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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C

Dr Rory Hearne 'As a lecturer, I can see what the accommodation crisis is doing to students'

With huge shortages of accommodation before the new term, the housing expert says students are at the front line of the housing crisis.

LAST UPDATE | Aug 25th 2023, 9:30 AM

THE LEAVING CERT results are out today for over 60,000 students. College places will be offered on Wednesday, seeing a mix of disappointment for some and delight for others.

But on top of this rollercoaster of emotions (and the huge stress of the Leaving Cert) is the biggest social disaster facing students – finding accommodation. The student accommodation crisis this year will be the worst we’ve ever seen.

College days are supposed to be the best of your life but now it’s a nightmare for many students who will be forced to sleep in hostels, cars and tents and undertake massive commutes, as they try to find accommodation.

Last year students were living in tents. How is this acceptable? How can we expect students to turn up to lectures and be able to engage seriously in their education when they have to sleep at night terrified in a tent in a field near the college, or spend the night sleeping in their car, and then try to wash themselves in college toilets or ask friends can they shower in their gaff?

As a lecturer I see it in my classes –exhausted and stressed students, reduced numbers attending lectures, and students arriving late from a massive commute. Some get up at 5 am in the morning to catch a bus to get to college for 10 am. They attend lectures, maybe fall asleep in the library, then race to get the bus at 5 pm and arrive home at 9 or 10 pm. How is that a positive third-level educational experience?

Unprecedented stress

Tens of thousands of students will experience huge housing stress and homelessness which will negatively impact their educational attainment, their mental health and general wellbeing.

Some won’t be able to take up their offer of college. Others will try to make it work and try to get an education while being a student in hidden homelessness – sleeping out of their car, or couch surfing with friends, and then it will just become too much to suffer and they will drop out.

Due to the lack of security of protection for students as licensees or informal rental arrangements, some will be exploited by unscrupulous landlords or evicted during the year.

Students, increasingly desperate for accommodation will feel forced to accept even more horrendous conditions and will be exposed to dangerous and exploitative situations, such as recently seen in the sex-for-rent investigations.

Homelessness, insecure housing and poor housing conditions all impact mental health and self-esteem. They lead to feelings of shame, stigma and anxiety. They cause chronic stress which makes people sick. 

Ireland prides itself on its equality of access to education aiming to make all levels of education available to everyone to improve social mobility and overcome inequalities. But the accommodation crisis, the cost of living and the cost of education are sending us backwards.

The rates of attendance at third level are over 50% overall, but that hides the inequality gap where in wealthier parts of the country, upwards of 96% attend third level, while in disadvantaged areas the level falls below 50%. The accommodation crisis is exacerbating inequality in the education system, which worsens inequality in society. Families will be telling their children they just can’t afford the rent for the course the child wants to do.

This isn’t a meritocracy. It is entrenching a deep inequality in that those who cannot afford accommodation and education are excluded and not given the same opportunities and experiences as those who can.

Policy failures

This student accommodation crisis, just as with the wider housing crisis didn’t just arrive here from the sky. The shortage is a result of Government policy. For instance, the traditional use of housing for students via the private rental sector was reduced in recent years and the government was very well aware that students were getting pushed out of the private rental market by families and individuals who needed to live in rental accommodation for much longer periods. While government policies failed around home ownership and social housing provision, more ‘market opportunity’ was created to attract a swathe of student real estate funds to build.

Students living in tents, out of their cars, in homelessness and working two jobs to pay rip-off rents, are victims of successive Government housing policies.

Since 2015, Government policy, rather than seeking to solve the problems for students, has actually worsened them by turning them into cash machines. In 2017, the government developed a National Student Accommodation Strategy to address the accommodation needs of students. However, it was solely based on promoting the private market delivery of student accommodation with a tiny number of public (university-delivered) student accommodation units. These investor funds have since been building Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA).

Of the 12,000 Purpose Built Student Accommodation units built between 2016 and 2023, an overwhelming majority (10,080; 84%), are expensive investor fund PSBA. The Government subsidised these units by not requiring the Student Real Estate funds to provide 10% social housing, they get the Real Estate Investor Fund tax break and the rents of the new units are not controlled.

On top of this, the government refused to build affordable student accommodation (much public university accommodation is also very expensive), so they allowed this shortage of accommodation to emerge, which created the ‘market opportunity’ for investor funds to come in and ‘deliver’ student accommodation i.e. turn students into a commodity to be squeezed. With no alternative accommodation, students are forced to pay huge rents to these private fund providers.

