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'Unprecedented situation' could see students renting on campus a few days a week

This academic year will be vastly different to previous years for third-level students.

Minister Simon Harris said he'd discussed the matter with third-level institutions.
Minister Simon Harris said he'd discussed the matter with third-level institutions.

SOME UNIVERSITIES IN Ireland are planning to offer short-term rentals of just one or two days a week to students who will be completing much of their studies online this year.

The third-level institutions are taking the measures to meet the “unprecedented situation” for students as they face into the upcoming academic year.

Earlier this week, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris urged student accommodation providers – both university-run and privately owned – to offer flexible options to students to reflect the changed landscape they face since the arrival of Covid-19.

Third-level institutions – like the country’s schools – closed on foot of guidance from the government in March as Covid-19 cases were beginning to increase sharply in the country. 

Many students completed their semester by studying online and left their on-campus accommodation before the end of term. Some third-level institutions will continue with online tuition for some courses, or a blend of in-class and online teaching for the upcoming year. 

While universities and other third-level colleges refunded rent fees to students, they said in June there were no plans to refund registration fees for the last or next academic year despite growing calls from students.

Another problem is the funding gap now caused by Covid-19 at third-level in Ireland, which the Higher Education Authority is estimating may be as high as €500 million propelled by a drop in international students, a drop in advertising and a drop in on-campus accommodation rates.

As highlighted here, the cost of renting on campus has risen sharply in recent years and can reach as much as €8,000 for the full academic year, with high demand for such spaces.

If students do not need to attend their studies in person as much this year, Minister Harris said he wanted to see universities and colleges be flexible with their accommodation.

“We know some students in the likes of Dublin, Galway, Cork or Limerick, they’d be in college five days a week, so they’d rent somewhere for that time,” he said. “But if they’re now only in two days, they may ask ‘do I need to pay out that very large sum of money and is there a better way of doing it?’.”

Speaking to reporters during the week, Harris also said it had always been the priority to ensure a safe return for students to classes.

“Colleges and universities are publishing their timetables,” he said. “They’re telling students what the college year might look like. I think that level of clarity is important.”

In late July, the government announced a €168 million package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students aimed at covering costs incurred during the pandemic and enabling the return in September. 

This week, Harris described this package as “significant” and stressed that universities were “up for this” when he discussed flexible accommodation options with them.

The minister said: “It’s for them to decide, but you could see a scenario where perhaps you could rent a room for x number of days a week, rather than having to take out a lease on a facility for the entire year. I would call on universities to be as flexible as possible.”

New options

Institutions that have introduced such options already are Dublin City University (DCU) and University of Limerick (UL).

A spokesperson for DCU told TheJournal.ie it has introduced a “unique flexible accommodation model for the first time – reflecting the unprecedented circumstances for students”.

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It allocated campus accommodation to students but also set aside the opportunity to book short term stays subject to availability throughout the academic year. 

“It is clear that all students will not be on campus at the same time, and that it is highly unlikely that any given student would need to be on campus more than a small number of days per week,” the university said. “As a consequence, the accommodation requirements of students in the coming year will be very different from normal.”

A spokesperson for UL told TheJournal.ie: “The academic calendar at UL for Semester 1 Academic Year 2020/2021 will see incoming first year students prioritised with the most time on campus for lectures one week in every three weeks. 

“Students will still be in a position to access services and facilities on campus during the weeks where they are undertaking online learning. For this reason full semester accommodation only is on offer to first year students.

Flexible accommodation will be available for 1,600 students – 400 from each of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and post graduate cohorts in an ensuite room in Thomond or Cappavilla village, Sunday – Thursday nights inclusive, for the three weeks that the cohort will be on campus. The cost for a package of 3 weeks is €750.00 which includes accommodation in a private ensuite study bedroom, all utility costs, WIFI, full linen and access to UL Sport facilities.

At NUI Galway, students are being encouraged to attend campus for the upcoming academic year to “experience the fullest student learning experience possible”, a spokesperson told TheJournal.ie.

The spokesperson added: “All of our campus accommodation is already booked for the next academic year and our team in the residences are developing plans, in compliance with public health guidelines, to ensure the safe return of residents to campus.

“Support with accommodation in en-suite bedrooms and delivered meals with be available for students travelling from overseas who need to adhere to the 14 day restricted movements requirement on arrival in Ireland. ”

A spokesperson for Maynooth University said: “We have accommodation available on a per-semester and a per night basis, on campus.

Most of the campus residences are apartments with 3 to 6 en-suite bedrooms in each apartment, each apartment operates as a household in terms of Covid-19. These rooms are being let on a semester / academic year basis which facilitates this household approach.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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