Munster businesses face a new challenge: a lack of students

With college restrictions in place and lectures moving online, businesses that rely on students are under pressure
Munster businesses face a new challenge: a lack of students

A quiet campus at University College Cork. The majority of degree programmes will be delivered in a ‘blended’ fashion through a mixture of online and on-campus delivery. File Picture: Dan Linehan

For businesses in Cork, Limerick and Waterford, the return of students in Autumn usually offers a seasonal boost. From takeouts to taxis, to clubs and bars, students can act as an economic powerhouse. 

But across the region, higher education institutions have been asked to deliver classes remotely where possible for the coming weeks in an effort to reduce cross country movement of students and avoid large groups gathering in and around campuses. 

The news has come as a blow for many businesses who were hoping an influx of students might give them the boost they so desperately need.

Colm Liston, who owns Joe's + Bros on Gilabbey Street near UCC said he's concerned they won’t have the same volume of customers they are used to during the academic year.

"We are up here on Gilabbey Street for the student populace," he said, “I need to do the business that we've been doing fortunately enough for the last few years for our business to survive."

Mr Liston says he usually judges the cafe's year by their business from September to May.

"There’s a lull in the summer," he explains, "so we’ve been very much looking forward to the students coming back."

"Last week was busier for us, not as busy as a normal college week, but I could see it was getting closer to it."

 Colm Liston of Joe's + Bro's cafe on Gilabbey Street, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Colm Liston of Joe's + Bro's cafe on Gilabbey Street, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

This Monday marked the start of UCC's freshers week, which would usually be a "big week" for businesses in the area, but things were a lot quieter on College Road this year.

"We have students that work for us part-time and there’s always a bit of gossip first thing on a Monday morning, there’s been none of that," he laughed.

“As of now, I can see people around, but there isn’t that buzz you’d usually expect." 

Prior to Minister Simon Harris' plea to universities on Friday, UCC had already committed to less campus-based lectures this year with the majority of degree programmes to be delivered in a ‘blended’ fashion (a mixture of online and on-campus delivery). Despite this, UCC’s campus accommodation is fully booked for the upcoming semester.

With a takeout situated opposite UCC’s main gates, Darren Fogarty is in a good position to judge whether students are in fact returning to Cork this year. 

"I just don't seem them," he said, adding that he found it "very hard to believe" the campus accommodation was fully booked. 

“We’re on Deliveroo and Just Eat and they’re busy, but students physically coming down or even seeing them around campus… it’s non-existent," he said. 

“We’re in a prime college location, and the rent is priced accordingly, so we’re just praying for the students now... it's a big waiting game."

Lawrence Owens, CEO of Cork Business Association acknowledged that the situation was concerning for local businesses saying it’s not something “we would have wished for, but it’s not as doomsday as it could be made out to be either.”

“Between UCC and CIT, you’re talking about the guts of 40,000 students coming into the city. It’s a big population base and anything that reduces footfall affects turnover."

However, he said, "the biggest fear" is that Cork could be placed in level three or more, the loss of student business might be the "price to pay” to ensure Cork businesses are not placed under further restrictive measures. Nevertheless, he said he hoped the new measure will have a “short duration.” 

While the advice being given to students is to remain at home and avoid travelling to their college campuses, Mr Owens noted this doesn’t mean no students will travel to Cork.

“Some of them will be coming, and maybe the double-edged sword is that they may have more time to be out and about than they ever had before,” he said.

In Limerick, Alan O’Grady of Level-Up Arcade Bar, says he has seen students return to the city, but he hasn't seen them return to his bar. 

Situated near Mary Immaculate College, Mr O'Grady said: “We have three student villages around us, and there are student parties here every night.”

He isn't hopeful of students providing an economic boost to local nightlight because "they can’t have the same environment here that they have at home."

Usually, Level-Up partners with the various Students’ Unions in Limerick’s third level institutions for freshers week and RAG week events. Mr O'Grady said he has reached out to them all this year but only one group has replied. "That’s already a bad start because this time last year we did the same thing and every one of them replied.” 

As it stands, he feels students who do return to Limerick “won’t make any difference” to local pubs and bars and said he felt sorry for the businesses who were expecting “a flock” of students in the door.

“That’s not gonna happen,” he said. “When we opened, we thought the same.” 

While businesses in Cork and Limerick may have the opportunity to benefit from student business once they do return, those in Munster’s oldest city have a much longer road ahead. 

In August, Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) announced that all lecturers and tutorials for the upcoming semester were to take place online. While some learning activities will occur on-campus, the vast majority will be delivered remotely in an approach that it says, “places the welfare of our students, staff and communities at the forefront.”

 UCC and CIT can add up to 40,000 to Cork city. Picture Dan Linehan
UCC and CIT can add up to 40,000 to Cork city. Picture Dan Linehan

The impact of a 10,000 plus student body not returning to Waterford this year is a source of considerable anxiety to business owners and representative groups in the city.

Eric O’Brien, CEO of Rapid Taxis Waterford, said it will be a “huge loss” for taxi drivers in the city.

“It's a Monday night, a Wednesday night, a Sunday night, during the day with students going to and from college, Friday's going to the train station or bus station.” 

In addition to weekly business, Mr O’Brien said annual student events provide a key source of income for the industry.

“You'd have WITSU Fest (Waterford Student Festival), Student Race Day, their Christmas Day and Rag Week events. Rag Week would be our busiest week outside of December all year.” 

“It will be a huge loss for us, it will have a big, big effect.” 

He said from a local business perspective if WIT had opted for a week on week off basis, or students were on-campus every second day, it would have been more beneficial as students would still be around: “But now it looks like a lot of students won't even move down." 

Mark Dunne, who runs Narnia Vintage Emporium, a popular vintage spot with students, said he fears the impact of students not returning will be “disastrous”.

“Students are seen as an economic driver here. Garages, shops, supermarkets, pubs, restaurants, chippers, everybody gets a tip off the students."

The student population is “particularly relevant” in Waterford, he said: "It increases the city's population by about 16%. It's a substantial amount of additional people on the streets.”

“The streets are a hell of a lot quieter now than they normally are,” he said.

Speaking about WIT’s decision to conduct predominately virtual teaching for the coming year, Gerald Hurley, CEO Waterford Chamber said: “There is no denying we are facing very difficult times in our local economy, given the annual spend of students.” 

“I know this decision did not come lightly to the Executive of WIT,” he said, “however, at this time, the safety of students has to be a priority.” 

Mr Hurley said the Chamber’s concern is for its members who will be directly affected by the lack of students and promised to “do everything we can to support them.”

He also pointed to Waterford’s own students who may, in normal times, depart for other colleges and universities across the county: “They now will remain in Waterford and contribute to the local economy, which will hopefully ease the burden somewhat.” 

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