ANU’s soon-to-be defunct Postgraduate and Research Students’ Association (PARSA) has released its 2022 Accommodation Report, quantifying the pressures on postgraduate students in the market for accommodation. Woroni delves into the report, which highlights the issues faced and renews calls for action from the University.
As part of their Home Away From Home campaign, which has been running since 2018, PARSA strives for more equitable housing for ANU students. While the challenges experienced are often also relevant for undergraduates, this latest accommodation report specifically addresses postgraduate students. It examines the skyrocketing rental prices in Canberra, and showcases the sacrifices students are making to make ends meet. As the report emphasises, “the results paint a troubling picture.”
As 2023 began, Canberra recorded the highest rental rate in the country, with three suburbs recording 20% or more growth in annual rent rates. Considerable population growth in the region and the influx of new residents has driven up demand for housing. Compounded by current economic trends including inflation, increased living costs and stagnant wage growth, rent and property prices in the ACT have become increasingly unattainable. The pressure on residents to match accommodation costs is significant, with students bearing the brunt of this stress.
The Room For Change report entails data that PARSA collected between November and December 2022, through a combination of survey and consultations. The survey obtained 1719 responses across various ages, genders/sexes, ethnicities, and identities. There were four primary areas of inquiry: measuring satisfaction and questioning experiences in secure accommodation, off campus living, on campus living, and affordability.
As expected, vulnerable demographics are disproportionately affected. This includes disabled students, parents and carers or those with dependents, and international or English as a second language students. Language barriers and the lack of local rental history that landlords often require mean international students cannot compete with local tenants. Students with dependents often have limiting factors, such as needing accommodation for multiple people or prioritising safety. Further, students off campus are disadvantaged when accessing support services.
In order to manage these financial pressures, postgraduate students are taking on additional jobs, or reducing their study loads, shifting priorities away from study. The report shows that 38% of students in paid employment work a full-time week or close to a full-time week. Given that almost all respondents surveyed are full-time students, this presents an issue for the quality of life and the student’s capacity to study.
Additionally, almost 80% of students have had to adjust aspects of their lives to manage affordability issues.They often choose less than adequate accommodation or are forced into unsafe housing, including transient options such as house/pet sitting, homestays, Airbnb/hostels or couch surfing.
Of the respondents living off-campus, 16% report being exposed to illegal behaviour and/or exploitation by landlords and believe themselves to be living in unsafe environments, or at risk of homelessness. PARSA’s report flags this to the ANU as a student welfare issue.
Room For Change argues that “without intervention, we risk losing our brightest minds to other universities and depriving many of the opportunity to study in one of the world’s finest tertiary institutions.”
While PARSA recognises many of these challenges are inherent to the rental market, not unique to postgraduate students and beyond the universities control, it suggests ways the ANU could mitigate these stresses.
The report provides six long-term recommendations to ANU.
This begins with guaranteeing secure accommodation for first year postgraduate students. ANU currently offers first year undergraduate students this assurance, which provides security for those moving to Canberra from interstate or overseas. In 2021, ANU promised this to postgraduate students as well, however did not deliver.
Upholding this guarantee would mitigate the current issue of students searching for accommodation once the term has already started, or facing bouts of temporary housing. As Room For Change identified, “homelessness, transient and unsafe options are most common in the first two months of arriving in Canberra, exacerbated by the unkept promise from ANU.”
According to an ANU spokesperson, the updated student accommodation guarantee will re-commit to offering postgraduate students a full year of on-campus accommodation, as of semester 1, 2024.
Recommendation two is to establish a dedicated accommodation officer(s) who can support off campus students, particularly international students or those with ESL language difficulties. This officer could assist with finding suitable accommodation along with providing support, legal and rental advice.
Thirdly, ensuring affordable and accessible on-campus housing, for example through subsidisation or the renegotiation of concession deals. PARSA argues for rents on campus to be set in line with student incomes, rather than being indexed to inflation to remain attractive to stakeholders, as most residential halls are partially privatised.
This year, two on campus colleges (Bruce and Bergman Hall) surpassed an exorbitant $1000 rent a fortnight, pricing many students out of this type of accommodation. Aligning rents with the competitive off campus market means locking students with lower socio-eocnomic backgrounds out of study at the ANU, negatively impacting diversity in the student population.
The report also recommends developing family friendly (including for parents and carers or students with dependents) on-campus accommodation options. Currently the ANU provides no on-campus options for this demographic, except for Lena Karmel.
When contacted, an ANU spokesperson claimed “the ANU is actively looking into creating additional family-friendly accommodation options.”
PARSA additionally asks for better communication from the ANU to students regarding the accommodation processes. Many students who apply for on campus housing are unaware of the results of the application until just before the term starts, which can lead to scrambling for limited options and settling for sub-optimal solutions.
Lastly, the report recommends the continuation of PARSA’s emergency grants. PARSA currently provides seven bursaries and grants, which can help students struggling financially. However, with PARSA’s defunding, it is unclear if ANUSA will offer the same, targeted grants. ANUSA does offer emergency help grants, and as part of the merger, their budget for student assistance has increased.
PARSA calls on the ANU to “develop policies that mitigate the accommodation stresses and challenges faced by postgraduate students at a time when they should be focussing on their studies.”
This February, ANU opened a new suite of on campus accommodation, named Yukeembruk, intended to provide an “additional 731 beds across four buildings for undergraduate and postgraduate students, with 536 beds with shared bathrooms, 195 en-suite rooms.” The weekly tariff amount is $369 per week, for 44 weeks. Extra supply of rooms, offered at a mid-tier price for the ANU, may help to ease pressures, but it is unclear what the long-term impact will be.
As the report states, “It is evident that both on-campus and off-campus housing options are becoming increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible, forcing our students into untenable situations that are detrimental to their overall well-being.”
With ANU recently falling in the world rankings (from 124th to 128th from 2022-2023), and Canberra rental prices skyrocketing, how will the ANU retain the postgraduate and research students it relies on to bolster its rank and entice newcomers? More importantly, how will it support the welfare of its students in this increasingly expensive environment?
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