Australia: Housing contracts exploit vulnerable international students - report
Some students found themselves forced to pay unfair fees to their university-affiliated accommodation provider, or face the prospect of not graduating. Source: JodyHongFilms on Unsplash

International students in Australian universities are being exploited by their university-affiliated housing contracts, an investigation by Australian network SBS has revealed.

Students spoke of how their housing contracts are tied to the status of their accommodation payments – if they vacate or terminate their contracts prematurely, they won’t be able to graduate or receive their academic transcripts. It’s yet another problem in the list of housing nightmares that international students in Australia universities are reportedly facing.

One student with such experience is Farhan Chowdhury from Bangladesh.

When the 24-year-old left his university-owned accommodation at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) early to visit family back home, he was asked to cough up AU$2,700, nearly 10 times his weekly rent, in outstanding fees or face the consequences. According to Farhan, he went through the proper two weeks notice period but UTS did not properly terminate his contract, which the university disputes.

“They just said the amount was AU$2,700 and this needs to be paid or else I won’t be able to graduate,” Farhan told SBS News.

“Obviously it will be reported to Department of Immigration, that will eventually cancel my visa,” he added.

“I just felt that it was wrong for them to treat us like that.”

Australian cities aren’t coping well with the influx of international students and the demand for housing that comes with it. Source: Shutterstock

In response, a UTS spokeswoman told SBS News the university “is proud of the environment provided to international students [and] has transparent licence agreements that students sign up to”.

While she agreed that Farhan’s contract allowed the university to withhold his re-enrolment because of the outstanding fees, she said mitigating circumstances will be taken into account by UTS. Debt are usually forgiven or reduced on that account.

However, she said “students cannot expect to void their agreement and vacate simply on the basis of a change of plans.”

“UTS has debt management procedures that apply to all outstanding debts by students, and processes for students to apply to pay by instalments,” she added.

Farhan ultimately struck a deal with UTS to pay AU$2,000 in instalments instead of letting the dispute continue, which would have delayed his graduation.

“Obviously I didn’t want to pay that amount anyway, but I had to because they had that unfair leverage on me,” he said.

Australia’s student housing market is booming thanks to the influx of students like Farhan coming from abroad – in one year alone number of international enrollments reportedly grew by 12.6 percent.

In the country’s eight capital cities, purpose-built student homes host more than 71,000 beds in 2017 alone, data from global real estate firm Savills show.

The number of student beds to be developed in Melbourne is expected to almost double what it was a year prior, amounting to more than 16,000 beds in 2018. Sydney’s universities are building about two-thirds of the additional 5,435 beds in the pipeline there.

While the number of beds is growing, protection for the international students sleeping in them has not. Farhan isn’t the only person with such troubles.

Sean Stimson, an international student services solicitor from the Redfern Legal Centre, said:

“We see that across many education providers and many halls of residence or purpose-built student accommodation.”

“A lot of the protections are stripped away which allows the owners and operators to pretty much do whatever they want to do.”

Universities in New South Wales and Victoria are exempt from providing regulatory protections under their respective Residential Tenancy Acts, Stimson explained. So are housing providers with written agreements with universities to provide accommodation for their students.

“You can write anything into these contracts, but certainly the contracts we’ve reviewed there are not those protections in place that are in place under the Residential Tenancy Act,” Stimson said.

With affordable housing unavailable in Sydney, some international students are resorting to living in rusty caravans or in overcrowded and potentially illegal dwelling. Source: Jonathan Percy on UnsplashThe current legal structure leaves international students with disproportionate fees or bonds and unfair notice periods. Should disputes arise, their avenues for redress are narrower too.

It’s time these exemptions are removed, and for universities to be banned from withholding enrolment or graduation because of accommodation disputes with international students, according to Redfern Legal Centre.

Unfair housing contracts isn’t’ the only problem plaguing international students. An expensive rental market is forcing students in Sydney to move into unused garages and rusty caravans – overcrowded and sometimes, even illegal dwelling options are becoming more common as well, according to The Guardian Australia.

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