The receipt of an offer for a college course should be a time of celebration for school-leavers. Instead, students planning to study away from home are facing into a period of stress and uncertainty. The crisis in housing supply, along with soaring rents, means many do not have access to affordable accommodation.
This crisis is entirely predictable. We know tens of thousands of students need a place to live every September. Yet, the response of authorities has, just like the wider housing crisis, been slow and indecisive. While the crisis has been brewing for years, the Government only produced a national strategy on the issue last month.
In an ideal world, most students would be housed in on-campus accommodation, which would take the pressure off the private rented sector. However, there is a shortfall of about 25,000 student bed spaces compared to the demand. Capital budgets for higher education, which could have funded new accommodation units, have been slashed over recent years. Some resourceful universities have managed to build new accommodation by securing loans from the European Investment Bank and other non-State sources. Institutes of technology, however, are prohibited from borrowing under legislation and have made little progress.
As a result, thousands of students are battling against professionals and families in a dysfunctional rental market where prices have reached an all-time high, according to latest figures. There is now a real risk that some students will be priced out of pursuing their chosen career path. College is already a crushing financial burden for many families, with the cost of sending a student to college estimated to be about €12,000 a year.
More student accommodation is due to be built over the coming years. However, with numbers at higher education set to grow by a further 20,000 over the coming years, the pressure facing students to secure an affordable place to live is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. In addition, much of the private student accommodation – at more than €1,000 a month – is out of reach for large numbers of students.
If the Government is serious about tackling this issue, it needs to take some swift and decisive action. Capital budgets need to be restored for higher education. Institutes of technology should be able to access funding to help them build accommodation. The Government should be prepared to play a direct role in delivering publicly funded student accommodation if the market is unable to do so. Higher education plays a critical role in our society, economy and culture. It maximises the potential of our students. It helps realise our national ambition. Our failure to get to grips with the accommodation crisis risks undermining much of this. Our students deserve better.