The benefits of study abroad have long been known – the positive impact is so widely accepted that the European Union is currently working towards the ambitious target of having 20% of all students enjoy a mobility experience.
Studying in London is too expensive
We are still far from that figure, but luckier students find themselves propelled out into the world during the course of their studies. Generally, they return more independent, self-reliant, adaptable, culturally aware, multilingual and so much more.
Yet some of these challenges seem insurmountable or at least unnecessarily difficult. New research from the European University Foundation and Erasmus Student Network has shone light on the biggest practical challenge of all: finding suitable and affordable accommodation abroad. This is especially hard in England and London, a very expensive place for students. London School of Economics for instance has become a place of the rich and the smartest.
Finding a place with local people
Universities, meanwhile, seem to misjudge the depth of the problem – since, though a clear majority consider internationalisation to be a top priority, less than half view accommodation a key constraining factor in the equation.
When it comes to housing incoming and outgoing students, universities across Europe are taking divergent approaches. Most students headed for Spain, for example, will have to go it alone in the accommodation search, while Bulgarian universities arrange housing for 84% of their incoming internationals. Where no university support can be provided and students turn to the private rental market, new vulnerabilities emerge.
Attention to fraud in accommodation business
More than one in 10 students surveyed had experienced attempted fraud, a figure that rose to almost one in three in Ireland, where no more than 10% of international students had university accommodation arranged for them.
Popular cities with housing shortages and little in the way of standardised student support are breeding grounds for this type of criminal activity. It often begins in unregulated online environments such as Facebook groups and can see students transferring months worth of rent to foreign bank accounts to secure a room, only to arrive and discover it never existed.
Sleeping on boats
Some higher education institutions have found creative ways to help their struggling incoming students. Internationals arriving in Stavanger, Norway, can stay in renovated shipping containers until they find a permanent home, while in Catalunya international students can pay little or no rent by living with local elderly people.
These, however, are crisis measures aside from the underlying issue: internationalisation has often far outpaced the infrastructural developments which it needs to really work. If the world of benefits that come with a thriving multicultural student population is to be realised, actors from both sides must align on the practicalities and keep with the pace of change.
And unsurprisingly, budget is still a key pain point. Around half of students found accommodation costs were higher than expected and subsequently had difficulty financing their exchange. In fact, this dimension of the problem begins much earlier in the mobile student’s chronology; the opportunity to go on exchange remains beyond the reach of many young people thanks to their economic situation or background.
If we know that finance is what stops students from submitting that application or getting on that plane, and that rent is the main financial burden abroad, we can assume that a) problems linked to accommodation drive social exclusivity in the world of international education, and b) solving them could foster greater equality of opportunity among students.
With this in mind, the pressing nature of the housing issue should come sharply into focus in the minds of those tasked with expanding and improving student mobility.