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Student: 'In a country with top universities, it's disgraceful that we have nowhere to live'

Students deserve more than just barely surviving in college, says Mairead Maguire.

Mairead Maguire

Updated Oct 2nd 2022, 11:55 AM

WHEN I CAME to Dublin from Donegal to start college in 2019, I had no idea where to start my search for accommodation.

I had only stepped foot in the city a handful of times. My first week was spent in an Airbnb. Then, through the students’ union, I took the first room I could find. I felt lucky to get anything at all.

In my three years of college, I’ve lived in nine different places. The first was owner-occupied “digs” for six weeks. I quickly realised my saving grace was a disaster. I was paying €600 per month for a bed five nights a week with strict rules around doing laundry and coming home late.

Eventually, it got so bad I felt that I had no choice but to leave. I think the last straw was when the live-in landlady called me spoiled because I wanted to wash my clothes just six days after the last wash, not seven. She was particularly strict about doing laundry only once a week.

Lack of security

In my three years of college, I’ve lived in nine different places. Some rooms were temporary because they were sublets. Some I had to leave because the landlord decided to sell. I was fortunate enough each time to eventually find somewhere, staying with friends and distant relatives between places.

In August, I was quoted a double room in Dublin 30 minutes from college for €800 per month. I was told that in this house I could not make my own dinner because the owners who lived there would be using the kitchen in the evenings. I also wouldn’t be allowed to have any friends visit. These conditions have become the norm.

I’ve noticed even in the last three years that the landscape has changed considerably for students, particularly those who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and from outside the pale.

I cannot imagine beginning my first year of college now and having to find somewhere to live in Dublin with limited knowledge of the city – cultural and geographical – when really it’s all about who you know. International students, people of colour and those who speak English as a second language can be particularly vulnerable to scams.

Missing an education

First year students compete for places in expensive purpose-built student accommodation, which is largely geared towards wealthy international students, and those who are unsuccessful are left to the mercy of the rental market.

Three weeks into college, some students are still looking for a place. I spoke to one PhD candidate who said that in the second week of the semester he had two students email him saying they would be unable to attend his class as they hadn’t found accommodation yet. This was the first time in his four years of teaching he’d heard this.

If you search keywords like “room”, “rent” and “Dublin” on Twitter, you will find a string of tweets by desperate students looking for a room – any room – with many searching for months. I’ve also seen friends and relatives asking for help online as they know a student who is missing college because they can’t find a place.

It is disgraceful that in a developed country with world-renowned universities and high rates of progression to third-level education that students would miss out on even a moment of that education due to a lack of something as basic as a roof over their heads.

Dublin is not the only place the situation is dire. In other university cities, there are young people paying extortionate amounts to live nowhere near their college, sharing rooms and dealing with difficult landlords and unreliable public transport.

In Maynooth, one student’s landlord informed her that he plans to rent out the other half of her double bed to a stranger for €25 per night. Another student in Galway is living in her car and crashing with friends because she’s found it impossible to secure a room.

Rent-a-room to the rescue?

These may be extreme cases, but we also need to talk about the decreasing standard of living across the board. Speaking on Newstalk recently, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris lauded the success of the rent-a-room scheme, saying that, while imperfect and not a long-term solution, it was a bright idea in a crisis.

Undoubtedly, the priority is to ensure students are not homeless. However, the rent-a-room scheme should be questioned.

The government has incentivised homeowners to rent out rooms at extortionate rates by allowing them to make up to €14,000 a year tax-free in the process. The rent-a-room scheme is not helping students. It’s taking advantage of them. Invariably, on weekends students have to make themselves scarce, embarking on the up-to-six-hour trip home on a Friday evening and the same journey back to the city on a Sunday. That’s not living.

It is easy to say that there are lots of rooms available on property websites without mentioning the terms of those living situations. Most digs that I’ve seen advertised are only available during the week.

Students deserve to do more than just survive, to be more than just housed, and to have more than just partial autonomy over their living conditions.

Opposition parties and lobby groups, like always, will flock to label Budget 2023 a “missed opportunity”, and this time I have to agree. There has been a welcome reduction in student fees and a shred of additional help for SUSI recipients in the form of a double grant payment in December.

However, rent is still by far the greatest expense for all students who don’t live at home and nearly none of them will get the €500 tax credits other renters will receive. A student would have to earn over €17,000 a year to benefit from this credit.

The government must stop patting itself on the back for schemes that miss the mark completely and wealthy universities must stop shirking responsibility for their part in the crisis. The current state of affairs is not reflective of the progressive country we claim to be.

Mairead Maguire is a digital news journalist with Newstalk and a final year history and political science student at Trinity College Dublin. She has closely covered higher education and social issues affecting students. You can follow her on Twitter.

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Mairead Maguire

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