Thousands of student beds are under construction all over Ireland, aiming to bridge the gap between supply and demand in the student accommodation market.
It has been one of the most active elements of the construction sector, with many commentators frustrated that developers poured time and resources into developing student blocks near Irish universities instead of other apartments or houses.
The 2017 National Student Accommodation Strategy (NSAS) envisioned a need for more than 70,000 student beds nationally by 2024, propelled by a surge in enrolments in Irish universities.
However, like so many other things, the Covid-19 pandemic has put the brakes on several aspects of this.
It caused the construction sector to slow to a halt, though things are now back up-and-running, but it also hit the pause button on the 2019/20 academic year and looks set to cast a shadow over 2020/21 and beyond.
In mid-March, universities were closed due to the pandemic. Where possible, the remaining lessons were to be delivered digitally.
It was a quick response designed to slow the spread of the virus, protecting students, university staff and their families.
Three-and-a-half months later, the picture is still a little unclear for some students, but what is evident is that much of what is traditionally delivered in an on-campus environment may take a different form for the coming months.
Distance and online learning is sure to be a part of courses, at least in the early days of the 2020/21 term.
Understandably, universities have been cautious in mapping out plans so far, but most have settled on a hybrid of in class and online learning. For UCC, for example, tutorials, seminars, and labs may be delivered face-to-face for smaller groups but public health requirements may change the extent of this.
And this has a spill-over into the accommodation sector, too.
If social distancing is required, can existing apartment complexes be filled as they have previously? Many purpose-built student accommodation buildings include shared kitchens and living spaces, where social distancing would be impossible.
Secondly, though, if many courses are going to be delivered partly or largely online, will many students even consider renting? It is a costly endeavour: a room in a shared apartment in some of the new apartment buildings in Cork city could set a renter back more than €10,000 for the 39-week academic term. In the current climate, it may be even harder to justify, in particular for those students whose part-time job prospects may have evaporated due to the shutdown of the tourism, leisure, and hospitality sectors.
There is also the issue of the buildings which have yet to start construction. Literally thousands of beds have planning approval all over Ireland but have yet to commence work, including almost 1,500 in Cork City alone. In the UK, at least one developer has mothballed plans for student apartments until the market improves while, in Ireland, developers are understood to be prioritising developments which are closer to completion as they eye the market with some caution.
While no developer would say on the record if they were concerned about the prospects — and costs — of completing such developments, and whether or not they would even be needed if students start to learn remotely, they will have been concerned by comments made the Construction Industry Federation -CIF- in recent weeks about rising costs and declining productivity during the pandemic and the restrictions that came with it.
The final element to consider is that of the international student, a cohort of almost 20,000 people, many of whom occupy purpose-built student apartments out of convenience in cities which they may not be as familiar with.
Already, some universities have cut their international programmes for next year and more will follow, while some countries may not be too keen to see students travel abroad for the coming year if it is not deemed to be absolutely necessary.
In mid-May, Dublin City University - DCU - announced its plans for a “hybrid delivery of programmes” for the 2020/21 academic year, which will involve lectures being delivered primarily online and students only attending campus for face-to-face laboratory classes, practical sessions and small group interactions, where possible.
DCU will only bring students on to campus when safe to do so, it said in a statement.
This picture has been replicated at other Irish universities and many international ones too, including Cambridge University and the University of Toronto.
In short, the message from many is the same: What can be done in person will be done in person. However, as public health guidelines evolve, what can be done in person is an ever-changing prospect.
The situation has posed a problem for many students, according to Lorna Fitzpatrick, president of the Union of Students in Ireland -USI-.
“It is likely that many institutions are going to have some level of blended or online learning for the new academic year and that will most likely have repercussions on student accommodation. The issue at the moment is that many have not actually given clear guidance as to what the new academic year will look like, which is causing concern for students who need to plan for the new year,” Ms Fitzpatrick said.
“If most teaching moves to blended or online, some students may not need accommodation as close to their college but that will not be the case for all. Really, we need to know what the new academic year will look like as soon as possible to allow students to plan and make decisions.”
