International students – who are more likely to rent than domestic students - are faced with unaffordable and insecure housing within the private rental sector (UTS, 2018). These poor housing characteristics have been linked to poor academic performance (Macintyre, 2003), reduced student wellbeing, and increased social isolation (Ike et al, 2016). Coupled with financial pressures, casualized employment in low paying jobs, discrimination, cultural and language barriers, smaller social support networks and inexperience navigating the housing market can disadvantage students further when it comes to finding suitable housing (Obeng-Odoom, 2012; Khawaja & Dempsey, 2008). The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of these existing issues and created new ones such as loss of employment, discrimination and moves to online learning.
The purpose of the research was to to explore the material, neighbourhood, and affordability dimensions of international students’ housing experiences and their self-reported health and wellbeing during the second wave of COVID-19 lockdowns in the City of Melbourne in 2020.
An anonymous online survey was deployed in August 2020 to collect insights from international students who were renting in the City of Melbourne while studying at a Victorian university. The survey asked participants about their current housing and living circumstances, COVID-19 experience and health and wellbeing. These questions were informed via a literature review of previous studies on international student housing experiences in Australia and emerging reports on the effects of COVID-19. The survey used a combination of categorical and open-ended questions, along with a photovoice-inspired section where participants were encouraged to upload photos of their housing.
Nineteen eligible responses were obtained at the conclusion of the survey. It was revealed that a majority reported issues with their housing conditions, such as the presence of mould, poor sound insulation (n=6) and poor natural ventilation (n=5). Students commonly reported that the location of their housing and affordability were important when finding accommodation, with many reporting financial difficulties both before and after COVID-19. Concerns relating to loneliness and social isolation, academic performance and discrimination also increased. Eleven of the nineteen students also responded to the photovoice-inspired section which provided a visual insight into their everyday living experiences. These responses visually corroborated many of the written responses of the survey, and revealed additional housing conditions. Overall, COVID-19 was shown to have resulted in a worsening of wellbeing during the pandemic.
“The house has a dull feeling when looking at it. The photo does not reflect that it was a sunny day when this was taken due to the windows being positioned towards the building next to us” - Female, 21, Singapore
“Spacious, poor lighting, poor kitchen facilities, good privacy”
- Male, 26, Canada
International students’ housing plays a key role in their health and wellbeing. The results of this exploratory study and emerging research highlight that international students are a marginalised group that warrants further policy and research attention. Addressing the quality and affordability of private rental housing in Melbourne should be a priority for the City of Melbourne and a focus of University accommodation and support services.
About the author:
Gabriel Isaac graduated with a Masters of Public Health at the University of Melbourne in 2020. He is passionate about addressing health and housing disparities drawing on a social determinants of health framework. Gabriel chose to undertake this research project as part of the research component of his Masters.