Fresh thinking for student accommodation

With VIA recently receiving planning permission for a boutique purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) project near Monash University, we reflect on how providers can differentiate their assets in the burgeoning Melbourne market.

Purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) is flourishing in Australia, but to ensure the needs of a diverse international student body continue to be met, an injection of fresh thinking is required.

PBSA providers have been focused on getting their developments off the ground and occupied. Now, as more accommodation is built and becomes fully operational, by honing in on the needs of the people at the heart of the built form – international or interstate students – providers can develop distinct services, facilities and brand differentiation. This is especially important to remain appealing in a competitive market.

Settling in

Choosing Australia

Australia has an international reputation for its liveability. In particular, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane are our better-known cities abroad, and are the destinations of choice for international students. Students are attracted by the excellent global reputation and relative price point of Australian educational institutions, a sense of safety, the availability of part-time jobs, and the possibility of long-term routes into full-time employment. Combined with the ready availability of student housing in our three best-known cities, Australia is an enticing proposition.

Australia’s international student population has grown most strongly in Melbourne, increasing by 12% increase over the past five years as students enrol at globally-renown universities such as Monash, RMIT and the University of Melbourne. The city also takes the lead for the largest current stock and future development pipeline of student beds in Australia, with over 15,000 beds under construction or in the planning phase; which if completed will result in a bed stock of 37,000. Given that demand for beds is currently unmet in the city, this supply increase is expected to be rapidly absorbed.

Establishing a lifestyle

International students who land on our shores may be from different cultures – China, Brazil, Nepal and Malaysia – but they share the same sense of trepidation and excitement about moving to a new city. Will they make friends? Can they cope with studying in English? How will they get around the city? And will they settle in and establish a lifestyle they enjoy?

Students forge bonds quickly in PBSA: drawn together by a shared desire for safety, security, friendship and belonging. Shared lounge/dining in clusters of rooms, and facility-wide features such as communal kitchens, entertainment and study spaces, drive connections to a network of people of similar age and life-stage. In VIA’s boutique design for student accommodation on Dandenong Road for client BAU Investment, social space was a priority. Capitalising on one of the factors attracting international students to Australia – the great outdoors – we included two outdoor gathering areas for socialising or relaxed study.

In larger projects, ground floor retail activates the building and enhances lifestyle convenience, and all facilities benefit from a contemporary aesthetic and high-tech spec. This is a generation who expects reliable and speedy WIFI, and a comfortable and attractive environment in which to live, work and play.

Future directions for PBSA

Attracting a new ‘cohort’ of students

PBSA locations are hand-picked for their proximity to entertainment, retail and economic centres – offering a safe and navigable radius in which to get established in a new city. Minimum lease times are often one semester – to mimic the tertiary sector’s academic calendar. Given that many institutions are now shifting to more flexible or accelerated modes of study such as trimesters, a more flexible approach to leasing may entice international students who are here for the shorter-term. VIA’s Dandenong Road design occupies a prime position within walking distance of Monash University – but given that many international students are here to take vocational courses or study English, the location is also ideally located for anyone attending Monash College nearby.

The price point of rooms can also exclude large swathes of international students and narrow the target market for PBSA residents. By diversifying room types and offering shared rooms or even dorm rooms, PBSA could become an affordable and feasible option for students from a range of socio-economic backgrounds – and potentially even our local Australian students from inter-state.

An appealing long-term option

Currently, PBSA is occupied by a rotating cast of first-year international tertiary students. As they settle into life in Australia and solidify social networks in their second year onwards, they tend to move out of student accommodation and into the general residential market with friends. What would convince students to stay longer? An easy shift from a shared twin room to a private bedroom, or private bedroom to studio? An irresistible financial incentive for longer stays, or all-inclusive packages that rival private rentals? Additional services such as mentoring and networking towards long term employment once they have their qualification? A brand and lifestyle they cannot bear to part with? Each provider will need to find their sweet spot and unique offering to enhance their appeal as a viable long-term option.

The outlook for PBSA in Melbourne in particular is promising, with our high concentration of internationally recognised educational institutions. As PBSA providers develop a better understanding of their resident groups over time, the offering will be shaped and tweaked to provide a high-quality and irresistible proposition for a contemporary market of global citizens.

If you are a developer working in, or considering a shift to, PBSA, get in touch with Via Architects for an initial conversation about how we can support you. If you are interested in other alternative residential models, you can read our upcoming article reflecting on the emerging Build-to-Rent sector in Australia.



Colliers International, ‘The Graduation of a Sector’, November 2018

JLL, ‘Australian Student Accommodation: Investment Review & Outlook 2019’

Urbis, ‘Student Accommodation – Mid Year Market Update 2019’, September 2019

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