Students would pay less for on campus accommodation if ensuite bathrooms were not the norm, according to the former provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Patrick Prendergast.
Dr Prendergast was addressing the Oireachtas education committee in his new role as chair of the South East Technological University (SETU), which was formally established earlier this month.
The committee was discussing funding and borrowing for the technological university (TU) sector with Dr Prendergast and the chairs of two other TUs, Jimmy Deenihan of Munster TU and Josephine Fehily of TU Shannon: Midlands Midwest.
Traditional universities have campus accommodation for students, but it was not practice in institutes of technology, most of which have merged to create five technological universities (TUs).
While campus accommodation is convenient and takes students out of the pressurised private rented market, many cannot afford the rates charged by universities which have to pay back the cost of borrowing.
Dr Prendergast told the committee that student accommodation was “a very complicated thing, a lot of it is built to double up to be rented over the summer; it is high quality with ensuites in every room.”
But he said in many other countries, student accommodation had “bathrooms at the end of corridors, shared bathrooms” which were cheaper to build and “perhaps we should think in those terms”.
He said there was probably scope for a task force across the higher education sector generally on how best to provide student accommodation.
Mr Deenihan said the ability of TUs to borrow money for infrastructure such as student accommodation was an issue.
While it was provided for in legislation, it was dependent on an enabling framework from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which had not yet been introduced. This was placing TUs at a disadvantage to traditional universities, which can access financial markets.
Dr Deenihan said access to such funding was crucial in terms of capital development in particular, along with Government measures to make the cost of construction affordable.
“It is essential if TUs are to be part of the solution to the student accommodation crisis this country is facing,” he said.
Ms Fehily said even if campus accommodation was currently available, many of her students could not afford it, and its provision would depend on being “creative about how many you fit in”.
She said in recent years they had seen a student body that had become heavily dependent on public transport and travelling long distances home, or couch surfing.
She said accommodation wasn’t just about a place to sleep, but about “not arriving exhausted and going home in the evening”.
It meant students did not join societies and engage with college cultural life. Ms Fehily said students’ wellbeing was connected with having good housing “but it has to be housing that can be afforded”.
The chairs of the three governing bodies also warned that TUs would not be able to develop properly if they are not funded on the same basis as traditional universities.
Mr Deenihan said the current 60-40 split in State funding in favour of traditional universities is “arbitrary and not justifiable”, especially because the actual breakdown of respective students between the two sectors was closer to 50-50.
Mr Deenihan said that the funding model “perpetuates a two-tier system, which is not in the best interests of students, staff, or indeed the Irish taxpayers who fund it.”
He said that while traditional universities were given an allocation per student, the budget funding for technological universities (TUs) was “set and static”.
It meant “an increase in student numbers reduces the funded income available per student. This is a disincentive to growth, and the polar opposite of what is required”.
He added: “In contrast, traditional universities, were funded per student and thereby incentivised to grow.”
As well as the 60-40 split and the static student funding, the State also pays less for postgraduate students, including PhD students, in TUs than in traditional universities, he said.
The Government has recently approved a new funding policy for higher education involving an investment of €307m in core funding, but there are no details yet of how it will be allocated.
The new funding commitment is intended to help address a long-standing deficit in the sector, driven by Exchequer cuts implemented after the banking crash of more than a decade ago.
But also comes at a time when the new TUs have been established, with more ambitious mandates than the institutes of technology they have replaced.
Mr Deenihan told the committee that while they welcomed the €307m announcement, there were issues that needed to be addressed in order to create a “new and fit-for-purpose funding model” for the TUs.