“Last year we had one student in particular we were trying to help for ages, he was a homeless student,” says Niall Naughton, president of Technological University of Shannon (TUS) students’ union.
“It was an awful struggle. Being a member of the student community and the university, it is not something we want to see. It really upset us and staff too were actually traumatised by this.”
It was November when the dire situation was brought to the attention of the student body. The homeless student had been sleeping in his car every night since the previous July.
“It was other students who brought it to our attention,” says Naughton, who represents more than 14,000 undergraduates and postgraduates at TUS.
“They noticed the student on campus and that he was going to what we thought was home at 9:30pm or 10:30pm every night. But he was going to his car. We approached the car a number of times.
“I got in contact with the Simon Community to make them aware of the situation. The student was just sleeping homeless.”
The student ended up “fleeing” his parked car when others tried to intervene to help him, and the vehicle was impounded by the county council, according to Naughton.
It is a stark example of the crisis facing hundreds of thousands of students returning to college over the coming weeks in the teeth of a countrywide housing crisis.
They were buying the cheapest products possible: 29 cent packets of noodles, tins of beans. They were not looking after their physical wellbeing
Other student leaders around the country are reporting similar dismal trends.
As well as sleeping rough, students are resorting to couch-surfing – relying on the kindness of others to find a sofa to sleep on for the night – enduring hours-long and increasingly costly daily commutes or, if luckier, checking into hotels close to their educational establishments.
Others are going hungry or foregoing medical appointments, Naughton says.
“Last year, our students’ union was helping a number of students who were cutting back on their food to pay their rent.
“Some were coming to me saying they only had €20 left for groceries. I said, is that for a week? They said: ‘No, that’s for the month.’
“Five euro a week on shopping. They were buying the cheapest products possible: 29 cent packets of noodles, tins of beans. They were not looking after their physical wellbeing, never mind their mental and emotional wellbeing.”
Other students are seeking help with transport costs. Frozen out of what limited accommodation is available near TUS’s five campuses in Limerick, Athlone, Thurles, Clonmel and Ennis, they are enduring lengthy bus journeys or drives from family homes in a time of spiralling fuel costs.
“We’ve been inundated with students looking for financial support for transport,” says Naughton. “Some can’t afford a train home, others just don’t have the money to put fuel in car tanks. And that is just going to get worse. We are expecting an absolute flood of requests in September.”
Added to the cost of travelling, those commuting are missing out on other valuable experiences of student life.
“We talk about positive campus culture – clubs, societies and meet-ups – but students coming in at 9am after a one- or two-hour commute, studying to 6pm, they are missing out on all that,” says Naughton.
As well as the financial strain, students are bearing the brunt of emotional and mental costs too, he adds. “But they are coming to us saying they are putting off going to the doctor. They can’t afford it. It is a vicious circle.”
Like other students unions, TUS is trying to work with its local communities – including homeowners and hoteliers – to add much-needed beds to the available accommodation list.
But a slow return by householders to renting out digs-style rooms since the Covid-19 pandemic eased, a near-standstill in the building of any dedicated student residences as construction costs soar, and the increased demand on hospitality beds from holidaymakers and families fleeing the war in Ukraine has created a perfect storm.
Some landlords who traditionally let to students are either selling up or taking advantage of rent inflation by offering properties to workers instead.
“There is no accommodation left for students,” says Naughton.
“It has led to a massive crisis, extreme worry, stress, frustration and a lot of anxiety. In the meantime there has been an increase in the numbers applying for places at third level. Why are universities taking on more students, opening more courses? What do they want us to do? Sleep in tents?”
Patrick Curtin, president of the students’ union at South East Technological University (SETU), was involved in efforts last year to encourage hotels in Waterford to offer student deals.
But with tourism still reeling from the impact of coronavirus, less than a handful agreed, offering up to four nights during the week for between €150 and €190 a week, some with breakfast included.
“This year none of them are in position at the moment to offer the same deals,” he says. “They just don’t have the capacity, with the hospitality sector on the up again and Ukrainians using rooms for emergency accommodation.”
There were about 1,000 without any accommodation. I wouldn’t be surprised if that number doubles this year. The crisis will be worse
Every student leader stresses their full support for the welcome Ireland has offered to those escaping Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but say the increased demand on already scarce accommodation is an indisputable factor.
Curtin reckons “a good few hundred” students at SETU were using hotel rooms last year.
“It was viable for the short term so students could avail of their college place. There were still online lectures last year, so some could just come up for a night or two when necessary. But it is not an ideal living environment,” he adds.
“I contacted all the same hotels that were on board last year, and more – maybe two bus routes out, as far as Dunmore East and Tramore – and they all responded the same. Basically they can’t offer the same discounted rate again at the moment.”
Last year, Waterford had “about 10 per cent of the student homeless population overall, the highest in the country”, says Curtin.
“There were about 1,000 without any accommodation. I wouldn’t be surprised if that number doubles this year. The crisis will be worse.”
As has been seen elsewhere, Curtin has witnessed students sleeping in cars and “couch-hopping between friends”.
“Then there are people travelling every day from the midlands, even as far as Galway,” he adds.
Curtin says he is in no doubt that more students, “who worked really hard to get to where they are”, will have no choice but to give up or defer their college places because they will have nowhere to live during the coming academic year.
The story is similar in Co Donegal, where Edward Grant is students’ union president at the Atlantic Technical University (ATU).
