As more students head Down Under to study, the places they choose to live and how they choose them are changing rapidly.
On one hand, a massive increase in students puts pressure on what, in most major cities, has until very recently been a tight and expensive housing market.
But there are also more options than ever before for short- and long-term stays, from traditional pillars such as on-campus colleges and standard home rental contracts through to websites like Flatmates.com.au and luxury inner-city student skyscrapers. It’s a choice that can be overwhelming for students and a market ripe for education agent involvement, if they’re prepared to overcome some key challenges.
The current situation
As it stands, education agents are not heavily involved in the accommodation sector. The 2019 Aussie Study Experience Report from Cohort Go showed just 12% of surveyed students booked their accommodation with an agent and the sector’s rapid changes to accommodation have made it less attractive for many agents.
IAE Study in Australia Brisbane manager Anja Christoffersen said her company had found students are largely driven by price and flexibility so long term contracts don’t always appeal.
“We find our students really tend to want to live in a share house with other people and they find those arrangements themselves within the first few weeks of being here.”
In recent years, two major things have radically changed the accommodation market for students: massive investment in private, off-campus accommodation and online options.
Traditionally, the market has been split between on-campus accommodation, share housing and homestays, which are more popular with younger students. But student-only luxury highrises are booming across Australia, thanks to investment from companies such as Urbanest, Student One and Unilodge, which just partnered with Cohort Go to provide custom software for easier payments. In Brisbane alone, council concessions introduced in 2016 sparked an accommodation boom that was tipped to add 13,000 extra beds. One company, Scape, was hoping to soon have 5,000 beds in Melbourne alone, and 10,850 new student beds were added nationwide before the 2019 year kicked off.
Online, Flatmates.com.au, Gumtree and, to a lesser extent, Facebook Marketplace have opened up a massive range of new ways to find private accommodation, even if the accommodation itself hasn’t changed as much.
What agents can do
There are a number of ways to further explore the student accommodation market but not all of them are ideal.
The temptation to become a simple middle man, asking a student what they want and searching it out for them across various platforms, is obvious. But while it’s possible to charge for this extra service, housing is already so expensive and students are often so price sensitive that there’s a risk of setting the price too low or high to be of use to either the business or the student.
Another simpler option is to build relationships with specific providers. IAE Study in Australia has a standing relationship with Urbanest, an accommodation provider operating in the country’s four biggest eastern cities and overseas. Urbanest sought out the arrangement rather than the other way around but Ms Christoffersen said it was a useful partnership, particularly in emergencies.
“[One student] contacted me on Friday asking for accommodation options to move into on Sunday, which is extremely short notice,” she said.
“So I just called Ubarnest, and they were able to basically arrange things over the phone with me.
“Then I just had to send them an application form, and they send back things to the students directly with payment details and then the student pays and then it's done.
“It's so, so simple.”
What the future might hold
Although a lot of students already use a handful of online providers to search for accommodation, some big European names are still missing from the Australian market. Sites like Uniplaces and Spotahome operate in many European cities offering medium-term accommodation in private homes, while also plugging into student-specific accommodation providers.
They’re easiest to think of as a cheaper, longer-term Airbnb and while few if any of them are making noises about expanding to Australia, it’s surely only a matter of time before one of them makes a foray or someone locally apes the business model.
Ms Christoffersen said introductory packages - month-long stays as students found their feet - could also be a useful option, given their tendency to find something else quickly and move on.
“Then they can work out if they want to extend that or if they want to find other places,” she said.
”And also maybe another kind of website or something for student accommodation, because right now there is like realestate.com.au and flatmates.com.au, and Gumtree and places like that but I think if there was something more specific to international students so they can kind of find each other and all sort of live together, I think that would be really cool.”