Two years ago Dublin City University announced it was about to build "affordable" accommodation for 1,240 students at its Glasnevin campus.
It had full planning permission and finance in place – all that remained was for the building to start. It never did.
"It would have almost doubled our on-campus accommodation," says DCU president Daire Keogh.
“But building costs meant it was going to cost between €140,000-€150,000 per student bed. So, we’d have had to charge something like €15,000-€16,000 a year to students, even though our other on-campus accommodation is €5,500. How could we do that?”
DCU isn’t alone. Two years ago there were about 6,000 additional on-campus student beds being planned on university campuses. That number has now shrunk to about 3,000. As construction costs rise, the fear is it will drop even further.
Senior higher education sources say a combination of construction costs and red tape linked to residential tenancies legislation means it is too risky to take on major accommodation projects.
The lack of promised student beds is just one of a number of factors in what is amounting to a growing student accommodation crisis.
One one level, there’s nothing particularly new about it: the scramble for accommodation has been an annual rite of passage for students for years, along with tales of dodgy landlords and grotty bedsits with mildewed curtains.
However, this year a Covid-related shortage of housing and delayed allocation of college places have created a perfect storm.
Large swathes of private student accommodation have disappeared due to landlords renting to families or professionals instead as a result of uncertainty over the reopening of college, say student accommodation officers.
The late release of Leaving Cert results has also forced first-year students into an almighty two-week scramble for whatever accommodation is going.
Meanwhile, the is demand for on-campus accommodation has climbed to record levels.
DCU is receiving at least four applications for every bed space available for on-campus accommodation and waiting lists are in operation. Over at Trinity College Dublin, the waiting lists for its student accommodation at Trinity Hall in Dartry is the longest in its history. At University of Limerick, all beds are fully booked with demand at its "highest in recent memory". At Waterford Institute of Technology, the Travelodge is the only option for some.
Elsewhere, some students have given up on getting accommodation and are bracing themselves for long-distance commutes. At Munster Technological University in Cork, some are commuting daily from Waterford; in Galway a new bus route is being set up to respond to demand to transport students daily to college in Limerick.
So, are there any solutions? Few say there are any short-term options or quick fixes. Most point to the need for some kind of incentives to make the construction of student accommodation economically viable and to allow colleges to rent out rooms at affordable prices.
“We need more State incentivisation for construction and to remove the regulatory barriers which are result in rents going up,” says one university source.
“Providing cheap loans to build accommodation isn’t a problem; it’s that we can’t rent the beds at reasonable prices.”
The dangers failing to address this, say many in higher education, are that lack of access to affordable accommodation risks widening the “class gap” at third level.
“We’re spending millions on access programmes and grants for under-represented students,” says one third-level source.
“But if it’s not much use if we have financial barriers. That goes against the ethos of what we’re about.”