Study Abroad: These firms help international students find places to stay

Platforms like University Living, Amber Student help find accommodation in study-abroad destinations such as the UK, US and beyond.

Housing platforms like University Living, Amber Student help find accommodation in study-abroad destinations (Source: Wikimedia)Housing platforms like University Living, Amber Student help find accommodation in study-abroad destinations (Source: Wikimedia)

Pritha Roy Choudhury | June 23, 2023 | 11:59 AM IST

NEW DELHI: When Saurabh Arora went to Nottingham in the United Kingdom on a student exchange programme in Nottingham, he had to stay in a hotel for the entire duration of the programme. His batchmate at College of Vocational Studies, Delhi University, Mayank Maheshwari had gone to the UK for a master’s at the University of Northampton in England and faced the same problem.

Realising that “housing and accommodation is a real pain” for overseas students, Arora founded University Living, a student housing platform, in 2015. “Need is the mother of all invention,” said Arora. Maheshwari joined him in the business a year later.

Now, there are over five Indian housing platforms that help students with accommodation while they are studying abroad and about 15 globally. These organisations tie up with local property management groups. University Living manages and provides accommodation in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Australia and Canada.

Similarly, Amber – set up by alumni of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur – helps study-abroad students find temporary homes in England, Ireland, Sydney, Melbourne. Indian firms typically start with helping just the Indian students going abroad and then expand to students from other countries as well, including Italy, Nigeria and South East Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. According to data shared by the education ministry with parliament in February, over 7.5 lakh students left India to study abroad in 2022, 68% more than the previous year.

Others include UniAcco, Adventum Student Living (ASL) and Unimoni. The last is a financial service provider which also deals in providing student accommodation.

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Study Abroad: Accommodation

In 2016, Madhur Gujar and his batchmate and friend Saurabh Goel, both IIT Kharagpur graduates stumbled upon the same problem. Gujar was already helping Indian students across the globe with education-related queries, many of them posted on Facebook. “One of the queries was if I could help out a student studying in another country with contacts of people who could help solve their accommodation problem,” said Gujar.

The duo connected with local accommodation providers in that country and were able to solve that student’s problem. This alerted them to students’ concerns about accommodation while studying abroad and sparked an idea for a startup. To test their idea, they ran a survey on Facebook asking if anyone needed help with finding places to stay.

“Within a couple of days, almost 200 people reached out to us and that really motivated us. Many are facing this issue. That's how we started Amber, a student accommodation platform.” said Gujar. Amber was launched in 2016 and has since then helped over two million students find homes abroad.

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Study in US, UK, Australia, Canada

When students reached out to Gujar and Goel through Facebook, they connected with owners who were interested in letting their properties to students. They started their groundwork by connecting with property management groups and owners in different states first in the United States and later expanding to the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Initially, requests were gathered on social media and the Amber owners made many trips to the countries where they were setting up. Now, Amber has developed a good rapport with owners.

“These days, many times, property owners directly reach out to us, asking us to help them list their properties on our platform. That's a continuous process and once onboarded these property owners stay with us for a long time,” Gujar said. Amber has supported over 60,000 students going to the UK, over 10,000 going to Australia and over 2,000 going to the US.

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University Living had a slightly different approach. They first identified properties in Australia as that country’s intake was closest to the company’s launch. Australia also doesn’t have an age limit for student visas and allows work-study for the duration of the course and also dependents. Now, University Living relies on its name spreading by word-of-mouth. “Students are a very close-knit community and they talk to each other and have used the platform before referring it to other students,” said Arora.

Once Maheshwari joined, they expanded to the UK. “It was very obvious because both of us were alumni of UK universities and it is our strongest market,” said Arora. Now it works in over 300 cities and has approximately 1.75 million beds, said Arora. University Living has built connections with universities, visa consultancies and loan providers in the countries in which it operates. They also have a tie-up with the British Council.

The founders of Amber discovered it was easier to work in the UK than the US. “In the US, there are 50-plus states and 300-plus cities. In the UK, we found that there are fewer major cities and hence we can build our presence much faster. The UK is currently one of our strongest markets. We are also expanding to other countries in Europe and more states in the US,” said Gujar.

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Overseas student accommodation, costs

Ankshika Gupta, pursuing a one-year post-graduation programme in international business at Cass Business School in London had sought Amber’s help for finding accommodation close to the institution. Now she lives within 10 minutes of it. “Amber helped me navigate different areas and types of accommodation, whether I should live close to the university,” she said. Amber also helped connect her with other Indian students.

The accommodation provided to the students are PBSAs or “purpose-built student accommodations” – international student houses established by private developers – university halls of residence; private apartments and homestays.

The housing platforms allow virtual verification of documents, virtual tours and in-person visits before finalising. They also insist on measures such as CCTV coverage and onsite security personnel. Amber’s contractual agreements with property management groups say that the responsibility for safety and security will lie with the group.

For an Indian student, a parent may need to spend Rs 1-2 lakh per month, said Arora. Annual costs can run into Rs 25-35 lakh or around Rs 1.5 crore for four years. When Amber started their service, they charged 100 USD from students. Now, the service is free. “We take our commissions from the property management,” said Gujar.

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