Empowering student mobility: Who takes care of student housing?

Empowering student mobility: Who takes care of student housing?

Securing a chance to study abroad is a big step for students, but if they don’t have anywhere to live, it may end up a missed opportunity. Should student accommodation be regarded as the institution’s responsibility, or are students expected to locate an affordable solution, in a learning-conducive environment? Uniplaces, the world’s first crowd-funded scholarship for mobile students, may just have a solution.

Finance remains one of the main barriers several mobile students face when going to study or do a traineeship abroad. Several EU research studies show that lack of affordable and accessible housing is a pertinent obstacle for prospective and current international students. As can be imagined, this problem hits the less well-off students disproportionately, since they are less likely to have the financial resources to look into alternatives on the upper end of the private and broken market.

Finding a place to live is not only an early step in a student’s journey, it represents the biggest single cost for most of them. In several cities, accommodation represent up to 50% of total living expenses. Universities often have limited housing capacities and are unable to assist single students.

International students’ support service is a shared responsibility in most higher education institutions, divided among various departments, which makes it even more difficult to effectively respond to specific needs, such as short stay contracts, bank guarantees, housing taxes, language barriers, etc. International Relation Offices are expected to assist mobile students of specific mobility programmes by providing them with information about the city and the cost of living. This task, however, requires additional preparation in terms of skills and knowledge and is time consuming for IROs alone. We often see local student unions or organisations such as the Erasmus Student Network play an important role in helping students find affordable and decent accommodation. Additionally, innovative online solutions are growing in number and size, making the student housing a new business to explore as suggested by a previous article by Gennaro.

It is important to mention as well how fragmented this market is. Every country has specific and numerous players – both public and private – intervening in this area, but it seems no one has the magic solution, nor the power to go in one direction or another. According to a recent article on Times Higher Education, the UK market will likely be saturated soon. This raises an almost utopian question for universities: How do we provide a more diversified, responsive and competitive solution that benefits all?

Could international partnerships be a solution?

In an era of growing internationalisation of education, new challenges emerge and new solutions need to be identified. Cooperation among the different players becomes crucial and universities have a critical and strategic role to play in all this. The task of providing student support services (such as accommodation) cannot just be delegated to private providers; universities are expected to strive for the best interests of students. The success of internationalisation strategies depends on this, too. There have been several attempts to gather data on the situation of students’ accommodation, such as the last Eurostudent report. However, the studies have not taken into account all stakeholders’ views nor geared the results towards effective solutions. This topic is becoming increasingly important for the competitiveness of higher education institutions and mobility at large, as well as the quality of life and learning of the individual. Having a place to stay is, in the end, a basic need of any student or trainee. In many regions where a generally tense housing market drives up prices, limits supply and increases abusive renting practices, the minimally informed searchers (in which category most international students and trainees fall) are particularly vulnerable. Better cooperation among all these players is necessary.

An example of a good initiative in this regard is the newly launched Living the Dream Scholarship by Uniplaces, a young start-up aimed at creating an online platform for global student accommodation. It is the world’s first crowd-funded scholarship for mobile students built on a Social Growth Model, offering a scholarship for student housing that breaks down social and geographical barriers for students. The article by The Class of 2020 written late September 2014 for the EAIE blog, was an inspiration for such innovative initiatives. The scholarship could finance hundreds of students before 2020, contributing to the 20% EU mobility target by extending such best practices for Erasmus+ students in the various countries.

The international movement – doing well, doing good

The goal is to make the scholarship bigger each year. This is not just a scholarship; it’s a movement to empower students to follow their dreams, inspiring a culture of kindness across the globe. We all believe in student mobility’s positive impact on creating a better place to live; a world without borders, peaceful and internationally minded. Universities or interested partners are invited to cooperate with Uniplaces and ask for further details on the scholarship scheme. Launched on 16 March, it is the first ever programme to support student mobility, funded collectively by the global student community. This initiative comes from students who have benefited from successful mobility initiatives, such as the Erasmus programme, who would like to give others the same chance.

Let’s join forces

Recently, the European Commission published a call for proposals under the Erasmus+ programme aiming to create forward looking cooperation on main policy priorities of the European Union. Providing affordable accommodation for Erasmus+ students has been mentioned as one of the primary challenges in Europe that needs to be overcome. Together with other partners we hope to soon bring more data on the issue by identifying best practices across the countries.

Are you an EAIE member interested on the topic? Please feel free to contact us or share your thoughts by commenting on the post. Any feedback on the scholarship is more than welcome.

Be part of the dream: let’s make mobility a reality together by overcoming the remaining barriers and partnering on similar initiatives.

 Brikena Xhomaqi is a former Director of the Erasmus Student Network (AISBL).