Why are Dutch staircases so perilously narrow? How come most Italian students live at home? Is there really a curfew in Bulgarian student residences? When I embarked on my own Erasmus exchange, moving from Glasgow to student halls in sunny Toulouse, in France, my biggest problem was working out how my wall-bed worked.
Not everyone is as lucky when it comes to their housing situation. A study has shown that finding good quality and affordable accommodation is a big issue for exchange and international students in Europe. The researchers identify nine key issues including predictable problems such as language barriers and rental laws differing between countries.
More seriously, they also reveal that housing scams targeting international students are not uncommon and that, overall, few people are aware of the extent of the housing challenge in international education.
A lack of awareness
Eliz moved from Bulgaria to the Netherlands, a country with a large international student population and a severe student housing shortage that is causing protests.
“Before I finally found my room, I was frantically searching and spent the first weeks of the semester in a hostel. I’ve even heard stories of students quitting their exchange after months of flat-hunting. I’m settled in now but I wish that I’d known more before coming [so that I could have been] better prepared,” she said.
Such comments align with another finding of the report that suggests that housing-related issues are affecting student mental health and academic performance. Unaware of what lies ahead, many students arrive with little cultural or practical preparation.
The majority of students look to their universities for advice, something that institutions will struggle to provide until they fully grasp the challenge that students are facing. While almost all European universities say that internationalisation is a priority, under half view accommodation-related issues as a barrier to the process.
Staying safe in your accommodation search
Having a roof over your head from day one usually means booking accommodation online from home. If it’s not arranged by your university, this search often occurs in Facebook groups, which are fertile ground for online scams. You might be shown fake photographs of a room and be asked to transfer months of rent to secure it, only to arrive and find out that it never existed.
In the Republic of Ireland, where the vast majority of international students must organise their own accommodation, one in three experienced attempted housing fraud compared with a European average of one in 10 students.
Niels van Deuren, founder of HousingAnywhere.com, an online platform for international students that works with universities to offer a safe way to book accommodation abroad, offers some advice on flat-hunting. “My best advice is to search and book in advance through a trusted housing platform such as ours.
“If you are using Facebook groups, be suspicious about ‘too good to be true’ photos or prices, and check for foreign phone and bank account numbers that don’t match your destination country.”
International perspective: an Iranian student in Poland
Increasing numbers of international students
International perspective: an Indian student in the UK
International perspective: a Dutch student in Denmark
Finding accommodation in Berlin
Living outside the box? The way forward
Some universities and non-governmental organisations have found clever ways to alleviate the problem. If you’re headed for Granada, in Spain, you could live rent-free with local elderly people. In Aarhus, Denmark, you could call a renovated shipping container home until you find a more permanent solution. Some universities are incentivising students to pick less popular exchange destinations where housing is readily available.
If UK policies have led to new private halls of residence springing up all over, other countries such as the Netherlands have greater tenant protection regulation. This has arguably made investing in new student housing an unattractive bet. To tackle this, the report also recommends that policymakers consider tax incentives for building new student residences, something successfully piloted in Denmark.
The social exclusivity problem and housing
Accommodation is likely to be your biggest expense. In popular cities with a general shortage of housing, you might find yourself competing with expats and young professionals in a market with rapidly rising rents. These costs can make studying abroad expensive and often put it beyond the reach of cash-strapped students.
Right now, the European Union is pursuing an ambitious target of having 20 per cent of all students participate in some kind of mobility in recognition of the many benefits that it brings. In terms of sending students abroad, the UK already lags behind most other European countries. But how can we open the door to exchange for more students when the doors to apartments abroad are being slammed in their faces? Solving the accommodation issue will be key to broadening international education opportunities as a whole.
Preparing for your exchange
Housing problems considered, the vast majority of students have a wonderful time abroad and come back more independent, culturally aware and open-minded. If you’re lucky enough to be flying off to somewhere in Europe, the key points seem to be inform yourself, prepare, and book accommodation well in advance.
Seek out as much information as you can; if there’s a pre-departure session or a welcome kit, make the most of them. Sign up for buddy programmes and find ways to chat to local students in your host city. If your university doesn’t provide accommodation, look on trusted websites and platforms and pay only through secure systems. In the end, your room is only the beginning of what will be a life-changing experience.