On Wednesday 6 to Friday 8 December 2023 SUPRA’s President, Weihong Liang, attended the 33rd ISANA Conference, where he addressed a plenary session on the topic Accommodation: Who Is Responsible?

A full transcript of Weihong’s conference speech can be found below, and in our campaigns and submissions archive.

Addressing the Student Accommodation Crisis: A Call for University Responsibility and Action

Good morning, everyone. My name is Weihong, and it’s a pleasure to be here today as the President of the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA), and as an international student myself.

At SUPRA, we represent a diverse group of over 33,000 postgraduate students at the University of Sydney. Accommodation issues this year rank as our top concern in casework.

Today, I speak from the perspective of a student at a large urban university, a viewpoint that may differ from those at rural universities.

Student accommodation is crucial; it’s more than just a place to live. It’s a vital part of campus life that can either enhance or negatively impact the entire study experience.

Let me share a story about a student from China I met at the SUPRA office. He paid a $6000 deposit for a room he found online before arriving in Sydney, only to discover it was a scam. This situation forced him to stay in a hotel for a month while looking for new rental accommodation. Honestly, I’m not sure how I would have managed in his position.

In discussions about this case, experienced individuals often advise: ‘Inspect the room before paying any deposit,’ ‘Choose a good agent,’ or ‘Consider university housing.’ SUPRA shares these tips with students, aiming to help them use NSW regulations and policies effectively to safeguard their rights.

However, as an international student, I can attest that in 2023, finding accommodation is incredibly challenging due to the shortage of available rooms and the rising number of students and other tenants.

A student introduced me to a social media group where landlords encourage bidding for rentals, favoring those who offer higher amounts. I saw a landlord’s post prioritizing tenants ready to pay a year’s rent upfront. Recently, my friend, signed a lease for half a year’s rent with a substantial deposit. Shockingly, just two days before moving in, the landlord canceled the contract and relisted the property at a higher rate, increasing it from $650 to $750.

This is the reality of today’s market. Many more new students than previously experienced and continue to experience these struggles to find accommodation. Our focus at SUPRA before COVID was to educate students on tenancy laws and their rights, and to avoid scams. But now, I feel somewhat helpless about what more we can do. Students are aware of the risks of unfair treatment but have no choice but to accept these conditions.

My frustration stems from witnessing the deterioration in the conditions faced by international students in recent years. Why is this happening, despite our ongoing discussions and efforts?

I believe the core issue is the lack of clear responsibility. Who is responsible for addressing student accommodation issues? This responsibility currently falls on the students themselves. However, in many parts of the world, universities take on this responsibility. In China, for example, the number of students a university can admit is based on its student accommodation capacity. Many Chinese universities have high-rise student apartments, typically with four students sharing a room, managed by professional residential assistant teams. In some North American schools, particularly for international students, first-semester students must reside in student accommodation, usually in 2-3 person shared rooms. This model is standard practice.

By constructing sufficient, land-efficient, high-rise, modern student accommodation, primarily designed for 2-3 people sharing a room, we can solve this problem. This approach is proven to be effective and is a practice adopted worldwide. Why should Sydney be an exception? Relying on private housing as an alternative to affordable student accommodation is not feasible. No city or economy can accommodate the demand for tens of thousands of single rooms. I know students expressed a preference for single rooms, but most are also willing to accept shared rooms in university-operated student accommodation. These can provide more than just accommodation; they offer a sense of community, a home away from home.

University owned student accommodation are more than just living spaces; they form the heart of a student community. When most students live separately, this community bond weakens. Despite universities investing heavily in community and marketing initiatives to foster a sense of belonging in recent years, what students really need are places where they can live and eat together, maybe even study together after classes, and truly feel a sense of belonging.

The absence of affordable university-owned accommodation has already led to a growing financial gap between wealthier students and those with fewer resources, which challenges the fundamental values of Australia. As it stands, only students with substantial financial means can afford accommodation near our campuses. Such a disparity creates an unequal academic environment. I am convinced that public universities must commit to increasing affordable and  accessible accommodation and support for all students.

The approach of Australian universities in pushing students towards a commercial rental market is both rare and irresponsible, representing a failure in their duty of care. We must acknowledge the universities’ responsibility in this matter and strive to find a solution.

Thank you

Weihong Liang
President of SUPRA