Rory Hearne: Accommodation crisis leaves students stressed and exhausted

This is the worst student accommodation crisis we have ever seen in this country and the Government was warned it was coming but ignored it
Rory Hearne: Accommodation crisis leaves students stressed and exhausted

The accommodation crisis is a real risk to increasing the access of disadvantaged students to third level, and even if they can access it, it reduces their ability to fulfil their potential, reducing their ability to study and engage in college life. File picture: Alamy/PA

Students are sleeping in fields, in cars, packed into hostels, paying up to €400 a week to stay in a hotel, couch-surfing, or commuting up to five hours daily to attend lectures. 

Some have not been able to take up their first-preference course, others have deferred, and even dropped out. This is the worst student accommodation crisis we have ever seen in this country. 

Despite warnings from myself and others that this crisis was coming, the Government largely ignored it. As a lecturer, I see in my courses the personal toll of the accommodation crisis. Students are stressed, anxious, and exhausted.

Crisis heaped on crisis

But how did we get here? Like the wider housing crisis, the student accommodation crisis is not some ‘accident’ or force of nature. It didn’t just appear like wild mushrooms popping up overnight. It happened because students have been left to the whims of the market and investor funds. And this is what happens when you leave housing to the vagaries of the private market – you get crisis heaped upon crisis.

Launched in July 2017, the Government’s National Student Accommodation Strategy was based on incentivising private sector (and mainly global real estate investors) to deliver purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA). 

Standard unit sizes were reduced and there was no obligation to provide 10% of the units as social housing, a major subsidy for investors. The real estate funds could also minimise their tax bill through the Real Estate Investment Fund tax break. 

The strategy had little funding for publicly provided student accommodation via the Higher Education Institutes. And so, of the 8,229 PBSA units completed since 2016, an overwhelming majority – 84% – are privately delivered, and just one in six are student accommodation via public third-level colleges. 

The problem is private investor PBSA is very expensive and no average students can afford it. Rooms are up to a €1,000 per month. What student can afford that? 

Also they are increasingly being converted into short-term tourist accommodation. Up to a third of the private PSBA built in the last five years has been taken away from students and used for tourists. Why has the Department of Higher Education and Department of Housing not taken action on this?

Some students have not been able to take up their first-preference course, others have deferred, and even dropped out.
Some students have not been able to take up their first-preference course, others have deferred, and even dropped out.

Student accommodation has always been an afterthought in housing policy. The National Student Accommodation Strategy committed to produce a quarterly report to monitor progress. 

Yet its last progress report was in the third quarter of 2019, two full years ago. Incredible. The strategy also set up an inter-departmental steering group for all stakeholders. Yet that group only met once over the last year, and made no input into the recent Housing for All plan. 

Indeed, students get just a couple of paragraphs amongst its vast 150 pages, and there’s no assessment of student accommodation need or targets for State-funded student accommodation delivery. Given this lack of evidenced informed policy, we shouldn’t wonder why we have such a crisis.

Access impacts

Unfortunately, the crisis also detrimentally affects access to education for students from disadvantaged and non-traditional backgrounds. Education is empowering and life-changing. I see it in my students, who gain a new confidence in themselves as their resilience, knowledge and skills grow. 

The accommodation crisis is a real risk to increasing the access of disadvantaged students to third level, and even if they can access it, it reduces their ability to fulfil their potential, reducing their ability to study and engage in college life.

Despite statements to the contrary, there are immediate measures that can be taken. The Minister for Higher Education could hold an emergency meeting of the key stakeholders, and the Housing Minister could introduce legislation to stop private PSBA being changed into tourism accommodation. 

There’s a factory in Carlow that can build a modular home in 11 days. With funding, it could deliver 2,000 units a year, it says. That’s more units than universities built over the last five years. Why couldn’t it build student accommodation for next September?

The jarring juxtaposition of students forced into paying for hotels, while old hotels are left abandoned adjacent to third-level colleges, as their owners watch land values rise, captured the ire of many in the last few days. 

I highlighted the former Corrib Hotel, lying derelict for over a decade, located right beside GMIT in Galway. Former hotels also lie derelict overlooking Waterford City, and in Limerick. The owners of these buildings should be issued with compulsory purchase orders by the local authorities, bought by the State and refurbished or rebuilt for student accommodation.

Developers of private PSBA should also be made comply with Part V obligations. Allocating 10% of these developments as affordable student accommodation is logical.

Many higher level institutes can borrow to build student accommodation. We should set targets and plans in place to deliver this, with a specific capital grant in the coming October budget. The State agency Nama could also transfer land to the colleges at very low cost, and finance rapid building of student accommodation on it. 

The problem is that policy thinking is dominated by what will stimulate the investors and the market and an obstinate refusal to revamp and reimagine the State’s role in directly providing affordable housing of all kinds, including student accommodation.

As campaigns officer for the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in 2004 at the height of the Celtic Tiger, I organised a ‘sleep out’ protest at the student accommodation. 

On Wednesday, USI is holding another sleep out, ‘No Keys No Degrees’ – at the Dáil. Fifteen years on, we are back stuck in another housing bubble, another housing crisis. When will we see the right action to get out us out of this housing emergency groundhog day?

  • Dr Rory Hearne is assistant professor in social policy at the Department of Applied Social Studies of  Maynooth University

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