Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, third-level students have undoubtedly been disregarded. While the transition to online learning is necessary to curb the spread of Covid-19, many have criticised both the government, and the colleges themselves for taking so long to announce this, creating a situation where students paid rent and secured accommodation for which they now have no use. The tapering of the pandemic unemployment payment, the country’s high rents, and the looming economic crash has exacerbated stress for students. Budget 2021 came at a time of heightened economic anxiety, and utterly false reassurance was offered by Darragh O’Brien, Minister for Housing, when he referred to Budget 2021 as a “housing for all budget.”
“30 % of the total housing budget is dedicated to HAP payments, which ultimately means more money being poured into the pockets of landlords in private rental.”
Budget 2021 received widespread and justifiable criticism from opposition TDs. Róisín Shortall, leader of the Social Democrats deemed the document “unambitious.” While the budget includes a Help to Buy scheme and Affordable Purchase Equity scheme, this caters to homeowners, and renters are largely ignored. The budget pledges to increase funding for the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), and 30 % of the total housing budget is dedicated to HAP payments, yet this ultimately means more money being poured into the pockets of landlords in private rental, leaving the door open to the hyper exploitation renters have unfortunately become accustomed to. As well as this, the government has asserted that €133 million will allow a further 800 new households to be supported under the Rental Accommodation Scheme next year. However, the government had already promised 86,000 homes through HAP and RAS, in the Rebuilding Ireland scheme. The budget merely attempts to obfuscate the previous broken promises of the government with regards to housing.
The budget also contained lacklustre promises about building social housing, and also pandered to developers rather than renters or council tenants. Cian O’Callaghan of the Social Democrats pointed out that the government should be taking advantage of the current low interest rates by “borrowing to directly build thousands of affordable homes,” as the Budget includes funding for just 400 cost rental homes . “The Shared Equity Scheme was inspired by property developers who lobbied…to have it included in today’s budget.” As a result, the SES has the capacity to keep prices inflated, “much to developers’ delight.”
“While Trinity and NUI Galway have offered refunds to students who wish to leave their college accommodation due to the implementation of level five, many private landlords, and student accommodation complexes failed to follow suit.”
USI President, Lorna Fitzpatrick commented earlier this year that “if…face-to-face learning is delayed, the government must act immediately to protect and support student renters. We cannot see a repeat of what happened in March where students were left hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of euro out of pocket due to deposits and prepaid rent not being returned. Fitzpatrick continued “with new leases having been signed, students will be paying rent on rooms they can’t use or don’t need. If there is a delay in on-campus learning, those who have agreed contracts and leases must be supported to delay the start dates of those leases or to be refunded for rooms that are no longer needed. Institutions and accommodation providers must provide flexible provisions for students.” While Trinity and NUI Galway have offered refunds to students who wish to leave their college accommodation due to the implementation of level five, many private landlords, and student accommodation complexes failed to follow suit.
Darragh Quinn is a third year medical student in NUI Galway. Speaking to Trinity News, he said “I’m one of many students who have paid for student accommodation in advance of the academic semester who have no use for it as a result of being allocated zero on-campus hours. We were under the impression we would have on-campus hours and were urged by the university to secure accommodation, to then be told we were entirely online weeks after we were made to pay.” While NUI Galway offered refunds to any students who no longer have use for their on-campus accommodation because of Covid-19, Quinn continued “only one private student accommodation complex in Galway (Menlo) has offered the same.”
“The housing plan was not the only let down for students in Budget 2021, which favoured small financial consolations over a sustainable, long sighted approach to solving the third level funding crisis.”
Students and young people generally have been some of the most hard hit by the pandemic, and the fact that the unambitious budget seems to cater to home owners and developers, and makes promises about social housing that the government’s record indicates they are unlikely to keep, displays an apathetic attitude towards renters. The housing plan was not the only let down for students in Budget 2021, which favoured small financial consolations over a sustainable, long sighted approach to solving the third level funding crisis. While €50 million was pledged to “financial assistance” in the sector, no detail was given as to how, where, or to whom this would be allocated.
As we enter a second lockdown, there is no increase in the PUP. Many students are paying through the nose for accommodation for which they have no use, while they complete their degree completely online, despite previous empty promises from colleges and the government. The budget’s disregard for renters, a group in which students are significantly over represented, is yet another indication of how students have been left behind during the pandemic.