Why accommodation is a key barrier to studying abroad

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.

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.

These leaps forward in personal development are often cultivated in the moments when they overcome challenges that are part and parcel of the experience, like working within a foreign education system or making new friends.

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.

Evidence from the HousErasmus+ project paints a picture of the European housing landscape navigated by today’s mobile students, which is fraught with difficulties amid highly diversified rental habits, systems and legal frameworks. The situation has been called ‘alarming’, with universities being urged to take cooperative action on the issue alongside other key stakeholders in the public and private sector.

Among nine overarching problems identified, some key issues are a general lack of awareness and international students’ vulnerability to housing scams. Students surveyed reported that accommodation problems negatively impacted their mental health and academic performance.

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.

The dangers of the private rental market

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.

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.

Yet innovations in the digital world show the promise of a solution. Online accommodation platforms that can communicate the value of international tenants to private landlords may fill the critical gap currently left by universities while providing the necessary safety measures., created by a Dutch exchange student facing these exact problems, works with universities to allow mobile students to book private accommodation securely before arrival. According to founder Niels van Deuren, “a diverse student population needs diverse housing options. If by choice or necessity students are searching for private accommodation online, they should be able to do so safely and in an environment built with their specific needs in mind.”

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.

Investing in housing

More investment in student accommodation could tackle the general issue of scarcity so prevalent in northern cities such as Helsinki or Utrecht. Trends show that the private ‘purpose-built student accommodation’ market, traditionally dominated by the United Kingdom and the United States, is beginning to flourish in countries such as Germany and Spain.

Based on this, the policy recommendations put forward by the HousErasmus+ researchers encourage governments to consider subsidies or tax incentives for the construction of new student rooms. This public-private collaboration could also serve to ensure any new accommodation remains within the international student budget.

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.

The full policy recommendations booklet which outlines best practice and suggestions can be accessed via this link.

What it seems to stress above all is that solutions must be plural and collaborative; universities, policy-makers, housing providers, investors and student organisations need spaces to exchange ideas so they can work towards a future where housing does not inhibit or complicate studying abroad. Only when this key practical hurdle is lowered can universities truly welcome the world.

Rosie Birchard is liaison officer for