International student housing in affordability crisis

With USyd’s student residence stock able to house just 3.2 per cent of students, momentum is gathering behind a campaign to demand the University cap rents and build residential cooperatives.

Image courtesy by Yaz at Completing Sydney.

For international students, following two years of COVID-19 restrictions, many are used to studying offshore and living at home. As students return to Sydney, the lack of university-owned affordable housing is causing a burgeoning crisis. The issue will hit current and incoming international students especially hard as by mid-2023, all international students must return to campus

Although USyd promises that its residences are priced at 25 per cent “below market rates”, the sale of university housing in 2021 and the redevelopment of the Darlington Terraces has increased the scarcity of affordable student housing. Prior to their sales, Selle House and the historic Arundel St and Chapman Steps Terraces were some of the more affordable options available to students with rents sitting at $225 for Chapman Steps. The closure of International House in 2019 also means that, despite Regiment’s construction in that year, the number of beds remains low. 

Data provided by the University indicates that university-owned residences have a total capacity of approximately 2400 students on the Camperdown/Darlington campus. Based on 2021’s enrollment numbers, USyd could only house around 3.2 per cent of all students on the main campus. When residential colleges are factored into the equation, that figure jumps to nearly 6 per cent. 

University ResidenceLowest rentNo. of beds
Darlington House$25854
Abercrombie Student Accommodation
$449
200
Queen Mary Building$326801
Regiment Building$344620
Sydney University Village$362650
Nepean Lodge (Camden)$17742
Nepean Hall (Camden)$153121
Data courtesy of the University of Sydney Accommodation Services. 

As a result, many students enter either the private rental market or privately-owned purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), whose rents often rival those of the colleges. 

Two of the largest PBSA providers Scape and Iglu charge rents regularly exceeding $500 for single rooms. For instance, a single room in a shared apartment at Scape Darling Square costs $529 a week — nearly 40 per cent more expensive than comparable offerings at USyd’s Queen Mary Building. Last year, rents were significantly lower, with prices at Scape properties, such as Scape Cleveland, hovering as low as $250 a week. 

According to a University of Sydney spokesperson, USyd-owned residences are in very high demand. Consequently, the University encourages students to apply early to secure places, meaning that a fierce competition is under way for students, domestic and international, for a room in university residence. 

Obstacles facing international students looking for affordable housing 

Ashrika Paruthi, a third-year student majoring in International Relations and the SRC International Students’ Officer, is no stranger to struggling to find affordable rooms for herself. 

When informed about the scarcity of USyd’s housing stock, Paruthi was scathing, “Are we just leaving our students out? Like we’re just hanging them out to dry?”

Paruthi currently lives in a privately-owned purpose-built student residence in the Inner West after coming back to Sydney following nearly two years at home owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A key attraction for Paruthi, despite PBSAs being expensive, is that they offer international students a secure environment together with an in-built community of fellow students, that is especially appealing for new students who lack a network of friends coming to Australia for the first time. Further, USyd-owned residences and PBSAs include utility bills, offering residents certainty and the ability to plan in advance before flying overseas. 

“Almost every international student is used to living with their family, so they’re forced to cope with homesickness, while living in a tiny space by themselves, which in turn takes a mental toll on them,” Paruthi says. 

Naturally, she is opposed to TEQSA’s blanket change demanding all international students to return on-campus by mid-2023, citing the disproportionate burdens placed on students at an advanced stage of their degree who stayed back home for the vast majority of their degree. 

According to the latest data from the federal government, nearly a fifth (17 per cent) or 74,000 international students remain outside of Australia, with the department noting that this might be due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Another concern that Paruthi has is that, should a record number of international students return and arrive next year, the demands for PBSAs will rise significantly and fuel an already bad situation, “I think it’s just going to put the rental market into further pressure, leading to skyrocketing rents for most international students, many coming back for only one semester.”

A key message that she wishes to pass on to the University, all students and the wider community is that international students are an integral parcel of the community and that USyd, alongside the government, must work harder to ensure that housing is affordable. 

“It all plays out through the myth of all international students being rich, when a lot of them take loans and work part-time to save every penny they can.”

Precarious arrangements remains a real risk for incoming and current students 

Speaking to Honi, Redfern Legal Centre’s (RLC) Sean Stimson, who leads the RLC’s International Student Legal Service NSW, is frank about the multitude of issues facing international students. Stimson estimates that a large majority of students (60 per cent) need to work in order to cover daily living expenses and this generates a vicious cycle of wage theft cases.  

