The so-called “giveaway budget” announced by the government this week gave away little to third-level students. Aside from the €3 million announced for the Student Assistance Fund, a pittance when compared to the €50 million allocated for 1916 commemorations, student issues were not dealt with by this government.
An obvious issue ignored was the student accommodation crisis.
As early as July of this year the government was in possession of a Higher Education Authority (HEA) report which included grave warnings about future accommodation provisions for third-level students. The report warned that over the next ten years there will be a consistent shortage of 25,000 places as student numbers continue to increase. It is notable that this is the best case scenario. The report included in its estimate the planned accommodation developments over the next ten years, which are liable to be delayed or cancelled altogether between now and 2024.
Since this report, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has been lobbying the government to take action in dealing with the problem and individual student unions have been forced to look for unconventional solutions to their college’s deficiencies in accommodation facilities.
Our own Student Union welfare officer, Conor Clancy, spoke to Trinity News in September and called for the government to “start taking action” to address the problems in student accommodation. Currently, he said, “the majority of the legwork is being done by student unions around the country.”
DCU students were hard pressed to find accommodation to such an extent that the DCU students union encouraged incoming students in September to take up residence on the grounds of Gormanstown School in County Meath, some 30km away from DCU.
Student leaders at University College Cork (UCC) issued their first appeal for student accommodation since the mid-1980s this year. Katie Quinlan, UCC SU welfare officer, criticised some landlords for “refusing point-blank” to take students as tenants.
Minister for education, Jan O’Sullivan, did express a willingness to deal with the issue and held discussions with USI president, Kevin Donoghue, which he described as being “productive” and in which he saw “an attitude to do something about it.” The minister herself alluded to possible “bigger proposals” when advocating the use of the USI rent a room programme.
However, proposals such as the zero rate of VAT for student housing advocated by the president of UCC, Dr Michael Murphy, were omitted from the HEA report and all but ruled out by the minister for education.
In this budget the government could have freed up National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) controlled properties for rent as a short term measure. Instead it was decided that NAMA should go ahead with their planned construction 2020 plan, which will see a delayed introduction of housing over the next five years, completely ignoring the very real crisis which we are facing right now in accommodation.
Then there is the political quagmire that is rent controls.
According to figures released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in August, rents for apartments in Dublin have already soared above and beyond the Celtic Tiger highs of early 2008.
However, the government has kept proposals of “rent certainty” made by minister for the environment and deputy leader of the Labour party, Alan Kelly, at arm’s length. This is despite the fact that one coalition senator, Aideen Hayden, declared in August that the proposal “has full labour party support” and “will be on the legislative books by October.”
Despite the proposal being a watered down version of rent controls and being designed only to keep up with inflation, therefore only tackling the excesses of the market, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has flatly refused to consider such proposals as they “interfere with the market.” The only thing that rent certainty could interfere with is the incomes of the one in ten landlords who are TDs and largely members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
The only semi-action taken by the government in relation to rent controls is the proposal by Tanaiste Joan Burton for a body to regulate the housing sector. However, the proposed body will only have authority to report conditions to the government and will have no independent powers of its own, such as introducing rent certainty or rent controls.
In a thoroughly ironic email to TDs and senators, the Irish Property Owners Association (IPOA) warned against “any short-term moves (which may appear to be politically popular) in the long-term interest of society. We cannot be left with a situation of a mass exodus from the sector.” However, what neither the government nor the IPOA seem to realise is that a far more detrimental blow to the Irish economy would be dealt by a mass exodus of students from third-level institutions who can’t afford to pay for accommodation.
Student accommodation is not only a student issue, it is an economic issue. If students cannot afford to pay for accommodation in order to attend third-level institutions there is a real danger that they will simply decide not to attend. There is also the fact that providing accommodation is recognised by the HEA report on education as “a prerequisite for attracting new overseas students.” With cuts in third-level funding being kept in place and a fall in overseas students paying full fees, it is likely that our third-level institutions will drop further in international rankings if there continues to be neither capital investment in student accommodation nor a reintroduction of pre-austerity funding. As Kevin Donoghue pointed out in a recent USI press release: “Education is an investment, not expenditure. Young people and their families have suffered enormously because of the cost of college and not having an education will have a ripple effect on their futures – from training, refining current skills and employability, education is a major factor in the structure of economic recovery.”
Instead of planning for the future this government has played easy politics. It is no wonder that a new USI survey found that 80% of students will not vote to re-elect the current government when one considers that almost 30% of students believe that the USI’s flagship campaign for lobbying the government for extra funding, EducationIs, should concentrate on accommodation issues. Instead of standing firm and doing what is “necessary,” which successive ministers in this government have congratulated themselves on doing during years of austerity, this government has balked at the prospect of coming into conflict with the IPOA and concentrated on the easy job of giving greater tax breaks to multinationals.