Call to claw back Covid-19 relief for student accommodation refusing refunds

Naughten says certain providers had refused point blank to refund students

Denis Naughten said the private sector have turned their backs on many students across the country. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Denis Naughten said the private sector have turned their backs on many students across the country. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The Government should seek a clawback of any coronavirus-related tax reliefs offered to private student accommodation providers who refused to refund students, the Dáil has been told.

Independent TD Denis Naughten said those providers “should not be eligible under any circumstances for Covid-19 supports”.

Mr Naughten said they had refused “point blank, after repeated requests from Government, to refund students”.

Insisting there was now an onus on the Government to act on this he said the private sector “have turned their backs on many students across the country who have paid substantial deposits for accommodation” but cannot use it because of the Covid-19 restrictions.

He said a constituent paid a first instalment of €3,500 for his accommodation but his course was now being provided online. “That private provider has pocketed the money.”

Speaking during debate on a Sinn Féin Bill to ban co-living the former minister said tax relief is being claimed by about 200 student accommodation providers across the country.

In 2017, 246 providers claimed relief from the Revenue Commissioners. “They got tax relief from the State and taxpayers across the country to build student accommodation in the first place. Some of them even had the sites handed to them.”

Yet when the Government and Minister for Education and politicians asked them to “give students a break, they were not in it together with the rest of us”.

The Roscommon-Galway TD said: “They came cap in hand to the Government for restart grants, access to the wage subsidy scheme and pandemic unemployment payment for their employees because they had a drop in income as a result of there being no student or summer rental.”

Mr Naughten said it was “immoral that the Government paid them and that they, in turn, did not pay the students”.

He also criticised some of the universities for their response. “There was an appalling example involving the University of Limerick, which had to be dragged kicking and screaming to refund the accommodation costs to its students before the summer. It eventually, begrudgingly, paid over that money.”

Rose Conway-Walsh urged the Minister to get a commitment from Trinity and DCU on refunds. Photograph: Alan Betson
Rose Conway-Walsh urged the Minister to get a commitment from Trinity and DCU on refunds. Photograph: Alan Betson

Refunds

Later during Dail questions, five of the State’s seven universities confirmed they will refund students who leave their third-level accommodation, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said.

He told Sinn Féin spokeswoman Rose Conway-Walsh that he was waiting for Trinity College and DCU to issue their policy but he had made it “very clear” that university-owned accommodation refunds should be refunded or “flexible solutions found”.

He said DCU had adopted a flexible model where students could book and pay for accommodation for a number of days and nights rather than a full semester “which seems an intelligent way to do it”.

During Dáil question time Mr Harris also said he understood that DCU will refund in full deposits paid by students who did not take up the accommodation.

The Minister added however that he had no powers directly available to him in relation to private sector accommodation providers but he was urging them “to be flexible”.

Ms Conway-Walsh said it was important that those refunds were given in a timely way and she urged the Minister to get a commitment from Trinity and DCU on that.

She said students had told her that much of the uncertainty they faced was avoidable.

“They feel that your department has over promised and that timetables were not issued until accommodation had been paid for.”

And she called on Mr Harris to instruct all colleges and accommodation providers to provide full refunds for any student requests of unused accommodation.

Mr Harris said “I want university accommodation to be refunded to students who can’t use the accommodation or at least fair solutions to be found. I said that in crystal clear language on a number of occasions to representative bodies”.

The Minister added that “I do expect that to be swift”.

Outlining the implications of Level 5 restrictions for the third-level sector, Mr Harris stressed that “this is not March. We’re not locking the doors of our universities as we did then.”

He said it meant that higher and further education is designated under Level 5 “as essential, insofar as on-site presence is required and such educational activities cannot be held remotely”.

But “all further and higher education institutions should continue to deliver the vast majority of classes online”.

However he cited a number of areas where services could continue on-site including teaching and research laboratories, practical and skill-based tuition and workshops including training in apprenticeships.

On-site engagement could also include “small groups of learners where learners might be vulnerable or might require additional support, (and) scheduled access to libraries, which is very important for our students”.

Ms Conway-Walsh said she was “deeply concerned about the quality of the education experience” students are having and the impact on their mental and physical health.

And she warned against a situation “where we are months down the line and we find that there are huge drop-out rates”.

The Mayo TD said “we need to take a grip of it now and we need to acknowledge that there’s a problem there”.

The Minister said there had been a lot of investment in student mental health including through initiatives such as the student assistance fund.

“Students and lecturers asked for certainty and we now have certainty about what this semester looks like. It’s not what we’d like,” he said.

But “we need to learn from the mistakes of other jurisdictions where lots of students returned to on-site campus and we saw what happened in terms of outbreaks of the virus”.