Campus rent increases

 

Sir, – An old aphorism states that if you show me your chequebook, then I will show you your priorities.

In his recent opinion piece “Why should students living at home subsidise those living in campus accommodation?” (Education, March 3rd), the provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Patrick Prendergast, argues that recent rent increases in a number of Irish universities are necessary, because student accommodation must pay for itself.

This argument holds true if and only if the provision of student accommodation is thought of as a purely commercial endeavour and not as a student service.

If one is running a business – a shop, for example, or a student bar – then operating costs of course need to be met before revenue turns into profit. But a student service is something in which a university actively chooses to invest as a strategic priority, essential to the full intellectual, personal and social development of the students under their care.

Think of it this way. It costs money to run a library: to pay the staff, to maintain the books, to build the building in the first place. But it does not follow that a university library must pay for itself. To charge students a fee each time they came to study or borrowed a library book would rightly be considered peculiar and improper. This is because things like a library or college health centre or counselling service ought to be run as services, not businesses: prerequisites to each student reaching his or her full potential.

And, as Dr Prendergast rightly points out, if a student must commute for five hours a day, or work every night of the week to afford the rent, then something valuable is indeed lost from their education.

It follows that affordable accommodation must be considered a core responsibility of our colleges and universities.

Moreover, Dr Prendergast’s suggestion that the cost of providing student accommodation cannot be cross-subsidised with revenue generated from other university activities is highly questionable.

Commercial activities in a third-level institution exist to fund the provision of core services: that is the reason they operate.

In fact, in the very next paragraph, Dr Prendergast cites the academic salaries funded by renting out campus rooms to tourists in summertime as an example of precisely this approach.

The lack of availability of affordable student accommodation has been highlighted by students’ unions as a political and strategic issue for almost a decade now.

These decisions to increase campus rents are merely the latest example of a lamentable recent trend in the Irish third-level sector, by which the day-to-day experience of the student is too often regarded as a secondary concern, instead of a fundamental guiding principle.

But money follows priorities, and the requisite investment has not been made, both within universities and at government level. Indeed, Trinity’s own most recent Strategic Plan (2014-2019) opens with the declaration that “the Trinity community is ultimately defined by those who are enrolled as students”.

By placing students under more pressure than ever, year after year, we deeply undermine this aspiration.

The failure of our third-level institutions and political leaders to ensure the provision of affordable accommodation for our students shows that they are, quite simply, not a priority. They have not been a priority for some time. – Yours, etc,

Dr DOMHNALL

McGLACKEN-BYRNE,

(Former president of

Trinity College Dublin

Students’ Union

2014-2015),

Crumlin Children’s Hospital,

Dublin 12.