Some of the investor funds owning PSBA in Ireland include Aparto – which is owned by the US-based Global Real Estate Fund, Hines. Another is Yugo – a global student accommodation company with over 45,000 student units globally, which describes student accommodation as “a compelling and resilient asset class”. Others include Host, a UK-based private student accommodation provider. 

So the Irish Government has turned students into an ‘asset class’, a financial commodity, for these global real estate funds.

These companies are in the business of making a return from the provision of student accommodation, and it is legitimate to ask should such companies be allowed to charge such high rents. But ultimately, it is the government of the day – not private entities – that has a duty of care to the young people of Ireland, to ensure that have decent living conditions, have equal opportunities in getting their education and are supported to reach their potential, and of course for a highly educated society and workforce in the future. 

The failure to clamp down on Airbnb hasn’t helped either. Especially in high tourist areas, places like Galway where huge numbers of private rentals have been turned into Airbnb lets. This has further squeezed students.

Who’s thinking about students?

The concern being expressed by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris about the plight of students rings very hollow when in fact it is his Government’s policies that have created this student accommodation crisis. 

There are approximately 250,000 students attending third level, just over 100,000 (42%) live in private rental accommodation, 40% live with their parents, and 18% live in PBSA. There are just 46,794 specific student accommodation homes. The Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) state that demand is in the region of 2 – 5 times in excess of availability for on-campus student accommodation.

The latest Department of Higher Education Report revealed an additional 30,000 student accommodation units are needed to meet demand. Yet only 15,000 are in the planning system, and most of these have not commenced building so will not be available for years. Furthermore, the majority of these new units are more expensive investor fund units, and many might not go ahead due to the changing interest rate environment.

The government says it is taking action but there’s no evidence of a real change. There is no substantive funding increased to directly deliver affordable student accommodation or measures to protect students as renters. Larger universities have insufficient funding to build despite having planning permission and some of their projects have been paused because they’re ‘no longer financially viable’. 

As a response to this urgent and huge crisis, the government has taken the brave decision to undertake “a study” to provide accommodation for the Technological Universities. Yes, that’s it, the government measure for TU’s is “starting a study”, to explore funding them to build directly. Some might question how we have reached the point that the great response to the worst student accommodation crisis ever is the undertaking of a study. 

Build, build, build… 

So what are the solutions? The key is building affordable public student accommodation on the campuses of colleges. Most of the colleges have land available, some even have planning permission, they just need significant funding. And the funding is there if the Government chooses to invest it.

There will be €12 billion of a surplus available to the government that it will not spend this year. This is just mind-blowing. Students will be homeless while the government has billions it is deciding not to spend.

Third-level colleges should be allocated the funding to build, along with setting up a national public construction company that could build student accommodation.

Accommodation could be rapidly built through factory building of housing, converting derelict and vacant buildings and controlling the likes of Airbnb. More affordable student housing will also help the wider housing crisis – more affordable student housing will free up housing for other groups. The other solutions needed for students are proper tenant protections, controlling and reducing rents in PSBA and university-provided accommodation.

The government should move to ensure all new private PSBA have a minimum of 50% of units provided as affordable student accommodation.

Students should not accept this. As former president of Trinity College Dublin Student Union and USI Campaigns officer, I organised occupations of college and government buildings with students and I remember the protests had an impact. Students should protest vociferously now because this is not just their education at risk, it is also their future housing situation.

As the Leaving Cert results arrive into the hands of students around this country, it’s important we now take a long hard look at how we are failing to support them in their educational endeavours. 

This generation of students are the ones who will pay the highest price when it comes to housing – they are suffering as students, then as young adults and they are more likely to be stuck at home and face little prospect of getting a home of their own. They are the first generation to be worse off than their parents.

We have seen in the past third level students leading major social movements for change. It is the role of students to critique and question society, to challenge inequalities and the status quo and to dream and demand new futures and new approaches. Accommodation security is vital for students, it’s that simple. If you are a student – you can get involved with your student’s unions and the Union of Students in Ireland to campaign on this. CATU, the tenants union can help also, as can Threshold for advice on rental situations. Major street protests and in colleges would force the issue to be addressed properly.

Housing is an area students could have a real social impact on. From demanding the Budget invest the surplus now into building affordable public housing and legislation for real renters protections and rent reductions, to pressuring for the holding of a referendum to put the right to housing in the Constitution, students should be part of creating a new Ireland which ensures everyone has a home.

Dr Rory Hearne is Assistant Professor at Maynooth University and author of Housing Shock: The Irish Housing Crisis and How to Solve it (Policy Press, 2020) and his new book, Gaffs.


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