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Mairéad Farrell Sasko Lazarov
Policy Matters

Interview: Sinn Féin's higher education spokesperson on how to fix the stresses of third-level

Mairéad Farrell said Sinn Féin wants to see the student contribution fee completely scrapped.

WELCOME TO POLICY Matters, a series from The Journal that takes a deep dive into the ideas and solutions proposed by Ireland’s politicians on some of the biggest issues of the day.

As part of the series, The Journal sits down with different spokespeople from across Ireland’s political parties to take a deeper look at what they believe needs to be done across areas like housing, health, the environment and childcare.

Last time, we spoke to Social Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesperson Gary Gannon where the conversation focused on Gaza and Israel.

This week, we hear from Sinn Féin’s further and higher education spokesperson Maireád Farrell where we discussed the accommodation crisis facing students, mental health services and the need to make the university experience more affordable. 

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MAIRÉAD FARRELL IS relatively new in her role but has already set her focus on the cost and lack of student accommodation. 

Farrell, a TD for Galway West and South Mayo, told The Journal that the problem of accommodation is coming up again and again in all her discussions with students. 

This is why her first proposed piece of legislation as her party’s spokesperson for students seeks to regulate ‘digs’ accommodation by strengthening the rights of tenants.

“When I first took over this role, the first thing I did was travel around to meet with students and student representative bodies. It was actually a conversation that I had with the Students’ Union president in ATU Galway and she raised the issue of digs,” Farrell said. 

Farrell’s bill seeks to introduce notice periods to give greater security to students using digs and to also give students greater privacy rights in digs – such as the right to have a lock on their bedroom door. 

“These are protections as well, realistically, for those who are renting out their rooms,” Farrell said.

Axing the student contribution fee

Elected to the Dáil in 2020, Farrell took up the mantle as her party’s spokesperson on Further and Higher Education, Innovation and Science just under a year ago with a title mirroring that of Minister Simon Harris. 

Farrell has not held back in her criticism of the Minister’s record to date and took particular issue with how a reduction to student fees was framed by the Government. 

Harris has secured two cuts to the student contribution fee since becoming Minister, with undergraduate students last year refunded €1,000 of the €3,000 fee.

Farrell made the point that this was only a once-off announcement and students and parents have no certainty on what they will be asked to pay next year. 

You need to be frank with people, you need to be honest with them.

“We won’t know what’s going to be in next year’s Budget until we see it,” Farrell said. 

Sinn Féin wants to see the student contribution fee scrapped entirely by phasing it out. 

“That’s one of our fundamental principles,” Farrell said. 

Going back to student accommodation, Farrell is also critical of the Government’s failure to build enough state-owned student accommodation. 

“We absolutely need to see state investment in student accommodation.

“With the Budget last year, I genuinely thought I’d read it wrong that there was no investment in student accommodation in the middle of a housing crisis,” Farrell said.

Since then, the Department has announced a €400m investment in the sector to help Universities build their own affordable student accommodation with loans from the European Investment Bank (EIB).

But Farrell argued that universities can already borrow from the EIB and made the point that Universities are highly leveraged as it is.

As a result, private investors have been quickly overtaking universities when it comes to providing student accommodation.

Research undertaken by Farrell and published by The Journal earlier this year revealed that investment funds now own more student accommodation in Dublin than DCU, UCD and Trinity College combined.

The result is sky-high rents for students who can afford it with the cheapest single occupancy room coming in at €1,072 a month. 

“What we need to see from Government is actual action in terms of investment in third level education,” she said. 

Recently, there has also been a spotlight on some of these private providers moving from 40-week tenancies to year-round leases – working out at approximately €3,000 more per year.

Minister Harris has since announced that he will amend legislation to crack down on the practice but Farrell said she will believe it when she sees it.

More generally, Farrell said a conversation is needed on what actual counts as “affordable” student accommodation.

“What is an affordable student housing model? That’s really important. And I don’t believe at this moment in time, that it is something that the Government can answer. And I think it’s something that needs to be worked out exactly,” Farrell said. 

The Galway TD also pushed back against the idea that students want luxurious accommodation with all the bells and whistles as is claimed by some private providers who use it as a reason to charge higher rents. 

“Students that I speak to are very clear that that is [not what they want],” Farrell said. 

Mental health

Farrell makes the point that the stress and “misery” caused by the problems with student accommodation are adding to already existent mental health pressures for third-level students and their families.

She also points out that moving out of the family home simply isn’t an option for a lot of students because of the cost of accommodation.

“The reality is people are under huge mental health strain, given the accommodation crisis. Living in God knows what kind of rooms and accommodation.

“The fact that they’re working huge amounts of hours, extremely tired, trying to keep on top of their college courses, which is incredibly difficult even if you’re not working full-time,” Farrell said. 

She argued that more mental health supports are needed in third-level education, such as a greater number of counsellors on campus. 

“We had the Minister announce €5 million, but it was €5 million that had previously been announced. Again it is giving hope to the students when there’s no additionality there. That’s something that concerns me,” Farrell said.

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