Barbara Scully: 'We are the lucky ones - but equality of access to third-level education is a myth'
Last May, as my youngest was attending her final classes before the Leaving Cert, I wrote a piece for this paper in jubilant celebration at the end of the school run.
College, I figured, would be her own business and something she could manage herself. Just like an exasperated, exhausted dragon, I was out.
I am still out, but in a week's time she gets the results which will determine her college place (please God, fingers crossed and all that). But one thing we know for sure is that she will be going to college on the bus. I will have to cough up for a Leap Card to facilitate the commute but that is all - well, along with registration fees, books and so on. We are very grateful we are spared the scramble so many families will face in trying to find their child a place to live and the stress of having to negotiate the funds to pay for it.
Living in Dublin, one may be forgiven for thinking the student accommodation crisis might be over. New blocks of student accommodation seem to be springing up all over the place. According to Rory Hearne, we already have 6,000 new purpose-built units with another 14,000 in the pipeline by 2024.
However, like much about the housing crisis in this country, it is all smoke and mirrors. These units are largely being built by private developers whose interest, obviously, is to maximise profit. So they are very expensive, just like a lot of the 'fast-tracked' development under way in and around the capital which will do much to line the pockets of the already wealthy investors but little or nothing to help those trapped in homelessness.
So, who will be availing of these new student accommodation units? Clearly those who can afford it, and many of those will be foreign students coming to study in Ireland. In fact, in Dublin it is estimated only 20pc of these new units will be rented to Irish students, leaving most parents with a real struggle to find something more affordable which, with the private rental sector as it is, must be nigh on impossible. Colleges have also hiked rental costs this year, some by as much as 11pc, as reported in this paper yesterday.
Equality of access to third-level education is now a complete myth. Many parents will be forced into taking out loans to cover the costs of sending their offspring away to college. So this, it seems, is the new normal.
It is 40 years since I left school. So much has improved since then and yet it is a strange irony to look back on the days of student flats in Rathmines with affection: the torn lino, the shared bathroom, the phone in the hall, the smell of the 'superser' - and I was only visiting.
Is it really progress that we seem to be following the UK and US in having our kids finish college with a debt to repay? I don't think so. And like so much else that is wrong with this country, it is families on lower incomes who are most affected by the student accommodation crisis. I have no doubt it will actually prevent some kids from taking up their college offers. Are we OK with that?
Next week, as I hold my breath waiting to find out which Dublin college my youngest will be able to attend, I will ponder on the best time to talk to her about getting a part-time job to help fund her through the next three or four years. But I know I am lucky. Meanwhile, all over the country there will be other parents immediately plunged into the nightmare of trying to find and fund accommodation for their child.
We should all be angry Ireland is rapidly becoming a country of two halves... you know the ones. And in this case the inequality is driven by where you live. But make no mistake, it is caused by Government's hands-off approach to housing in their ongoing belief the market will sort it.