Monday, March 30, 2009

The Accommodation Conundrum by Dr Katie Richardson

It was in the late 1990s that I started my research into the homestay industry. At the time it was an unstudied domain and it was clear that there were a number of unscrupulous players in the field. However, with the lack of legal and industry based regulation many of the unpleasant incidents could be swept under the carpet. This sense of obscurity was not only limited to homestay. Other forms of international student accommodation, such as boarding and student housing, were also relatively unstudied.

Things have changed somewhat over the past decade. Some research (albeit very limited and certainly not cross-sectoral) has been undertaken with regard to homestay and boarding. Regulations have been tightened considerably with regard to boarding and student housing, although homestay remains relatively unregulated in a legal sense, despite an onus on educational organisations to ensure the quality of accommodation that they provide. It was the ongoing ‘unknowns’ of student accommodation that spurred me on to my most recent research into the non-academic welfare of adolescent international students. Not surprisingly, student accommodation featured quite heavily.

Of the 318 secondary school overseas students who responded to the survey, homestay was, by far, the most popular choice of accommodation, with 44.4%. This was followed by those residing in boarding houses, which accounted for 19.5% of the questionnaire participants. The other forms of accommodation ranged from living with a parent (16.9%), to those who stayed with relatives (10.9%) or who shared rental arrangements with friends (8.3%). Although boarding seemed to be the most favoured mode of accommodation by the participating staff members the students’ responses were very different, and in my mind, surprising.

The overseas student questionnaire enabled me to measure the levels of culture shock that were experienced by the international students. When compared with their accommodation types, those who lived by themselves or with friends suffered most acutely, while boarders and adolescents residing with their parents experienced very little angst in terms of psychological adjustment. The moderate levels of culture shock that homestay students encountered were not surprising given the fact that they are in contact with the target culture most of the time. Interestingly, the adolescents who lived with close relatives experienced slightly higher levels of culture shock than those in homestay.

Given the fact that homestay students experienced relatively high levels of culture shock I was astonished to find that 77.2% of the homestay students indicated that they would recommend homestay accommodation to their friends. This result was particularly surprising in the light of general and ongoing criticisms regarding quality control issues in homestay. In contrast, the boarders were fairly evenly split between those who would advocate boarding (50.8%) and those who would not (49.2%). Considering that the boarding school students experienced noticeably less culture shock, it is interesting that the recommendations do not reflect the relative ease of their transition.

The question then remains: Why was homestay so popular with the students? One could speculate that the constant contact with those from the target culture enables the students to develop more confidence in their English language abilities. It may also indicate that the overseas students feel a sense of security living in a family-type situation where their needs can be met. Whatever the reasons are for this result, it is clear that more research is required in order for us to enhance our understanding of student accommodation needs.

Dr Katie Richardson is the Director of International Education Consultants Australia Pty Ltd. She is currently developing a series of testing tools which will enable homestay organisations to examine the beliefs of homestay host applicants and highlight the training needs of homestay hosts. Katie has recently completed her Ph.D which investigated the welfare of adolescent international students

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