When campuses shut, many students returned home. In many cases, this prompted private landlords and universities to part-refund students for rents paid, though this certainly was not the case across the board. Some students were simply left out of pocket as rents had been paid upfront for the academic term.
In recent summers, the scramble to secure somewhere to rent has been an enormous source of stress for many students. Expensive rooms in private houses are in high demand, and purpose-built complexes, whether run by private companies or universities, are often booked out many months in advance of the new terms.
The USI says it is concerned that private rental providers are now offering discounted rates to students to get them to sign up for accommodation when, ultimately, they may not actually need to rent at all, if courses are delivered in part or largely online.
“We want to make sure that students can decide if they need accommodation before they sign any contacts. Again, this requires the institutions to be clear on the plan for the new academic year,” Ms Fitzpatrick said.
Additionally, the USI has fears about social distancing in shared accommodation which, they say, is “impossible” in the case of shared rooms and communal kitchens.
“As it stands, we have more questions than answers. We understand people are working hard to get the answers to these questions and others, but we are coming close to the point where we can no longer wait. Students and their families need the information to make decisions that are right for them,” Ms Fitzpatrick said.
One of the bodies attempting to answer some of those questions is the Irish Universities Association -IUA-.
Jim Miley, director-general of the IUA, said they have appealed to the government for specific guidance in what will be required in terms of social distancing or other protective measures in the Autumn, when third level institutions are due to reopen.
“Everything is dependent on the public health advice,” he said.
“We are planning on the basis that social distancing will remain in some form or other, and that will have impacts on density, student numbers and so on.”
In accommodation settings, this poses numerous challenges due to the prevalence of shared amenities, such as kitchens and recreational spaces, in many new purpose-built student accommodation complexes.
IUA and other industry stakeholders have submitted requests for guidance to the department, which is expected to revert back in the coming weeks.
Mr Miley said: “For example, will wearing face masks be mandatory? If that is the case, what impact would it have on density and student numbers?
“These are the challenges that face us. It is not just a matter of solving the accommodation question but also lectures and other elements of third-level education which result in people congregating on campus.”
Logically, though, student numbers will be ‘diluted’, he said, in particular in shared accommodation. There will be limits in the numbers on campus at any one time and, when it comes to international students, there is also the consideration of their own local public health requirements which could dictate whether they are allowed to travel or whether they would be subject to quarantines when they arrive in Ireland, for example.
But, is digital course delivery and reducing numbers on campus a short-term, immediate reaction to the pandemic or step one in a longer-term transformation of the third level experience?
Mr Miley said it is “too early to speculate” on how things will be impacted on campuses in the coming years but said there is already an appetite for increased digital options in third level institutions.
But, he added, it is often reported that 50% of what you learn in third-level comes outside the classroom and in social settings.
“Many of the students contacting universities about their courses for the coming year are telling them they do want the on-campus experience,” he said.
This is particularly true of the international student cohort. IUA said there are between 17,500 and 18,000 international students in Irish universities at any one time and this number is expected to increase. Or, at least it was.
Since the outbreak, many have returned home, though between 1,500 and 2,000 are believed to have remained in campus accommodation.
In early May, the IUA warned of an expected drop in the number of international students coming to Ireland in the 2020/21 academic term, urging the government to fund additional Irish student places to offset the financial hit that universities will suffer as a result.
Trinity College Dublin provost Professor Patrick Prendergast has forecast that its international student numbers will be “wiped out” due to the pandemic, for example.
International students are a valuable asset to Irish universities; their fees are a huge income source. They pay up to €37,000 for one year’s tuition, while the IUA estimates the predicted losses in international students could cost universities €181m.
Already, though, frustration is growing among the international student community about paying costly fees to Irish universities for courses which would be delivered primarily online, with students petitioning UCD for refunds.
Until decisions are made and communicated on how courses are delivered, students will be in the dark. In all likelihood, though, most courses are going to have to pivot to some form of digital output for the start of the 2020/21 academic term at the very least.
It is not feasible to expect packed lecture halls and busy libraries to reopen in the early autumn as social distancing becomes a regular feature of the rest of society.
What the longer term ramifications for the accommodation sector are remains to be seen.
Do construction giants press ahead in the hopes that 2020/21 is just a blip and not the start of a ‘new normal’ of distance-delivered courses? Or is it time for a rethink?
