An international student studying his PhD at UNSW Canberra was so desperate for accommodation he asked a stranger at Woolworths for assistance in finding a home.
The Group of Eight university does not have dedicated accommodation for non-Defence students enrolled at its Campbell campus.
Instead, it gives international PhD students one week of accommodation on arrival and a reloaction allowance worth $1000, as well as health cover, a conference allowance and tuition and living scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars.
But three postgraduate students from Asia and the Middle East said the week of accommodation and reloaction allowance did not stretch far in the ACT's competitive and expensive housing market, where rents have recently soared to a record high and agencies were reluctant to take on students without an Australian rental history.
The student who found a home through the stranger at the supermarket - and felt he "got lucky" - described his shock at the difficulties faced by international students living in the ACT.
UNSW Canberra is the third university he has attended in as many countries.
"I thought in Australia there would be better facilities for students and better prices for students over here," he said.
"I had no idea about the ground reality until I came here so that was a big shock for me."
The two other students who spoke with Fairfax Media said they battled for weeks to find stable housing, with one ultimately moving to the University of Canberra in Bruce and the other paying more rent than expected to secure a home.
The trio have called for change, urging better support from the university and some relief from the real estate industry.
“All my applications were rejected and one of the agents told me ‘you will not be able to afford this accommodation’," one student said.
"All of [the units] were only $200, but still they reject us saying ‘you cannot afford this’."
The third student said: "There should be affordable student accommodation available to any university student, not just ANU and the University of Canberra.
"That would be a very good option for the students."
A UNSW Canberra spokeswoman said the institution acknowledged there were difficulties in finding affordable housing within the ACT, encouraging those struggling to contact the university for help.
The university offered a personalised inductions, a buddy program and help and advocacy through the Arc initiative, the spokeswoman said.
"We are concerned to hear UNSW Canberra international students are struggling to find reasonable accommodation and are eager to assist them," she said.
"[The support] offered to our international PhD students is higher than other universities in Canberra.
"If a student was unable to find suitable accommodation within a reasonable timeframe, we would be happy to extend the short-term accommodation. This would be assessed on a case-by-case basis."
The issue is not confined to students at UNSW Canberra. A report released by the Australian National University's Postgraduate and Research Students' Association earlier this year found 57 per cent of respondents didn't have accommodation secured before their arrival in Canberra. More than 50 per cent of those people took at least a month to find a home.
International students were particularly vulnerable to housing issues, that report found.
Real Estate Institute of Australia president Malcolm Gunning said agencies were reluctant to take on international students as they had a reputation for being unreliable tenants.
"I don’t think there’s any prejudices at all, it’s just a matter of they’re looking for adherence to the lease," he said.
“I’d advise international students to be upfront and transparent and understand what a commitment to a lease means.
"If two people sign a lease two people live there, not six, and if you sign a 12-month lease you honour the 12-month lease."
Mr Gunning advised students to join a sharehouse or apply for student accommodation to help them gather a reputable rental history. Otherwise, he suggested students supply good references from their country of origin.
The University of Canberra, the Australian National University and the Australian Catholic University offer student accommodation in the ACT. Charles Sturt University does not appear to have dedicated student accommodation available for Canberra students.