Towers built but ‘mothballed’ as universities left without international students

Hundreds of students were expected to start filling two new university accommodation blocks in Sydney this week, but instead the buildings will remain empty for the year.

Scape Australia chief executive officer Stephen Gaitanos said a new building to house 200 students has just been completed in Darlington in inner Sydney and was originally scheduled to start welcoming residents this week. Those plans were made well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Stephen Gaitanos outside the student accommodation building that has just been built but will be mothballed because of continued international border closures this year. Credit:Edwina Pickles

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has said the large-scale return of international students to Australian campuses may depend on the availability of an effective vaccine. He said digital vaccine certificates could potentially provide a pathway for bringing large numbers of international students into Australian universities without a need for quarantine.

“It’s terribly frustrating to effectively have to mothball it,” Mr Gaitanos said of the accommodation.

Another building with 700 bedrooms is being constructed in Redfern, to be completed in June.

Scape Australia is also building student accommodation towers in Melbourne which are expected to remain empty this year.

The empty rooms at the new student accommodation building at Darlington in inner Sydney.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Scape Australia chief executive and founder Craig Carracher said two towers with 1000 hotel-style bedrooms would open in Melbourne this week.

“They are sitting empty alongside the other 60 per cent of our bedrooms,” he said.

“I have 14,000 bedrooms [around the country] and building another 10,000 bedrooms. I have a deep portfolio of debt and equity providers who will stand through 2021, but many of the smaller providers will not survive this.”

Mr Carracher said his company was running 24 student accommodation towers. He said his company was generating up to $250 million in revenue each year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our business will be closer to $60 to $75 million of revenue this year but we are running 24 huge towers with full-time staff and clearly losing money," he said.

"We don't know what will happen when JobKeeper comes off."

Without a vaccine, it would be difficult to return to Australia’s usual intake of up to 185,000 international students at the beginning of the year. Mr Tudge says there is no clear timeline for when students could return in significant numbers, but a vaccine would offer some hope.

The federal government last year requested each state and territory submit international student arrival plans by November through safe quarantine corridors.

The NSW government developed a plan last year to start returning 1000 students each week from the beginning of 2021, but Premier Gladys Berejiklian shelved that when the northern beaches was locked down. Tighter caps on the number of Australians allowed to return to other states were also introduced as a temporary measure in response to more contagious strains of the virus. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews signalled he wanted international students to return this year. But last week, the message quickly changed when he said there was little prospect of international students arriving this year in large numbers.

"Tens of thousands of international students coming back here is going to be incredibly challenging, if not impossible during this year," Mr Andrews said.

Mr Gaitanos said the uncertainty in the position of governments had been “frustrating and inconsistent”.

Chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia Phil Honeywood said purpose built student accommodation offered a viable alternative to hotel quarantine.

“Crucially they have outstanding student pastoral care programs,” he said. “In the absence of the international students there is a danger student accommodation facilities may suffer setbacks.”

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