Developments since 2016
Completed student bed spaces since 2016:
- Hatch Student Living on Copley St; 155 beds
- The former Munster GAA HQ; 8 beds
- Mideam, Dorgan’s Rd & Magazine Rd; 14 beds
- Ziggurat, Western Rd; 202 beds
- Variety Holdings, Brookfield; 34 beds
- Brewery Quarter, South Main St, 417 beds.
Total: 830 beds.
On-site bed spaces
- The former Crow’s Nest, Victoria Cross, UCC, 255 beds
- The former O’Mahony’s Packaging, Melbourne Rd, 348 beds
- Curraheen Point, The former Gillian House, Farranlea Rd, 145 beds
Total: 748 beds.
- O’Riordan’s Joinery, Bandon Road, Lyonshall, 419 beds. (Planning was granted for 419 beds in January 2019, though the developer has now lodged an application with An Bord Pleanála to increase this to 554.)
- Former Kelleher’s Tyres, Victoria Cross, 154 beds Loreto House, Magazine Rd, 8 beds Former Square Deal building, Washington St, 209 beds. (The developer has now applied to increase this to 280 beds)
- Former Coca-Cola Bottling Plant, Carrigrohane Rd, 623 beds.
Total: 1,413 beds (potentially rising to 1,619).
In the pipeline:
North Main St, 280 beds.
‘Our priority is the health and welfare of students’
Among the companies which may be forced to implement some changes ahead of the 2020/21 academic year is Uninest, the student accommodation provider which runs several sites in Cork and Dublin.
These include the Amnis House apartments, located on the Western Road near the front gates of UCC, and the Lee Point apartments, which has been built on the former Beamish & Crawford site on South Main Street in Cork City.
The latter is due to open ahead of the new academic term.
Uninest can accommodate more than 3,000 students in Cork and Dublin, and hundreds of students have remained on site at the apartment complexes despite the shutdown.
Already, Amnis House is fully booked for the 2020/21 academic year, according to Uninest’s website, while several room types in Lee Point are fully sold out too.
On its website, Uninest has published details of its student support programme which is aimed at “students who are unable to enjoy the benefit of the remainder of their lease ... due to reasons relating to Covid-19”.
In a statement, the accommodation provider said, “Our priority at Uninest is always the health and welfare of our students.
“We have been working hard to keep our students, as well as our people, safe during this unprecedented time. Our residences remain open with hundreds of students continuing to live with us in Ireland.
“We understand this is an extremely difficult time for our students.
“We are working hard to help them and believe our offer of financial support will alleviate some of the worry and uncertainty that they have been contending with.
“Ireland has a world class higher education system that will continue to attract both Irish and international students once restrictions are lifted and travel resumes.”
Plan to ease pressure on market sparked gold rush
The spark which prompted this gold rush for student apartments was the National Student Accommodation Strategy -NSAS-, released in July 2017 by the Department of Education.
It was designed to increase the supply of student accommodation, easing pressure on the private rental sector by moving students from private homes into purpose-built student complexes.
The idea behind the strategy is that for every four students accommodated in a purpose-built apartment complex, one property is made available in the private market again.
In 2014, a Higher Education Authority report estimated an existing demand for approximately 57,100 student bed spaces. Supply was approximately 31,000 at the time.
The NSAS set a target of an additional 7,000 purpose-built bed spaces to be delivered by the end of 2019. Some 8,000 were built and 5,000 more were under construction.
At the end of Q3 2019 — the last time the department issued a full progress update on the strategy — there were also a further 7,771 beds approved, with this figure increasing since.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education conceded that its current projections may not tally with final student numbers for the coming year due to the Covid-19 pandemic but insisted the NSAS is “robust” as an element of long-term planning.
“In light of the current public health circumstances, it is difficult to predict the demand for student accommodation or the expected international student numbers for next academic year,” said the spokesperson.
“Much depends on unfolding events such as all available national and international public health advice, particularly in respect of international travel for programmes where a physical presence in Ireland is needed.” While elements such as the international student cohort may be under threat due to the virus, the strategy is largely based on Irish demographics, not a reliance on overseas students travelling here for education, they said.
