Saturday 17 August 2019

Rory Hearne: 'Students' futures at risk as housing crisis takes toll on education and mental health'

Stress: Students commuting huge distances, working long hours, or being sick or depressed due to poor housing miss out on much of the experience of third-level. Stock Image
Stress: Students commuting huge distances, working long hours, or being sick or depressed due to poor housing miss out on much of the experience of third-level. Stock Image

Rory Hearne

We are mid-summer but many students and their parents are already worrying about where they will get accommodation for the coming academic year.

The student accommodation crisis that will hit this autumn is going to be the worst so far. Yet this might seem surprising given that in Dublin city centre new student accommodation blocks, along with hotels and offices, are the main things getting built. Some 6,000 purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) units have been built mainly by private real-estate investor developers already, with another 14,000 planned by 2024. The problem is they are expensive and out of reach of most students. In Dublin, only 20pc of the new units are rented to students from Ireland. And while existing student accommodation is now under rent pressure zone legislation, the 14,000 new units coming on stream will be exempt from rent caps.

With student numbers increasing by 27pc by 2030, the new student units being built will continue to set ever higher market rents and therefore will not address the domestic demand for accommodation. Most Irish students will be stuck seeking accommodation in the crisis-ridden private rental sector. To add to this, these investor funds not only profit from inflated rents but also pay minimal tax.

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The student housing crisis has reached the point where it now affects students' educational outcomes and their mental health. And it's not just Dublin but also cities and towns across the country.

Housing is now so expensive it is a key factor in deciding what college to go to and even whether a student can attend college at all. Students are being forced to turn down their preferred course when they can't find accommodation. This worsens inequality in access to education. Just like the wider housing crisis, it is those from lower income households who are most affected. They can't afford to pay huge deposits and rents. They work long hours in jobs during their studies to cover accommodation costs - affecting their education. Where is the Republic of Opportunity for them?

Increasingly students from middle-income families are also affected. Students have to commute huge distances, some for up to five hours a day. They can only attend a minimal amount of lectures. They do not get to form relationships with other students, get involved in sports, student clubs or college events, and thus their overall college experience is diminished. Third level is about knowledge, qualifications and skills, but also personal and social development. It is about nurturing a student to become a full citizen. It is about raising awareness and engagement in issues affecting society and motivating them to go out into the world and shape it for the better.

But students stressed out from commuting huge distances, working long hours, or being sick or depressed from damp or overcrowded accommodation, are excluded from this formative experience.

I have seen students affected by homelessness, exhausted and suffering distress. How can they fulfil their potential in their degrees? They are not competing on a level playing field under this stress resulting from the housing crisis.

Within education policy there is insufficient attention paid to the important role of affordable, quality and secure accommodation for students to successfully achieve their education. And similarly within housing policy, little consideration is given to student accommodation and its effect on the wider housing system. As is the case all too often in Ireland, policymakers deal with these as distinct, rather than interdependent, issues.

Unfortunately, many in Government and colleges and universities are not taking the student housing crisis seriously. Students are increasingly treated as commodities. The underfunding of third level means colleges are under huge pressure to use student accommodation (and the high fees paid by international students) as a cash cow to plug the holes. This is short-sighted and unfair on students.

Education is a key way to reduce inequalities and make a fairer society yet the student housing crisis is worsening educational inequalities.

To ensure equal access to and quality of education, the Government must ensure sufficient affordable quality student accommodation is available across the country.

New legislation is needed for an affordability rent-setting mechanism for purpose-built student accommodation enforced by the RTB. PBSA should also be required to allocate 40pc of units to students from low-income backgrounds.

As the crisis worsens, students are vulnerable to rent hikes and substandard conditions by landlords taking advantage of the crisis. Students need to be informed of their rights as tenants, of landlords' obligations, and legislation needs to be enforced.

Most importantly, a real supply of affordable student accommodation is needed. Colleges should be adequately funded to build it on campuses, which is public land after all.

Irish Independent

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