The frantic race for student accommodation is about to get underway. It is always a stressful time for students and their parents, though this year it promises to be even more challenging. The housing crisis, rent increases and increased students numbers at third level are creating unprecedented demand.
While affordable on-campus accommodation is standard in most of Europe, it is not an option for most Irish students. Some colleges report that they are already hugely oversubscribed for limited places. Instead, many students are forced to compete with families and professionals for beds in the private sectors where rents are soaring and accommodation is scarce.
This competition has pushed students to take accommodation beyond their price range or in cramped, sub-standard units where stories of dismal living conditions are routine. Many others are forced into long commutes which take a heavy toll. Research indicates that as daily commuting times increase, so too does the challenge of staying in third level education.
The Government says campaigns to encourage home-owners to offer digs to students can help in the short-term
The consequences of this lack of accommodation are clear: students, increasingly, will be forced to give up their college places or will ultimately drop out.
The Government insists progress is being made by bringing additional accommodation on-stream. It estimates that almost 3,000 purpose-build beds have become available in the past year, while numbers are set to rise by 7,000 next year. However, the vast bulk of these beds are expensive units which resemble boutique hotels, built by private providers and targeted at international students.
In theory, these units – which cost up to €1,500 a month – should ease pressure elsewhere in the private rented sector for domestic students. But this is questionable given the fast-rising number of international students who universities are desperate to attract to help plug funding gaps. The Government says campaigns to encourage home-owners to offer digs to students can help in the short-term, though numbers signing up have been modest.
If we are really serious about building the best education system in Europe, affordable accommodation must play a vital role. Student accommodation should be included in rent pressure zones to limit increases; there must be safeguards too to ensure newly-built units are affordable, especially those based on college campuses.
Higher education has made a crucial contribution to Ireland’s development. It will play an even greater role as we seek to further develop our skills infrastructure, deepen our innovative capacities and create a more equal society. Accessing college, however, must be affordable. The alternative is thwarted academic ambitions and a huge personal and societal cost.