The enormous increase in the number of students in third level education over the past several decades and the rapid population growth in Irish cities have created a situation where there is fierce competition for space to live in Dublin and in other cities that host third level educational institutions throughout the country. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has estimated that 25,000 new beds for students are needed nation wide and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has stated that the current lack of accommodation has forced some students to drop out of college and has led to a host of negative situations among students who do manage to stay in college. These include taking on unaffordable leases, sleeping on friend’s couches or in poor quality accommodation and commuting from other counties to study in Dublin. Here, Trinity News InDepth looks at the changes in Irish demographics and third level attendance that have created this crisis, and some of the suggested solutions, with a focus on the crisis in Dublin and in Trinity.
The total overall number of students attending third level educational institutions in Ireland has consistently risen every single year since at least 1965 and in 2014 there were roughly 217,520 students studying in third level institutions throughout the country, once Universities (postgraduate and undergraduate degrees), institutes of technology and teacher training courses are all taken into account. While accurate numbers for 2016 are not available, given the rising number of CAO and other applications to Irish college it is likely that the present number of students is even higher. There are currently over 80,000 full time students in Dublin alone.
Each year, the number of students looking for a space to live increases as the number of new applications to study in Irish colleges increases. A record 76.000 applications were made to Irish college courses via the CAO in 2016 when applications to level 6, 7 and 8 courses are all considered. Of these, 18,469 applications were made to study in Trinity. Of course, not all CAO applications are successful, and foreign students apply to Irish colleges through means other than the CAO, so these figures give only an estimate of how much the student cohort has increased this year. However, they do give a strong sense of the massive increase in demand for places in 3rd level education that has occurred in the recent past and that is driving the shortage of living space for incoming and current third level students. The graph below shows the rise in the number of students attending third level over the past fifty years, especially the dramatic spike in the last ten years.
Enrolment in third level education over the past 40 years:
At the same time as the rise in the number of students attending third level education, Ireland’s population has grown. Based on Eurostat figures from a 2014 survey, the republic of Ireland has the fastest population growth in EU, with the highest birth rate and second lowest death rate. The graph below shows how Ireland’s population has grown over the past 50 years. At the same time as overall population growth, internal migration has occurred.
For the most part people have moved from rural areas to cities, often cities that host third level institutions. Thus we have a larger population that is more concentrated in cities than it was before. Even before the issue of student accommodation is taken into account, Ireland’s cities have failed to respond adequately to the housing needs created by this population increase.
There are currently 730 families in emergency accommodation throughout Ireland and an estimated 5,100 homeless according to the Peter McVerry Trust. The need to host students who want to live close to their chosen college creates an even greater difficulty for college cities.
Population growth from 1966 to present:
Comparing the two graphs, it is clear that student numbers have risen at a higher rate than the population has grown: not only are there more people, but a much higher percentage of them are attending college. In 1965 roughly 0.63% of the population was enrolled full time in a third level institute, while in 2014 that proportion had climbed to roughly 4.73%. This is a positive trend in terms of access to third level education, but it also means that the infrastructure around Irish universities and colleges was not originally designed to cater to as many people as it is now expected to. The accommodation crisis highlights this issue, as neither the buildings belonging to the colleges themselves nor the buildings in the surrounding cities have sufficient space for all the students from outside the city who want an education.
Trinity College offers just over 1000 student living spaces in Halls, in addition to over 600 bedrooms in campus accommodation. Trinity has an overall student population of roughly 17,000 students. While many students continue living at home during college, many others wish to move out, so the accommodation offered by Trinity itself is not nearly enough to cater for all of its students. The overall amount of housing suitable for student living in Dublin is difficult to estimate, as the city has very little purpose built student accommodation outside of college campuses. Most apartments rented by students were not built specifically to house college students, so college students are competing with working adults and families for places to rent. Many landlords prefer not to rent to students, seeing adult tenants and families as more in need of the accommodation and possibly more in need of the space. Students are therefore at a disadvantage when trying to secure some of the limited accommodation that does exist.
