A Place to Call Home: International Student Housing in Sydney


In a recent Senate Committee, Liberal Senator Sean Edwards repeatedly referred to the majority occupancy of international students of affordable student housing as a “rorting” of the system. He said that the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS), set up by the Rudd government, had a significant “loophole” that allowed, for instance, Monash University to house over 70% international students in its subsidised units.

Federal Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews recently stated the legislation would be changed to explicitly state “tenancy preferences,” and prioritise domestic residents to bulwark against “rorting” by “wealthy foreign students”.

In response, fearing the move may breach the Racial Discrimination Act, Edwards asked: “I mean, if we don’t subsidise them, is that racism?”

The attendant representative of the Department of Social Services replied, “It’s a complex matter”.

The Current Scheme

NRAS is a scheme which sees government team up with local developers to offer tenants rent 20 per cent below the market rate. It is incredibly popular among universities who wish to offer affordable housing options to students. It has spread to: ANU, Monash, Deakin, UWA, UTAS, University of Canberra, Charles Darwin University (NT) and Edith Cowan University.

Earlier this year Sydney University applied for 1,200 new residential units under NRAS, to be subsidised $10,000 each. When asked by The Australian about the number of international students who would be allowed into these units, the University replied that it “didn’t yet know the mix.”

As of the May Budget, applications under NRAS have been suspended. It is unclear if this includes Sydney University’s bid.

The reality facing international students

International students face a much higher cost-burden for their degree (sometimes three times what domestic students pay), a very punitive exchange rate, and a higher cost for public transport.

There is a common misconception that all international students are living in apartments bought by their wealthy parents. A survey by the University of Sydney however, revealed that of 1850 international students only 7 per cent lived in “housing owned by their family”. More than 40 per cent by contrast, “reported that their current costs for accommodation was not within their budget”.

The majority of international students interviewed for this article seemed to fit these statistics and said their parents often helped them out financially either to meet the cost of renting in Sydney or to assist them with tuition. Fausto, who has a scholarship with the University said “My parents have a budget reserved in any special occasion.”

Tuition costs overall were seen as inhibitive, often three times what domestic students pay per year. Fausto, who studies  a Master of Professional Engineering, said he paid around $35, 000 a year. Mollie, who studies a Bachelor of Commerce, said she paid $35, 000 a year. Khuyen paid the lowest out of all international students interviewed at $11,000 a year for a Masters of Accounting.

A second major cost was rent. Rental prices around Sydney University remain prohibitive to all students but particularly to international students, who may lack the local contacts to enter share house arrangements. It is rare for students living close to university to pay below $250 a week. Of those we interviewed, the students living nearby University paid the highest, with Fausto in Newtown paying $375 a week and Lily in Sydney Uni Village paying $270/week.

International students who commute may save money on rent but they lose out in transportation costs. A recent NSW Parliamentary inquiry revealed that the cost of transport was seen as a significant barrier to international students, affecting their choice of accommodation, “with many students seeking accommodation within walking distance of their institution, because they could not afford to travel”. A Sydney University survey found 90 per cent of international students chose accommodation based on proximity to the University.

The commuting students we surveyed paid less rent, but faced high transportation costs. Shiran in Dulwich Hill pays $200 a week, Mollie in Chatswood pays $150 a week and Khuyen in Strathfield pays $210 a week. But the lack of casual international student concession cards means that they cannot travel to university as affordably as domestic students. Shiran is “about 20-30 minutes [away] by bus, depending on traffic,” but cannot make this trip on a whim, because there are no casual concession tickets for international students. International students can only buy 90 day and 365 day concession tickets, at a significant outlay of over $400 and $1500 respectively.

The University of Sydney’s Derrick Armstrong cites this “reluctance of… state governments to provide travel… concessions to international students” as a reason why so many international students are under “severe [financial] pressure”. A NSW Parliamentary Inquiry recommended “introducing travel concessions for all international students” – but the state government has largely ignored this recommendation.

NSW and Victoria remain the only states that still do not offer concession cards to international students.

Seeking accommodation

One of the biggest challenges facing international students is securing adequate (and safe) accommodation in Sydney, Shiran tells me. “When I first came to Australia I had no idea how to find accommodation. The only options put forward by the University related assistance were homestay, which can range from great to awful depending on your luck and University housing which is ridiculously expensive,” he said.

In my research, Sydney Uni colleges ranked as the most expensive of all rental-housing options in the local area. The cheapest option was STUCCO at $73/week. STUCCO, however, is unable to host international students. “Unfortunately we cannot house international students… because STUCCO is partly owned by the NSW Government,” said Steph, from STUCCO management. “We must adhere to the legislation [on] Community Housing Eligibility,” legislation that only provides for Australian citizens and permanent residents.

