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What if there is no room? The link between student housing and enrolment capacity

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • As student demand for study abroad surges, so too does the need for affordable, quality housing in study destinations around the world
  • The issue of student housing is looming as a significant capacity issue in some leading study destinations
  • We are now seeing some early examples of cases where limited access to housing is having a significant impact on student experience and the prospects for further enrolment growth

A recent blog post from Alex Usher, president of the industry consultancy Higher Education Strategy Associates, makes a case that housing supply is looming as a significant issue for foreign enrolment in Canada.

The biggest pressure on future growth in student numbers, he argues, “is going to be about housing, and the way that some institutions have been packing in students without regard to local housing supply, which contributes to the steep rise in housing costs not just for international students but for all renters and first-time home buyers…We are letting in hundreds of thousands of students, and not building any new housing. Combined with a variety of other factors that are taking low-income housing off the market, it does not take a degree in economics to realize that there will be a shortage of spaces for anyone looking for low-rent housing.”

And as we noted in a recent, related report of our own, affordable, quality student housing is an important dimension of capacity for any study destination. More limited housing supply pushes up living costs for domestic and international students alike, and, beyond budgeting, can intrude otherwise on the quality of the student experience and destination competitiveness. At the same time, demand for housing is an important indicator of overall student demand for a particular destination.

However, in spite of a burgeoning purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector that is adding thousands of new beds in leading study destinations around the world each year, we are already seeing some significant strains in terms of housing availability in some destinations.

The Netherlands is one high-profile example of this, where a booming international student population has placed renewed pressure on limited housing stock, and especially so in cities that are home to multiple universities, including Amsterdam.

“At the beginning of [the 2021/22 academic year] there was a shortage of more than 26,000 student rooms throughout the Netherlands,” reports de Volkskrant, which it attributes to, “A domino effect: due to the general tightness in the housing market, graduates [living] in their rooms for longer, and the [disrupted] flow of students.”

The housing crunch has led several Dutch universities – including Maastricht, Utrecht, and Groningen – to recently take the extraordinary step of cautioning international students not to come to the Netherlands this year unless they have secured housing before they arrive. “Universities have been pulled into the centre of the Netherlands’ mounting housing crisis, as demand from an ever-growing influx of international students outstrips scarce domestic supply,” reports Times Higher Education. “Previous years have seen newcomers relegated to campsites and most universities now have standard warnings to applicants not to continue their enrolment until they secure accommodation.”

Overcrowding in Ireland

A similar story is playing out in Ireland this year, where housing and housing affordability have long been important issues for international educators. The Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) raised the alarm last month over a “student accommodation crisis [link to https://www.internationalstudents.ie/news/student-accommodation-crisis-leading-exploitation-international-students-irish-council]” in the country, and the issue has been the subject of feature media coverage in recent weeks.

One recent report from RTÉ News highlights the case of students “living in substandard accommodation in where they were paying up to €600 each per month to rent a bunk bed space in crowded rooms.”

Indeed, a 2020 ICOS survey of English language students in Ireland found that:

  • Almost half of respondents said that they were sharing a room with three or more people;
  • Another 11% reported sharing a room with six or more other people;
  • Only 10% of responding students said they had their own room.

ICOS is now calling on the Irish government to strengthen legislation relating to housing and overcrowding. Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Executive Director Laura Harmon said, “We are increasingly concerned that [the housing situation] is worsening and there is a lack of availability. We will see a real breaking point in September when we see all of the students back again.”

In a related statement, Ms Harmon added:

“International students are more vulnerable when it comes to accommodation as they often arrive in Ireland with little knowledge of the rental market landscape, meaning they run a higher risk of being scammed or exploited. Rising rents and a lack of available properties to rent forces many students to live in overcrowded accommodation…The accommodation crisis is also having an impact on Ireland’s reputation abroad as a study destination. This could have serious ramifications for Ireland’s education sector as a whole.”

Various public and private-sector actors are moving to expand housing stock, with some of the most significant progress coming from privately held PBSA developers and providers. A recent report from industry research specialists Bonard highlights that, as of September 2021, there were roughly 230,000 beds in the PBSA pipeline across Europe alone, including both facilities under active construction as well as those still in the planning stage. The report further indicates that just over 50,000 new beds were added throughout Europe in 2021, with another 72,000 expected in 2022, and a further 48,000 beds expected in 2023.

For additional background, please see:


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