The head of a university governing body has expressed “extreme concern” over a likely shortage of student accommodation next September due to the volume of private rented accommodation being occupied by Ukrainian refugees.
Speaking an Oireachtas education committee meeting, Josephine Feehily, chair of the governing body for Technological University of the Shannon (TUS), said students in the region were entirely dependent on the private sector.
"We are extremely worried about the autumn because the private sector that would have provided accommodation in the past is now occupied and unlikely to become unoccupied in September, largely by – unfortunately – people from the Ukraine. So, we're extremely concerned about where we'll find capacity," Ms Feehily said.
She said students at TUS – formerly Athlone IT and Limerick IT – were increasingly dependent on transport to get to college or couch surfing due to limited access to affordable accommodation.
Student beds are not just a place to sleep, she said, but key to building a positive campus culture where students can join societies and don’t arrive “exhausted and then go home in the evening.”
Ms Feehily, a former chair of the Revenue Commissioners, said a challenge in the longer term was building affordable student accommodation on campus.
Patrick Prendergast, chair of the South East Technological University's governing body – formerly Waterford IT and IT Carlow – said campus accommodation could be cheaper if elements such as en-suite bathrooms were not standard.
Mr Prendergast, former provost of Trinity College Dublin, said student accommodation was a “very complicated thing” and was often built to double up as holiday rentals, with “high quality with en-suites in every room.”
In other countries, he said bathrooms in student accommodation were often shared or at the end of corridors, which was cheaper to build.
Jimmy Deenihan, chair of Munster Technological University's governing body, said the student accommodation crisis in Cork and Kerry could be solved by giving the new university the power to borrow money to build rooms on campus.
The traditional university sector has borrowed in the region of euro1 billion to fund a range of campus facilities, he said.
However, he said work has yet to commence on a section of new legislation which would allow technological universities to also borrow such funds for the first time.
Ms Feehily, however, said simply giving technological universities the power to borrow money would not solve the student accommodation problem.
In the case of TUS, she said 60 per cent of its 14,000 students were in receipt of State grants.
She said campus accommodation may need to be classified as social housing to ensure it is affordable.
“Otherwise, if it’s simply borrow and build, our students won’t be able to afford it, no matter how creative you are, or how many you fit in or use of design.”
On the question of whether the Government should cut the €3,000 student contribution charge, committee members were broadly opposed to such a move.
Ms Fehily said access to third level at TUS would not be enhanced by cutting the charge and said the focus should be on additional investment in grants.
Similarly, Mr Prendergast agreed that the Susi grant was not enough, and the focus should be on improving grants.
Mr Deenihan added that if resources intended for higher education ended up being redirected towards cutting the student charge, it could take away vital resources.
There were also calls at the committee to end the “inequity” in funding between traditional universities and new technological universities,.
Mr Prendergast questioned why there was a lower level of core funding for technological universities.
“This is an equity issue,” he said. “It’s not right and it should be fixed.”