of two-thirds of course content in person, putting an end to COVID-era remote learning.
Australian universities are increasingly relying on private operators like Iglu for student accommodation.Credit: Rob Homer
The expected arrival of these international students coincides with the reintroduction of working-hour caps on student visas, which will price many out of the housing market.
Sydney is experiencing the worst housing crisis in a generation with vacancy rates of 1.1 per cent and apartment rental prices increasing six times faster than wages.
Governments, councils, accommodation providers and student advocacy bodies have each pointed the blame at one another for failing to provide affordable accommodation ahead of the influx.
NSW Housing Minister Rose Jackson said while housing was a shared responsibility, universities needed to take on some of that accountability.
“I am concerned, as we know many parts of the state are experiencing a housing and rental crisis and more demand will put more pressure on the system,” she said.
“Universities absolutely do have a role to play to ensuring students have adequate housing.”
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said students were given information on accommodation options before they arrive in Australia along with various other support services.
“We know securing a rental anywhere in Australia is challenging, including for international students,” she said.
During the pandemic, universities sold off tens of millions of dollars worth of accommodation assets and there was an increase in privately owned purpose-built student housing.
Redfern Legal Centre senior solicitor Sean Stimson said Sydney’s housing shortage had led to a sharp increase in rent prices at some private providers.
“International students have fewer choices, with the lack of support mechanisms and contractual obligations surrounding their student fees leaving international students with few options, other than to pay these high prices,” he said.
The University of Technology Sydney sold a third of its accommodation, consisting of three buildings with 428-bed capacity to private provider Scape, which charged 15-20 per cent more than the university for rent.
Macquarie University student Rafiul Hossain, who arrived from Bangladesh to study engineering, said the prices were untenable for most international students and left them vulnerable to exploitation.
“That’s not possible if you’re trying to live on your own, rather than taking money from family, or back from [your] country,” he said.
Rafiul Hossain says most international students were unable to afford student accommodation, which left them vulnerable to exploitation. Credit: Edwina Pickles
Last week, local councillors and UNSW students objected to a new purpose-built student accommodation development application in Randwick, which they said priced students out.
Iglu plans to develop a 1100-unit tower block for UNSW. Rooms are expected to cost $650 per week and just 14 of them will be accessible to people with disabilities.
Tenants Union of NSW head Leo Patterson Ross said the government had to acknowledge their responsibility to international students arriving in the country, while universities had to present a realistic portrayal of life when advertising to students.
For purpose-built student accommodation, “it’s not satisfactory to price at a level that takes advantage of the shortage of supply,” he said.
Student Accommodation Council acting executive director Adina Cirson, which represents Purpose-Built Student Accommodation providers including Iglu, defended the price points, arguing prices shouldn’t be compared with the general rental market.
The rental price includes 24-hour support, welfare and security services, Wi-Fi and laundry facilities included in the price, along with social outings and common spaces.
“They are unique in that they are custom-made for students,” she said.
There are over 200 purpose-built student accommodation properties across the country, housing 76,000 students – about 20 per cent of whom are domestic.
“These beds didn’t exist in this purpose-built student accommodation they would be in the general housing market, given that we’re facing a rental shortage across the country, they play a vital role in providing accommodation but also a lived experience for university life in Australia,” she said.
Minister for Education Jason Clare said the government welcomed international students to study and live in Australia, but that it was up to state and territory governments to regulate accommodation arrangements.
“We are working closely with state and territory governments as they implement a range of strategies to support international students to secure the appropriate and safe accommodation they need,” he said.
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