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Student accommodation is an absolute disaster in this country – when will government respond?

On-campus accommodation is snapped up a lightning speed, leaving vulnerable young people at the mercy of the inhospitable private market.

Glenn Fitzpatrick

RECENT ANNOUNCEMENTS BY providers of on-campus accommodation that prices are set to increase once more for the following academic year represent a money grab from students and their supporting families, nothing else.

The complete absence of any real scrutiny by media or politicians however highlights a major issue. People on the frontline in Students’ Union offices will no doubt be feeling like this is déjà vu all over again but it is long past time that somebody in Government accepted that the strategic approach to the provision of student accommodation is an absolute disaster.

On-campus accommodation is snapped up

As thousands of second level students sit their final exams before seeking to make the transition to college, many of them have no idea that by the time that they finish their exams in a few weeks time, most if not all of this coveted on-campus accommodation will already be taken up.

This is a classic case of supply and demand but it really should not be. We are after all, talking about education – the key, the silver bullet, the great emancipator. Proximity to one’s place of study matters to the student experience and for a lot of 18-year-olds moving up to the Big Smoke for the first time, on-campus accommodation provides both them and their parents with the greatest peace of mind.

Participation rates in higher education are on the rise. Yet in Dublin, an estimated student population of 80,000 has to make due with a mere 3,000 purpose-built beds. Rationale for price increases has come in the form of required ‘maintenance’ and vague statements around funding for future buildings. One private provider in Galway cited water charges as a reason for a price increase, despite the fact that domestic rates wouldn’t even be applicable in this regard. Back in September 2014, a 13% increase in on-campus UCD rooms was justified by the holding company for the college as being ‘the market view’.

Where are all these students supposed to fit?

What politicians and college officials fail to realise is that by applying a market view to student accommodation, we are creating yet another substantial issue for access to higher education. This should have been on somebody’s radar far earlier. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) expects up to 25% more people to pass through our higher education institutions before 2030. Has anybody got any idea as to where they’re all supposed to fit? We are also hitting roughly 36,000 out of the targeted 40,000 graduates needed annually to come through higher education. There are absolutely no guarantees with the current plight of student finances that we can achieve this.

Investors have identified this 90% shortfall in the Dublin area as a huge area of potential development over the coming years, but if all that is going to spring up is a couple of blocks here and there then the problem is going to get far, far worse – and students and their families are just going to end up in more debt. It seemed like the easy option for college officials to simply opt out of being responsible for large scale accommodation provision; increasingly our IoTs and universities function more like businesses than places of learning, and this is but one of many areas where there is almost no duty of care for the student exercised.

Students are bottom of the pecking order in the private market 

The vast majority of students who rent do so privately (it is also worth stating that in spite of whatever myths exist out there, the vast majority are also good tenants). This means that students are competing directly with young professionals and in most cases are bottom of the pecking order. Leases lasting nine months to suit the duration of the academic year have become a thing of the past and the problem is now escalating in Galway, Cork and Maynooth. Maintenance grants and hardship funds are at what can only be called derisory levels and fees are set to hit the €3,000 mark.

This academic year, I witnessed student after student taking places without even viewing them just to get in somewhere. For many, this was long after classes had started. Stopgaps spanned from long distance commutes to settling for hostel accommodation. Before you go asking students where their sense of privilege is, you should try prepare for a next day presentation while a stag party from Bristol arrives into the room you’re staying in, all pissed out if their minds. Alternatively, try commuting from Shercock or Ballinasloe to Dublin every day and see how able-minded you would be to go about an undergraduate or postgraduate degree.

Think about the international impression this is giving of Ireland

For a country that endlessly bangs the drum about the importance of our international reputation, it is also extremely worrying that the experience of our ERASMUS and international students in securing accommodation is worse again. Often they assume that the college has arranged everything for them only to wind up in the SU office baffled at the lack of a duty of care shown to them in this regard.

Welfare officers try to help them but, all too often, the student trudges out of the office deflated, carrying multiple bags back to the hostel. Bear in mind that at this point, many of these students have very little English and are hundreds, if not thousands of miles from home. Who will be accountable when they simply stop coming here and our international reputation takes a fatal blow?

Students and their families need support yesterday. The HEA is said to be preparing a report on student accommodation for the Department of Education and Skills but given that Minister O’ Sullivan spent three years with the Housing ministry prior to taking the Education brief, is that really necessary? This was a crisis in 2013, it was a crisis last year and we’re just about to witness it again. I fear that without an emergency intervention along the lines of some form of rent control coupled with a third level student rent allowance, we will see more and more students struggling through college under the poverty line.

In ten years’ time when our participation rates have stagnated and dropout rates have shot up inexplicably, will the government commission another report? I hear that they’re great at that.

Glenn Fitzpatrick is a media graduate from DIT, activist and former Students’ Union officer.

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Glenn Fitzpatrick

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