“It is desperate, to be honest,” he says.
“This time last year we were experiencing a huge outcry from students with just 331 beds available near the university in Letterkenny. Now, we have about 125 on our accommodation list to be released on Monday.”
Grant says “hundreds” of students at ATU – which also has campuses in Galway, Mayo and Sligo – “just won’t have accommodation”.
“Most of them will have to defer their place for the year. Last year, many who couldn’t find a place to live went to another college closer to home – but that wasn’t the course they wanted to do, that they worked hard to get into.
“Others sought out apprenticeships instead or went into unskilled labour. It is really, really devastating and impacting a lot of students.”
The escalating accommodation crisis will create a graduate and skills shortage for the country, Grant believes.
“There have been extra pressures on the private rented sector in recent years, but the Government knew this was coming for a long time – since the last crash in 2011,” he says.
“It is horrifying that it could have been avoided if they had acted in the past. There are a lot of people saying we didn’t know this would happen, but we did. Pre-budget submissions to the Government for years have been pointing out the same issue over and over again about student accommodation.
“The voices have just been ignored to the point where we have now reached the bottleneck. The system is now a mess.”
In Donegal and some other counties, the mica problem is expected to put even more strain on accommodation availability, as families who may have let out rooms in the past can no longer do so because of health and safety issues. Some have moved out of their own homes into rentals.
Last year, there were “two or three” students sleeping in cars, says Grant, adding that more than a dozen took out hotel rooms, while others were “relying on the charity of friends” by couch-surfing.
Looking at this year mathematically, the accommodation list is reduced by a third and we expect three times more students who can’t find accommodation
“One of the most harrowing cases was a girl who came into our office, she was an orphan who didn’t finish her Leaving Cert but managed to work her way up to college with help from the SUSI scheme,” he says.
“When she finished the academic year she wasn’t allowed to sign on for social welfare, because of the term-time grant. Once the summer hit, she had zero income.
“She had been staying in [Letterkenny’s only dedicated student residence] Ballyraine Hall during her first year. When she contacted citizens’ advice and the local authority, both said that if she dropped out of college tomorrow she could get benefits.
“Because she was actively trying to better herself, she was locked out of the system.”
An arrangement was brokered to allow her stay on at Ballyraine Hall over the summer.
“Looking at this year mathematically, the accommodation list is reduced by a third and we expect three times more students who can’t find accommodation,” Grant says.
“That doesn’t take into account the increased student numbers expected because of our new university status. The biggest barrier now to getting a third level education is accommodation.”
Grant says a number of students who had security deposits accepted on properties as early as March this year have been told in recent weeks the landlords are taking in other renters instead. That alone accounted for 56 beds lost, he says.
Students who deferred last year because of the accommodation shortage are further up the queue in a “really, really long cancellation list” for Ballyraine Hall, meaning newcomer first-years do not stand much chance of securing a place there.
“Historically for freshers, it has been fully booked since March,” he adds.
“I expect at least 100 people will turn down places in college because of the accommodation crisis here. Some will go elsewhere closer to home, so they won’t get the degree they wanted.
“But it is more realistic for them, rather than taking the strain mentally and financially.
“Others will have massive commutes. Last year we had one student who was travelling by bus from Dublin three or four days a week, costing €32 a day. It only came to light because the lecturer was giving out about her arriving late to class every day.
“In the end, she couldn’t hack it any more.”
A spokesman for the Department of Further and Higher Education said that, since taking office, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris had made the provision of purpose-built student accommodation a priority. He said previous student housing policies had relied on increasing supply by private and public providers.
“This has resulted in a significant increase in the number of bed spaces available. The year-end 2019 figures showed a total of 23,804 bed spaces, either completed or in the planning and development process. By the end of 2020, this figure had risen to 26,343.”
He said the number of planning applications, applications granted and work on site all continued to increase, with the total potential figure as of Q4 2021 standing at 27,248. The number of beds being provided currently by higher education institutions’ (HEIs’) on-campus college accommodation is 14,500. “But the department is now prioritising the construction of on-campus, purpose-built student accommodation.”
Technological universities now have a legislative basis for borrowing for the provision of student accommodation, he said. The department and the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and Public Expenditure and Reform were committed to working with viable pilot student-accommodation proposals emerging from the technological sector. TUs were in the process of preparing business cases for the department to consider.
“The department is now progressing a new policy, likely to involve the State assisting publicly-funded HEIs with building costs, that bridges the challenging gap for publicly-funded colleges between the viability of delivering purpose-built student accommodation and subsequent rental affordability for students, with detailed work on this policy being advanced,” the spokesman said.
“In relation to this coming September, on February 24th, the Minister wrote to all college HEI chairs offering State assistance if local solutions could be found, such as the repurposing of existing structures.
“While some potentiality was identified, this approach has not proven straightforward and was further complicated by the war in Ukraine and the attendant calls to provide or repurpose accommodation for displaced persons fleeing the war in Ukraine.”
However, he said, there will be an additional 1,200 beds available for students provided by the HEIs this year in comparison to last year.
Meanwhile, on the rent-a-room scheme, a homeowner can rent a room, retain social welfare entitlements where applicable and earn up to €14,000 rental income. HEIs are actively promoting this option in their localities.
The spokesman said the Government was “absolutely committed to ensuring we assist people with the cost of living and the cost of education will be addressed in this year’s budget”.