Naturally, given market laws of supply and demand, the shortage of accommodation in conjunction with the spike in demand has led to a rise in prices. A recent report from property website Daft.ie showed that the cost of renting in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford rose by between 8 and 10% over the past year depending on the city and the average rent price nationally has risen by 30% since 2012. Based on the DIT student cost of living guide produced for Daft.ie, the national mean average rent paid per month by students is €325, while the mean for Dublin specifically is higher at €418 per month, although Dublin prices are wildly different in different parts of the county. In some cases these prices have forced students from other counties to commute daily to their Dublin colleges, as they simply cannot afford to pay the rent on top of other student living expenses.
“Digs” are currently being touted as a possible solution to the squeeze on living space around colleges. “Digs” refers to a situation where a student lives in the spare room of a family living near their college of choice for five or seven days a week in exchange for paying rent. This allows students and local residents to live in the same building and so hopefully allows more people’s accommodation needs to be satisfied using a smaller number of buildings and less land. The number of students currently living in digs is unknown, and it is very difficult to estimate how many families in Dublin or other university cities could feasibly rent out a room, so how much of the crisis can be solved by students availing of digs remains unclear.
Other possible solutions to the crisis were suggested in a report on Irish student accommodation issues that was written by the HEA in 2015. An edited version of the report was eventually published and is available on the HEA website. The main suggestion of the published version is the creation of an interdepartmental steering group to examine the reasons for the accommodation crisis and try to incentivize the creation of new student housing. The published version left out several suggestions from the original report (which was disclosed to the Irish Times due to a Freedom of information request). These included implementing a 0 VAT rate on student accommodation and making on-campus bed spaces exempt from Local Property Tax (LPT). The second suggestion was dropped partly due to the Department of Finance saying that exemptions to LPT currently applied only to charitable organisations and should not be expanded to third level educational institutions.
The Department of Finance also claimed that reducing VAT on student accommodation to 0 percent would not be allowed under Article 110 of the EU VAT directive, which prevents EU member states from introducing new exemptions on VAT outside of specific circumstances laid out in the rest of the directive. The Department of Finance seemed similarly unimpressed by the HEA’s suggestion to incentivise the creation of new student accommodation via a special tax credit system, saying that “It is difficult to analyse the document properly and provide detailed observations on such scant material” and that the idea showed “a fundamental lack of understanding of the tax system”.
The current accommodation crisis presents a massive challenge to third level institutions as they attempt to widen their reach and take in ever increasing number of students in an equitable manner that is accessible to students from both urban and rural backgrounds. As there is no sign that current trends in Irish population growth and increase in number of students attending third level education are likely to change, creative solutions to finding more space for students will need to be sought. It is necessary that other parts the Irish government work closely with bodies like the HEA and the USI to come up long term solutions to ensure that the crisis dies down as well as short term solutions to give the current crop of third level students a place to live while they study.
The dismissal of the HEA’s suggestions out of hand by the Department of Finance shows the wrong attitude to the crisis. Alternative avenues to procuring further accommodation need to be explored and oddball suggestions like the ones in the original HEA report need to be thoroughly analysed (though possibly reworked) to ensure that viable solutions to lessen the crisis are actually used. The recent refusal by an Bord Pleanála to grant planning permission for the development of student accommodation via redevelopment of Oisín House on Pearse Street further indicates the government does not appreciate the urgency of the current student accommodation crisis. Plans to build a 500 bed student apartment at the former Industrial Development Agency site on Gardiner street, to be finished by 2017, are a more positive development.
With the current accommodation crisis unlikely to abate any time soon, a number of resources have been created to give students a better chance of finding a place to live while they study. Daft.ie will be the first port of call for many students looking to rent, and in addition findahome.ie, myhome.ie, rent.ie and ie.easyroommate.com all offer services that should reduce the difficulty of finding somewhere to live. Those looking for digs can check out getdigs.ie and homes.usi.ie. In addition to these websites, the Student union in Trinity run an Accommodation advisory service which offers a drop in service in August, September and January in addition to general advice throughout the year. Student unions in other colleges run similar services. The noticeboard emails you will receive on your tcd email account often list places to rent. Lastly be sure to contact anyone you know who lives in the city you want to live in in case they can give you any leads. Best of luck!