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How to solve the international student housing crisis

Red tape for developers and institutions should be reduced to address the student housing crisis, say experts. Photo: Pexels.

Students with more control over where and how they live reported higher levels of wellbeing

But the fact remains that, whoever is to blame, nearly all major student destinations are experiencing housing shortages that are making both students and local residents miserable in the worst-affected areas. 

So should Canada be looking to the Netherlands, where the former government asked universities to halt international recruitment in order to stop housing shortages from worsening? Or is there a way to continue growing student cohorts in popular study destinations without the crisis levels we’re experiencing today? We asked the experts.

Are international students making housing shortages worse?

Despite sensationalist headlines, none of the accommodation sector representatives we spoke to thought that capping international student numbers would actually solve housing problems, nor did they believe this is a realistic policy option. 

Capping international students would be like “cutting off your left arm because your right arm is hurting,” said Michael Porritt​, vice president of advisory services at Scion. “It’s going to be a useless, useless solution.”

“Given the funding crisis across the UK higher education sector, capping international students and their accompanying fees would be detrimental to many universities,” said Dan Smith, director at Student Housing Consultancy in the UK. 

“There was a significant amount of scaremongering before clearing about UK students being squeezed out of university places by international students when in fact this hasn’t materialised. International students typically take up the more expensive student accommodation.”

Although capping student numbers might free up some housing, this would only be a “temporary fix”, said Kelly-Anne Watson, managing director at the Class Foundation, an organisation founded in response to the student housing crisis.  

“International students inject a substantial amount of money into local economies through tuition fees, housing expenditures, and other related expenses,” she continued. “This financial influx supports businesses and jobs in the community, indirectly benefiting local residents.”

Samuel Vetrak, CEO at BONARD, emphasised that governments must think longer term. 

“Building more student housing residences and incentivising investors [and] developers… is the right approach to the partial solution of the housing crisis rather than losing an opportunity to attract young talented people, who can facilitate countries’ development”.

Who is responsible for addressing the student housing shortage? 

Those working in the housing sector emphasise the need for greater collaboration and transparency between local councils, universities, purpose-built student accommodation operators and developers. But, for the most part, they agree the most important role is that of governments – who urgently need to step up. 

“The government policy-makers need to provide a blueprint for a student housing strategy that can be applied on a local level by local authorities, universities and key stakeholders from the private sector,” said Smith about the UK.  

“Neither main party have shown enough leadership as yet in dealing with the student housing crisis against the backdrop of a looming election and the immigration rhetoric that will inevitably set the tone for an election campaign,” he added.  

A key step all governments should consider is reducing red tape for developers and institutions, said Vetrak. 

“In some countries planning and getting permits could take nine months. In other countries, the procedures could take around five years,” he said. 

While federal governments must lead on housing policy, actions by local councils and governments can also make a significant impact, as shown by Canada’s British Columbia province, which created a housing strategy that links community housing with student accommodation. 

“This is very much on the premise that in general, if you create a bed for student housing on campus, it’s like creating two beds for the city because you’ve put the student in a bed on the campus and you freed up the bed they would have been living in the city,” said Porritt. 

The local government offered low-interest loans and some grants to campuses to support the construction of housing near to campus, as well as lifting restrictions on public-private partnerships to make construction easier. 

Although housing issues in the region, which encompasses the major student cities of Vancouver and Victoria, are far from over, it is hoped this approach will stop things from escalating further by adding over 8,000 beds by 2028, with a second wave of funding underway. 

While replicating this strategy across the country may not keep up with the growth of Canada’s international student population, it would “make a significant dent in the problem”, Porritt​ believes, particularly if the federal government stepped in to provide more low-interest loans for post-secondary housing. 

A similar program is being rolled out in California, although rising constructions costs have caused setbacks

More widely, local governments can help ease housing problems by providing access to land for purpose built student accommodation. 

“Cities with the biggest student population are usually vibrant economic and social centres, where land is very expensive and difficult to get access to,” said Vetrak, adding that a central location, close to campuses, is key to the success of student housing developments. 

“Very often suitable locations for student schemes lack available land, which is sometimes owned not only by private landlords but local authorities as well. 

“Simplifying the process of access to the land owned by local authorities would contribute a lot to the fastening of the development of the PBSA.”

Porritt​ agreed that a “streamlining” of the development process is necessary. 

“It’s important to have environmental considerations and handling of rainwater and all these other kind of things… but it doesn’t have to take as long as it takes.” 

“There are a lot of campuses that have land that could add more housing”

What should institutions do? 

A recent study from the Class Foundation found that student satisfaction is directly linked to accommodation: students with more control over where and how they live reported higher levels of wellbeing. 

Although government-level support may be needed, there are actions institutions can take directly to improve access to housing for their students, including dedicating more of their campus space to accommodation. 

“Universities can seize the opportunity to repurpose their land for housing provisions,” said Watson. “Collaboration with the housing sector allows universities to wield their influence over design, rental rates, and the overall housing experience, all without assuming excessive risk or liability.”

“There are a lot of campuses that have land that could add more housing,” agreed Porritt. “They just need to have the commitment to do it and we can set up structures either through the government to make money available or through the private sector.”

All experts agreed that better collaboration is the only way to address the student housing crisis, and this can be led by institutions. Their focus should be on pro-actively sharing data and collaborating with local governments. 

“If the campus and the town are working together, they can figure out much better solutions than if they’re always just fighting each other,” Porritt said. 

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