“Enrolments in higher education are projected to rise from 183,642 in 2017 to an estimated peak of 222,514 in 2030, an increase of 21%,” said the spokesperson.
“This increase is primarily driven by demographics, and therefore it is expected that enrolments will continue to rise regardless of any change in the number of international students.
“While our current assessment is that the targets and objectives set out in the NSAS are robust, as is the case in terms of a number of key strategies and priorities for the third-level education system, it will be necessary, working with key stakeholders, to continue to monitor and potentially respond to issues and developments that are relevant to the implementation of the key actions and objectives set out in the NSAS in light of the potential longer-term impact of Covid-19 on the third- level education system,” they said.
In 2017, when the NSAS was issued, there were 3,788 student beds in Cork and some 33,441 nationwide. The strategy anticipated that supply would reach almost 55,000 by 2024, leaving a shortfall of some 21,000.
This included a situation in Cork City where there would be unmet demand for 1,901 student beds.
At the time of preparing the strategy, a huge number of the developments now mooted were not in the planning system and, therefore, were not part of the considerations.
In recent weeks, developer Lyonshall submitted a planning application to increase the number of beds associated with its proposed new complex on Bandon Rd, overlooking the Lough, in Cork.
In its application, it outlined the scale of student accommodation in Cork City in the context of the NSAS, estimating there will still be a significant shortfall in the number of beds available, even if everything in the planning system is completed in full.
While progress had been made in achieving the targets set out in the 2017 document, the developers noted there “is still a significant unmet demand as far as the horizon year of 2024 as outlined in the strategy, with a projected shortfall over up to 600 beds in the best case scenario, where all extant permissions are constructed”.
If all existing permissions were completed in full, there would still be a shortfall of 581 bed spaces, claimed the developers.
And that was the “best-case scenario”.
The Department of Education is unlikely to abandon the strategy in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, though a change of government could potentially prompt a rethink.
Developments slowed as restrictions came in
It has been a busy year in student accommodation terms in Cork.
We have seen work finally start on the Crow’s Nest complex in Victoria Cross.
The 200+ bed development is coming to the market from UCC and sits just a few metres from several other large student apartment developments in the area.
It was a relief to many to see work start on this development several months ago and then again to see the construction workers return to the site in the days after the Government loosened the restrictions on outdoor work, such as construction.
However, UCC isn’t alone. Uninest’s complex on South Main St, dubbed Lee Point, has been part-finished by BAM, with parts of the complex due to open before the start of the 2020/21 college term, though it remains to be seen whether there will be any students to occupy it, while contractors have been appointed to the development earmarked for the former Coca-Cola Bottling Plant on the Carrigrohane Road.
The 620-bed unit is the largest single accommodation block planned for Cork city at present and contractors had targeted a completion date of summer 2021.
Admittedly, they probably didn’t factor in several weeks of construction shutdown.
Elsewhere, one of the most eye-catching developments mooted in the city in recent years is the proposal to revamp the former Square Deal building on Washington St to incorporate 209 beds. Developers are now seeking permission to increase this development to some 280 beds and plan for it to open in time for the 2022/23 academic year.
The development involves retaining much of the eye-catching red brick exterior but would see life brought back to a huge block in the middle of the street.
Separately, in recent weeks the developers behind a student complex on Bandon Road, which would overlook the Lough, applied to An Bord Pleanála to increase the size of their development too.
Lyonshall were initially granted permission for 49 apartments with 350 beds before revising this up to 57 apartments and 419 beds in January 2019.
They have since purchased additional land next to the site and are hoping to incorporate this into the project, which would have 554 beds if approved by An Bord Pleanála.
Plans are also underway for a major development on North Main St, where BMOR, a London-based development company, in hoping to move ahead with a multi-million complex, including some 280 student beds.
The plan is earmarked for a derelict site, which has been vacant since a fire in 2008.
The €25m plan also includes two new shop units and support facilities such as a gym, laundry, a study, library, communal working areas, and a landscaped external courtyard, with restoration of Coleman’s Lane, one of several medieval lanes between North Main St and Grattan St.
A planning application is expected to be lodged shortly.