The most important issue on the minds of people in Ireland today is housing. Based on a Eurobarometer poll conducted in March 2023, 52% of people in Ireland consider housing to be the foremost issue, significantly higher than the EU average of 8%.
The housing crisis continues to plague students across the country, leaving them grappling with skyrocketing rents, substandard living conditions, and a precarious future. In the face of these challenges, student unions can emerge as powerful forces, advocating for the housing rights of their students and driving meaningful change.
Symbolic action rarely sees tangible results or even a continuation of support for the cause
Symbolic action, an action that represents an important change although it has little practical effect, is rife among many movements. Student unions call for significant change, and the efforts of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) in organising the walkout and the open letter to the college, during the 2022/23 academic year, represent that. However, symbolic action rarely sees tangible results or even a continuation of support for the cause. Unfortunately, the actions taken by the TCDSU over the course of the last academic year, in relation to housing, proved purely symbolic.
Firstly, the walkout organised was in response to the cost of living and accommodation crisis led by the Union of Students Ireland (USI). TCDSU led the walkout on the Trinity campus and saw a mass uptake with 3,500 students attending the rally, at which many spoke of the issues facing students and pledged their solidarity with those struggling. While Beth O’Reilly, then President of USI said “this is just the beginning”, no further action was taken.
Similarly, TCDSU published an Open Letter To Trinity College Dublin On The Housing Crisis in March, which included six demands. The first demand on that list called for “An immediate freeze on all accommodation rents and utilities for the academic year 2023/2024”. The letter finished by stating, “escalated action will be taken if we do not receive further correspondence and a commitment to these demands being met by April 1”. A response was received by April 1, however, it gave no commitment to fulfilling any of the demands. This can be seen through the accommodation fees for 2023/24, which were produced in mid-June and show a cost increase across the board for all Trinity accommodations. While the action of writing an open letter to the college certainly had the right intentions, without follow-through, it has had no effect.
The true power of student unions in addressing housing issues lies in organised action
While symbolic actions serve a role in raising awareness, the true power of student unions in addressing housing issues lies in organised action. Organised action creates public pressure and draws attention to the cause, while also providing opportunities for negotiation and resolution.
By strategically planning and coordinating, student unions can sustain their advocacy and make a lasting impact. By engaging with policymakers and partnering with housing advocacy groups, student unions can effectively push for changes in housing policies and conditions.
The inability of student unions to sustain and escalate their actions might be indicative of them wanting to have a foot in both camps
Organised actions mobilise a collective force that goes beyond symbolism, demonstrating the determination and seriousness of student unions in fighting for housing rights. They generate sustained public pressure, galvanise community involvement, and strengthen the bargaining position of student unions. Through organised efforts, student unions can articulate specific demands, propose solutions, and engage in meaningful dialogues with relevant stakeholders. The inability of student unions to sustain and escalate their actions might be indicative of them wanting to have a foot in both camps, fearing that radical action may alienate the government. However, when it comes to the grave situation we find ourselves in, there can be no place for hesitation.
Universities across the UK have demonstrated the significant impact of organised resistance. During the 2020/21 academic year, Rent Strike movements emerged in 55 out of 140 universities. One noteworthy case study involves the students at the University of Manchester (UoM), who raised concerns regarding unaffordable prices and inadequate living conditions. They demanded a 30% reduction in fees and pledged to withhold rent until their demand was addressed. The University eventually gave in to their demands.
The UoM students continued their activism with another Rent Strike in the 2022/23 academic year. The impact of the rent strike reverberated throughout the system, highlighting the undeniable power of organised action.
It is worth noting that similar demands made by UoM students were made by the TCDSU, including the call for a rent freeze.
As these demands, along with others, were left unmet, the students resorted to strike action. This time, more than 650 students joined forces and collectively withheld £2 million in rent payments, once again protesting against steep housing costs and substandard living conditions. The unity demonstrated by the UoM students over their past two rent strikes proved that collective efforts can yield concrete outcomes and compel those in positions of power to take notice.
Student unions play a crucial role in addressing housing issues and advocating for student rights. But symbolic action is no longer good enough.
Trinity’s accommodation prices have again risen. This time by 2%, which is the legal limit in a Rent Pressure Zone (RPZ). This is a continuation of the trend for College Accommodation and only adds to the rise that we have seen over the past number of years. Between 2017 and 2022, there has been an average (between all rooms) rise of 15.55%. These increases have gone without real pushback, signalling to senior management and the government that the student movement barks, but does not bite.
When the collective voice of students is backed by actions, it possesses the transformative ability to enact meaningful change within institutions.
It is essential that students engage with the TCDSU, however, the TCDSU must give students a reason to engage. They must show that they can unite the student body and that they are not afraid to take action on behalf of their members. When the collective voice of students is backed by actions, it possesses the transformative ability to enact meaningful change within institutions. It is crucial to ensure that our voices are not only heard, but acted upon.