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Plain pasta and expired Coca-Cola: International homestay students living in squalor.

Plain pasta and expired Coca-Cola: International homestay students living in squalor.

International students in Sydney pay upwards of $1000 a month to live in small, cramp rooms while host families make profit. Local students are speaking out against these injustices.

UNSW has a very high international student population and is one of Australia’s top universities in international education. Photo: Evan Williams
Written by Evan Williams: 12.05.2018

Grace lives in a small room in Bexley, approximately four metres long and two metres wide. A tiny, creaking bed, a desk lifted from a high school classroom and a tiny wardrobe takes up most of space, allowing for only a tiny walkway between the bed and the wall. This is the reality for many foreign high school and university students who want to study in Australia.

In 2017, the ABS revealed that 685,000 international students had come to study in Australia in just a single year. This figure, 82,000 higher than in 2016, represented a 15 percent increase and has put tremendous strain on homestay organisations which arrange supervised living for students under the age of 18.

“You stay with a local family and pay rent, and they still are looking after you” said Grace Huo, a student at the University of Sydney who moved to Australia during high school and lived in a boarding school before she moved to homestay in Year 12.

“I went to one and it was really bad. I guess it was actually up to legal standards, but it was really bad. I didn’t get treated well at all,” she said.

International students who want to stay in Australia for high school or university but are under the age of 18 are required to either live in a boarding school or with a host family, who can charge upwards of $1000 a month for board.

Graphic: Australia’s exports – DFAT Composition of Trade 2016-2017

The State Government of New South Wales sets standards for the conditions and provisions afforded to international students living in homestays. These standards include the provision of a bed, desk, wardrobe, and access to bathroom facilities.

“In terms of the room, it was tiny. It had a very small wardrobe – the smallest you could possibly buy I reckon – and the bed was the smallest I had ever seen,” said Huo.

“It had a desk smaller than a high school desk in a classroom, and besides that there was very little floor space.

“It was a small room, but it was up to standard because all they had to provide was a bed, a desk, a lamp, a chair and a wardrobe.”

Grace Huo moved to Australia when she was in Year 10 of high school. Pictured, she is on a citybound train in Sydney. Photo: Evan Williams

Huo said that there was no indication on the website about the size of the space she was being provided with, and no photos or information to access before students pay their deposit on homestays. She also said that the food provided to her was inadequate and often out of date.

“With homestay you don’t get to see the house or meet the people until you move in. So I moved in and the room was ridiculously small, but I couldn’t complain because technically it was up to the required standards,” she said.

Grace is not the only international student who has been affected by bad homestay experiences. Serena Zha came to Australia in 2015 and studied at UNSW foundation before beginning her degree in 2017. She started off at a homestay.

“I stayed with a French family and I was a roommate with another exchange student. It was pretty good, and I felt like I was treated pretty well. I was in heaven compared to other homestay conditions,” said Serena Zha.

Whilst Zha did not experience the conditions that other exchange students experienced, she did have very little freedom and many of her friends had to stay at similar homestays to Grace.

Serena Zha spent over a year in a homestay with an Italian family in 2015 and 2016. Photo: Evan Williams

“I had a lot less freedom when I was at homestay,” she said. “I felt very restricted and controlled because the family was quite catholic and also would not provide me with many of the freedoms I get now that I live by myself.”

“Though it was nothing compared to some of my friends. One of my friends lived with an Australian family and his dinner was like plain pasta and expired coca cola.

“His room was also really small, like a cupboard. Kind of like where Harry Potter lived under the stairs. It was the minimum but he felt like he was being exploited for the money.”

Both Grace and Serena said that one of the primary reasons for these conditions being so prevalent is that there is no real regulation, no way of students seeing their homestays before signing the contract, and that both the Universities and State Governments treat international students as simply a money-making tool.

This view is shared by leading professional in international student welfare research, Hannah Jamaleddine, who believes that homestays are an excellent introduction for students to life in Australia but shares many of the same concerns about living standards.

“The disappointing patterns I have noticed though is that some of these kids are on the other side of the spectrum and experiencing horrible treatment,” said Jamaleddine.

“It is an increasing issue and I think it really needs to be paid more attention to, intervention is definitely necessary.

“Look, the actual homestay experience in theory is very ideal and the majority of the families are absolutely great. But unfortunately, there are always people who will disrupt or exploit the system.”

Grace Huo is crusading for more transparency and increased regulation for homestay companies, and the families who host overseas students. Photo: Evan Williams

Hannah Jamaleddine expressed concern regarding the alienation that these experiences create for international students, as students are separated from their families and loved ones and placed in situations where people don’t provide a good environment because they want to increase the amount of money that they can keep for themselves.

“Some students come from places where packing lunch to school or university is unusual and the homestay family don’t teach them otherwise because this is cost savings for them,” she said.

“It really is a serious topic and more awareness is really important and everyone needs to be on board, all the stakeholders so that we can help these students and give them a nurturing transition.”

Hannah Jamaleddine shares her perspective with international students living in Sydney whom have been mistreated. Grace Huo said that many of these issues come from the greediness of government institutions and universities.

“There are some people with some really troublesome opinions out there, and the government listens to them because that makes them look strong” said Huo, who is calling for increased regulations and an inquiry into the mis-practices of homestay institutions.

“I know that the government has a lot of responsibility for this, as do the schools, the universities, and the individual families who provide for these families,” she said.

“I think if there were more laws and regulations to protect international students we would definitely get better treatment.”

Written by Evan Williams for MDIA2003