The looming crisis in student accommodation is nothing new. This year, however, the pressure facing students and families is worse than ever. A combination of factors, including increased student numbers, the late delivery of Leaving Cert results, a lack of private rented options and the temporary housing of Ukrainian refugees, means finding accommodation will be highly challenging.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the face of similar controversy, the previous government launched a national student accommodation strategy in July 2017 aimed at supporting the development of purpose-built units. Figures indicate it was successful in helping to deliver thousands of additional beds mainly in the private sector in recent years. Many, however, resemble boutique hotels and carry high rents which are out of reach for most students and their families.
Output has since slowed down. Latest data indicates that there are dozens of separate student accommodation projects with planning permission, capable of delivering about 10,500 bed spaces. However, universities say many on-campus projects are stuck in limbo. The rising cost of construction means they would be forced to charge exorbitant rents to students to break even.
One option being considered by Government to unblock these projects is State subvention. Under this model, the State would part-fund developments in exchange for guarantees over affordable rents. Decisions along these lines must take place quickly, given that many beds will take years to deliver.
There are limited options available to the Government or universities to boost accommodation options between now and September. One of the few is greater use of the rent-a-room scheme. While the pandemic meant many households were reluctant to explore this option, the rising cost of living may prompt a re-think. Homeowners can earn an income of up to €14,000 tax-free under the scheme.
In the meantime, the shortage of beds for students has very real consequences. Many are forced to commute long distances to college, which means students have little time to get involved in clubs and societies on campus, the lifeblood of a positive college experience. Some may opt to defer going to university in the hope that things will improve next year. Others may decide that college simply is not affordable for them.
The Government prides itself on recent investment in higher education as a key to unlocking the potential of our students. If it is serious about this, it must urgently work with higher education institutions to unblock barriers to the provision of more student beds on campus, in tandem with wider moves to resolve the housing crisis. Affordability barriers cannot and should not be a barrier to accessing quality education.