OK, this short article represents the hope that life will eventually return to a ‘new normal’, and Australia’s borders will open again.

Once international students start to return, they will need places to stay. Homestay is one accommodation option.

The research

Jen Walsh and Hugh Guthrie conducted a project funded by the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions through an International Student Welfare Grant. It was also supported by Study Melbourne and ISANA. The research aimed to study, document and critically analyse the homestay experiences of international students aged over 18 in the higher education (HE), vocational education and training (VET) and English language sectors. The report can be accessed here on the ISANA website.

It involved inputs from tertiary education providers, homestay agencies, and individual interviews and forums with international students as well as a web-based survey to gauge their satisfaction with it as an accommodation option. Importantly, volunteer international students contributed to the project in a number of important ways.

What it found

Homestay is by no means the most popular accommodation option for international students, but it is often really valuable to those newly arrived – especially if their English language skills are not strong and they needed a supportive environment to adjust to living and studying in Australia. True, Jen and Hugh found some quite concerning stories but, on the whole, homestay students had amongst the most positive experiences of all the accommodation options.

The upsides were numerous, including enabling students to meet local people, being able to settle into their studies quickly; learning about Australian culture, customs and way of life and improving their English language skills, particularly through interacting with native English speakers. Other upsides were cost and being a real ‘home away from home’ which provides a “safe and welcoming environment.”

There are downsides, of course, which include the distance and ease of travel to their place of study (a common concern); food quality and appropriateness, including meeting those related to dietary and religious needs; the quality of their room, its furnishing and the tidiness and the cleanliness of the accommodation more generally; host ‘stinginess’, noise levels and a lack of cultural understanding, including communication issues and misunderstandings.

Jen and Hugh concluded that:

‘upsides’ are enhanced when hosts are offering homestay for the right reasons, when they are well prepared for their role, and well matched to their homestay students. Thus, processes of host selection, training and monitoring are important as are comprehensive and careful approaches to host and student matching pre-arrival.

The overwhelming evidence is that the attitude of the host is critical and is one of the most important criteria in host selection. Communication, empathy and caring on the part of the hosts are key. The issue is that homestay agencies, whose role is help place students, can ensure that the student’s homestay experience is a good as possible. Poor homestay experiences are far more likely when the students or their families source the homestay accommodation themselves using the internet.

The report includes a section on improving homestay practices and also makes a number of recommendations. These included the possibility of more regulation – including codes of practice – and registration of homestay hosts, especially as they have access to tax advantages.