“We’ve had clients that presented to us that they [are] earning $10-$11 an hour. You’re [employers] basically cutting in half the financial income that they [students] could derive from working,” Stimson says. 

The reason why wage theft is a particularly persistent problem for international students, Stimson explains, is that some employers threaten to report those who work more than 40 hours per fortnight to the Department of Home Affairs. 

Aside from the problem of wage theft, he says that, from his experience at the RLC, he has also witnessed an increase in cases involving students receiving an eviction notice or exorbitant rent hike.

“We’re not talking $20 or $40 a week, we’re talking hundreds of dollars in some instances, in a very high percentage of those clients we’re seeing, those hikes in rent are illegal,” says Stimson. 

“This actually results in students going to the New South Wales Civil and Administrative Tribunal [NCAT] and quite often actually having the matter found in their favour.” 

In Stimson’s view, although the rise of PBSAs is, in principle, “absolutely great” due to the secure environment that comes with these buildings, the sector is ill-equipped to address the need for affordable student housing, “It’s a business and because of that, they really will charge what the market will bear.” 

Urging international students to voice their concerns and demand change, he is confident that concerted advocacy from international students can set in motion reforms for the better. 

“I think there’s been perhaps a little bit of a power shift [on] the true value of international students. Students, I think, have started to be recognised when they weren’t able to come onshore,” he said.  

“I think that’s really something that students should leverage in universities. They’ve got a little bit more power than perhaps they have historically.” 

Students’ Representative Council demands change

In response to the student accommodation crisis, USyd’s SRC has set up an Open Letter calling on the University to implement serious reforms to fix the chronic shortage in its accommodation provisions. 

“International students should not be exploited as cash cows for the University or private accommodation providers,” the letter reads. “Housing is a fundamental human right, and all students are entitled to live in a safe, affordable and comfortable home that meets their material needs.”

Although acknowledging that residential colleges exist, incoming SRC President Lia Perkins argues that in their current form, residential colleges are not a viable option for the vast majority of students who are looking for affordable housing — a sentiment that International Students’ Officer Ashrika Paruthi shares. This is due to their exorbitant rents, ranging from $615 per week at Mandelbaum House to an eye-watering $900 per week at St Paul’s College for a catered single room with shared bathrooms. Student safety also remains a major concern due to the elitism and systemic sexism prevalent in the colleges’ culture.

“I think that it’s important that student accommodation is made safe and the colleges are dismantled and replaced with more affordable student housing.”

To this end, some key demands that Perkins and the Education Action Group makes of the University is capping rents at an affordable rate, freezing all rent increases for two years and ending no-fault evictions, and converting accommodations into cooperatives like STUCCO. They are also calling for expansions of student housing that do not come at the cost of First Nations communities in Redfern and Waterloo.  

In a statement, a University spokesperson said that some support is available for those struggling to find accommodation and are in difficult circumstances, including pointing to USyd’s bursary program which covers a range of purposes from rent, food, study and other living expenses. 

“We are committed to supporting our students to find affordable housing options. In 2023 we will continue to offer low-cost dormitory accommodation and also provide emergency accommodation to students who need it due to an incident or unexpected displacement.”

“A number of independent providers also offer student accommodation close to the main campus.”

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  1. University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council (SRC) Caseworkers Service

Students who are struggling with accommodation and tenancy issues are encouraged to contact the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council’s Caseworker service:

A guide on accommodation and an accommodation checklist is available on the SRC website: https://srcusyd.net.au/src-help/accommodation-issues/accommodation-guide/ 

The SRC’s guide is also available in Mandarin and Korean

  1. Redfern Legal Centre’s International Student Legal Service NSW

Students are also encouraged to get into contact with Redfern Legal Centre’s International Student Legal Service NSW, which offers information surrounding tenancy issues through My Legal Mate and free legal advice by contacting the Service. My Legal Mate, jointly supported by Redfern Legal Centre, the City of Sydney and the Fair Work Ombudsman, is available in seven (7) different languages (English, Mandarin, Hindi, Korean, Vietnamese and Portuguese). 

International Student Legal Service NSW: https://rlc.org.au/what-we-do/our-services/international-student-legal-service-nsw 

Sign up to My Legal Mate here:  https://www.study.nsw.gov.au/live/my-legal-mate