International students, COVID-19 and housing

Leo Patterson Ross • 07/02/2020

We know that more than half of international students organise their accommodation before coming to Australia. And many of those caught up in the travel ban due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 are returning to courses that they have already commenced. They are likely to have existing accommodation arrangements.

The Sun-Herald reported that up to about 211,000 international students from China may face disruption in travel to Australia. 

The Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, established a taskforce in January to monitor and advise the federal government on the effects of the bushfire crisis on the sector. The taskforce's remit now extends to co-ordinating the government and education sector's response to COVID-19. In last Monday’s The Sydney Morning Herald, Anna Patty wrote:

Mr Honeywood (Taskforce chair) ... said he would seek agreement from providers on protocols for refunding student fees and pre-paid accommodation [our emphasis].

This subsequent item reports that Abbey Shi, an international student from Shanghai and general secretary of the University of Sydney Students' Representative Council, has set up social media chat groups to collect information about affected students.

Many students already may have housing organised. They may have entered arrangements that are individual or shared residential tenancy agreements in the private rental market, lodgings in private households, or some that are less clear - for example, in Sydney, with Campus Living Villages, Iglu or Urbanest whose forms may look something like a tenancy, or something like a boarding house. Some, especially those on university grounds, are excluded from both the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 and the Boarding Houses Act 2012.

Those blocked from entering the country for at least two weeks, may be liable for occupancy fee or rent over this period. The relevant legislation is silent here. Both the 'Schedule 1 ('Occupancy Principles') of the Boarding Houses Act 2012 and Section 43 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 cover abatement of rent, but never anticipated this type of situation. Some people who are not covered by residential laws may need to refer to the Australian Consumer Law or even common law.

We've put our heads together and recommend the following courses of action:

  1. As soon as possible seek to negotiate with your landlord for a waiver of any board or rent covering the period of your absence due to the travel ban. As well as being the decent thing to do, it may also be in their commercial interest to avoid missing out on your contract entirely if the ban prevents significant numbers of people starting their studies this year.
  2. Contact your local Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Service for assistance in negotiating with your landlord if your own efforts come to nothing. Click ‘Get advice’ here. Again the rules may be different for different kinds of landlord or renting agreement.
    - Ensure you know your rights regarding any goods left behind.
    You cannot be evicted from your housing unless the landlord follows the proper legal process.
  3. If your housing provider has a relationship with your educational institution, contact your student association or university housing officer (where there is one) for assistance, given the Task force chair’s comments reported above.
  4. Contact your student association and tell them about your experience.

We strongly encourage educational institutions and associated accommodation providers to work together to find a way to grant relief from payments during this period. The potential reputational harm to Australia's tertiary education sector, which profits so heavily from international students, turning its back on students affected by COVID-19 is significant.  This may have serious ramifications in future semesters. We acknowledge the potential loss of income to student accommodation providers is also significant, and we know that the first instinct may be to simply recoup the money from those students. However these students face losing large sums through no fault of their own, without receiving any benefit.

These providers are granted exemptions from many of the rules and regulations governing the provision of accommodation on the presumption that they have a special relationship with their residents and the educational institution which means they will act with a greater level of care than other landlords. That presumption is now being tested and we call on the providers to step up and work with the education providers to find a solution that is fair for all involved.