What has gone wrong with international students and family accommodation?

Over on the HEPI blog this morning, Unipol’s Martin Blakey discusses accommodation - and specifically mentions the crisis in supply of family accommodation for international students:

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The latest shortage is probably the most unreported of all – accommodation suitable for students with families. Many universities are now ramping up recruitment of international students from India and Nigeria, mainly onto taught postgraduate programmes. A significant minority of these students are bringing their families with them.

PBSA has never catered for this small but growing segment, and most universities have very limited accommodation for families, if any. These students have to take their chances in the general rented housing market in their locality. In some university towns, finding suitable accommodation is difficult for student families. This is an entirely unquantified problem, but most accommodation offices report serious difficulties in this area.

It’s good to see this highlighted – almost every SU that Livia Scott and I have spoken to recently report that they’ve had multiple cases – in some cases very high numbers indeed – of students that need it arriving into the UK without family accommodation, and then struggling to find it.

We’re also repeatedly hearing stories of a sharp spike in student pregnancy – students arriving in their third trimester etc – which doesn’t mix well with our hostile immigration rules.

As Blakey notes, it’s becoming clear that where there’s not a full blown general housing crisis yet, there is a crisis in availability of suitable family accommodation specifically.

And even where there’s a pregnancy policy in place, universities are not at all geared up for the implications of a sharp and sudden spike in students with childcare needs.

Some of the tales we’ve heard about students and their families spending weeks on end in Airbnbs are terrifying – and in many cases students seem to be living miles away when they do find somewhere. That’s a particular issue given the immigration rules require that “all study that is part of the course must take place on the premises”.

We don’t talk about this much – but here it is in the rules:

One of the reasons I think this is astonishing is that the recent OfS blended learning review doesn’t mention that blended isn’t really an allowed delivery type for international students – and OfS is the Home Office’s educational oversight body!

But more generally – what’s going wrong here? Well, one argument is that universities could do more to warn students about the housing problem.

There are also lots of suggestions that agents are overcooking availability of accommodation and filtering out essential advice from universities.

And that is all compounded by peer to peer IAG like this. I’ve been watching videos like this all week. That one actually specifically advises students with a family to arrive in the UK without accommodation, and stay in Airbnbs while they try to find somewhere.

This is another one which advises students that the “secret” is to arrive, stay in an Airbnb and then search “on the ground”.

Maybe that worked for those students – but in many cities right now it just won’t. And the compound impact on family accommodation of a spike in students on PGT courses staying for the graduate route is likely to have made the market much tighter than it was even a year ago.

As well as the lack of housing and on-campus facilities, we’re also hearing lots of stories of students being unable to find school and nursery places for their children – and in some cases bringing them onto campus out of desperation.

Something has gone pretty wrong here. But what might help?

Universities aren’t even told when a student gets a visa for a dependent approved. And it does all raise important questions about the approvals that universities are getting to increase their CAS allocations if the housing isn’t there to support the students being recruited.

I wonder whether these are the right questions, for example, and if they’re being asked:

Most universities probably ought to be carrying out postcode analysis (and even that data will be dirty, but still) to determine how far away their students are living – and delivering some specific support for students over a given distance threshold – if for no other reason than to ensure they don’t end up in hot water with the Home Office.

We’re also repeatedly coming across sharp spikes in unwitting assessment offences problems – and given how high the stakes are, that is putting astonishing pressure on SU advice staff who are often dealing with heartbreaking cases where students declare that they are suicidal.

On prevention in this PGT space, there’s a danger that providers end up in breach of OfS B2 on supporting students – where the new specific expectation for all students is:

Support relating to avoiding academic misconduct that includes support for essay planning and accurate referencing, and advice about the consequences of academic misconduct.”

I would add that OfS expects targeted approaches for particular cohorts – for example:

And when students fail or need to resit, the “running out of time” in the buffer period at the end to a) complete, b) get an exam board to meet and then c) do the graduate route application thing is a huge issue we’re seeing that needs some mapping and processes fixing smarts.

Ultimately we’re back to the need for universities to carefully analyse the particular needs of the students they’re recruiting from particular countries, and to be careful to ensure the infrastructure is there to support them. How much effort goes into understanding the demand and price sensitivity of international markets, versus the needs of the students that come from them?

Crucially, I worry quite a bit that expansion without proper consideration of infrastructure issues carried few human risks when it was mainly about single young students and mainly in loose housing markets. Things are different now. As Blakey concludes:

Universities need to look at housing demand and supply for all their students across all levels and years of study, because, in an accommodation shortage, those last in the queue suffer most. That will be first-years first and foremost, but, as supply contracts and demand increases, so shortages affecting returning students become more apparent. Institutions need to be more honest about their accommodation offer. From the student’s point of view, offering an accommodation guarantee and then placing them in housing many miles away does not count as the university honouring its pledge

3 responses to “What has gone wrong with international students and family accommodation?

  1. Ah the “right questions” – let me tell you the only question really being asked in many Universities

    – “can the Business school pile in double the number of international students as last year to cover our budget problems and inflation?”.

    If there is a conversation about accomodation happening it’s so secret I have never come across it.

    This problem is going to get worse as Universities are getting addicted to the international student cashflow. Especially in Universities that are seen continuing declines in home UG students.

    There is of course the option for govt intervention but fairytales are for bed time.

  2. The Government isn’t going to intervene. Just look at this answer from the new minister to a question whether the DfE or DLUHC assessed whether they should get providers and local planning authorities together to think about student accommodation needs:

    “Neither the Department for Education nor the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities have made such an assessment. It is for local areas, through their Local Plans, and in response to local needs and concerns, to determine the level of student accommodation required in their area.”

    DfE aren’t even going to replicate the ‘convening power’ that they used under Chris Skidmore when new PBSAs were left unfinished at the start of term and students couldn’t move it.

    You’d be lucky to find a local plan process responsive enough to deal with shifts in student accommodation needs, such as more students needing family accommodation. It might be useful to look at what local plans in big student cities say.

  3. the challenge of supporting students doesn’t fall to SU Advice Centres alone; let me say that professional services bear the brunt of needing to provide this kind of support across many fronts: accommodation, finance, well being and mental health/counselling, study support etc…
    There are often competing philosophies at play in universities but rarely are they between the SU and student support services; it really would be helpful to see this acknowledged sometimes.

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