 “STUCCO would be more than willing to provide for international students but we can’t,” STUCCO resident Riki said. “The government is simply against international students… there’s a general preference for Australian citizens. I guess this is politically motivated – and linked with the mistaken misconception that all international students are rich.”

“International students are eligible for our temporary/emergency accommodation service,” STUCCO management told Honi.  “The emergency accommodation protects people who are at risk of becoming homeless,” Riki said, “and can be accessed by calling an SRC caseworker.”

With STUCCO ruled out, the next cheapest option for international students is shared housing. However, this requires a network of friends already in the country. Fausto says that now that he’s settled in Australia, he’s “looking forward to moving to a new (cheaper) place with a couple of friends.”

Every international student interviewed searched online to find their initial accommodation in Sydney. Lily told me that “the internet helped a lot. Found this place online and had to apply for it online.” Gumtree was a favourite. Khuyen said “I got the location [Strathfield] in mind so just searched on Gumtree for information about it… I preferred to live in Strathfield as it’s a traffic junction, really convenient to catch an express train to the city in 15 minutes.” Shiran said “an acquaintance posted a Gumtree ad for room availability on a uni society Facebook page.”

This kind of informal, online approach was preferred overall to more complicated methods like going through a real estate agent. “As a student, you are in some way forced to rent with the few companies that easily rent to students; although they make things easier, they normally have higher rental prices,” Fausto said. Going through a real estate agent was seen as very difficult, with some students raising concern about discrimination. “Real estate agents asked for too much information and [it was] hard to get pay slips and provide a good rental history,” says Khuyen. The “real estate agent is very concerned with our financial situation, so [it’s] harder for us to rent the whole property… if we did rent it, they love to check up on us more often,” says Mollie.

Mollie was unique in those surveyed in having stayed in a homestay, a private home offering accommodation to paying students, during her first year in Sydney. “I was under 18. So my agent enrolled me in a language school, then the language school [had] connection with homestays. So it was all arranged before I came.”

There are now a significant number of intermediaries like this, cashing in on Australia’s education export boom. Agnes Ong, Marketing Executive of Global Experience, a homestay and apartment accommodation service that caters to international students, suggests that the key advantage of using an intermediary is safety.

Global Experience inspects the houses of homestays and meets “the potential host families… to ensure good living environments for students.” All homestay families require a background Criminal Records and Working With Children check. “[The advantage of] using us as a middleman,” Agnes suggests, “[is that] we can act immediately on a student’s behalf to mediate”.

But there are risks with intermediaries too, with some scamming international students for cash. In 2010, a significant number of international students were scammed into putting down deposits and bonds on apartments in Australia that didn’t even exist. “In another example,” points out a spokesperson from the Redfern Legal Centre, “a student was told she would be sharing a room with one female. She [moved] in and found out she had paid to reside in a basement with six males.”

This kind of overcrowding is very common. The Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests one quarter of full-time international students are living in “overcrowded” accommodation. Those I talked to had only heard rumours: “I’ve heard stories where more than 10 people stay in the same house together… the landlord just chucks beds wherever he or she can to squeeze everyone in. But I didn’t encounter it myself,” said Lily.

Riki, STUCCO resident, knew of people sharing a living room “split in two by a crude partition wall, built by the landlord, just so that they could charge double the rent and use it as two bedrooms.” “When we are having Skype conferencing with our family and our friends in our home country we would not want to show them the background where they have seven of our friends living in one place,” said Thomson Ch’ng from the Council of International Students Australia.

Kei McGrath, from the Illawarra Committee for International Students, said international students “don’t [often] understand Australian law” and when they deal with landlords directly rather than through agents they face “more opportunity for [exploitation].” Research by Sydney University’s Derrick Armstrong showed “40 per cent of [international] students had no signed tenancy agreement, 18 per cent had not paid a bond, 17 per cent had not received a receipt for their bond.” When disputes did arise with the landlord over conditions “the most frequent path for resolution for the student was to leave the residence”.

The proliferation of “cowboy landlords,” as the NSW Parliament calls them, has led to a series of “cramped, illegal boarding houses,” “associated with organized crime, including the sex trade and immigration rackets.” The Daily Telegraph reported in July about “a raft of disgusting and illicit rental accommodation, with owners charging vulnerable students and migrants hundreds of dollars a week to share filthy, tiny, living quarters.”

Reports of international students living in a shipping container, a minibus and an illegal demountable are the worst cases of this kind of abuse. The worry is that international students may be subject to such conditions, but unaware of their legal rights to specific standards under Australian law.

Originally Published by Honi Soit.