The Student Accommodation Crisis

These days many of Ireland’s newspapers are carrying stories about the drastic shortage of accommodation for students ahead of the start of the new academic year.; see, for example, here and here. Sinn Féin spokesperson on Further and Higher Education, Rose Conway-Walsh, has called on the Government to prepare emergency measures to tackle the crisis “before it’s too late”.

Unfortunately I think it’s already too late. I think this year we’re going to see a complete breakdown of the University system and that’s even without the industrial action that looks likely to take place. Although third-level institutions could have done more, the root cause is the funding model. There’s also a lack of housing nationally which is caused by systematic underinvestment over many years.

To illustrate the problems let’s look at Maynooth University, where I work. Some of the issues here are common across the University sector but some are specific. Maynooth is Ireland’s only real “University Town” in the sense that the University constitutes a very large part of the population; the local football team is even called Maynooth University Town. This is often used as a selling point for the University and indeed Maynooth is a pleasant place to work and study, but this year the special status of Maynooth is exacerbating the national crisis.

The number of permanent residents in Maynooth is about 15,000 and there is a similar number of students (13,700, including about 11000 undergraduates), so the population almost doubles during teaching term. Both populations are steadily rising. The University is recruiting more and more students without comparable increase in student housing – this year looks like being another record intake – but there is also pressure on housing due to other factors, particularly the dramatic expansion of the Intel plant in nearby Leixlip, with many of the new workers trying to find places to live in Maynooth. New properties are being built but at a rate much slower than the demand is increasing.

It is now mid-August, about a month before term starts for returning students. This is the time when foreign students start arriving and looking for accommodation. As a matter of fact I have two PhD students due to start in September, both of whom are new to Ireland. Usually getting in ahead of the home students helps them find somewhere ahead of the rush, but this year there is absolutely no accommodation to be found in Maynooth. I don’t mean there’s a shortage. I mean there isn’t anything. And the incoming first-year students haven’t even started looking yet.

This year’s Leaving Certificate results will not be out until September 5th. After that more than 3000 students will begin looking for accommodation. But the supply is already exhausted in August. Some will find accommodation on campus, but at the moment there are over 800 Ukrainian refugees living in the halls who will have to leave at the end of August to make way for students, but where will they go? And in any case there spaces vacated will only accommodate a fraction of the new arrivals.

There’s also the question of cost. The law of supply and demand is merciless in this situation so as private accommodation is so scarce, the rents payable have soared. That’s fine if you’re a landlord, of course…

The only solution I can see in the short term is temporary accommodation in caravans or tents or perhaps in large buildings such as sports halls. That’s highly unsatisfactory of course, but the alternative is lengthy commuting which is exhausting and which we saw last year leads to widespread disengagement.

Maynooth has just opened a new building on campus, the TSI Building, with large teaching rooms anticipating ever-increasing class sizes driven by the bums-on-seats mandate. But how many students will be able to attend?

New Teaching Room in the TSI Building

I’ve been arguing for over a year that we need to accept the reality that many students will not be able to attend on-campus sessions as we would like them to so we should invest in remote teaching methods to allow them to study at home. We did this during the pandemic emergency and we should do it during the accommodation emergency too. I am appalled that Maynooth has not bothered to install proper lecture capture facilities in its teaching rooms. These facilities were commonplace in the UK long before the pandemic and it’s shocking that they are not deployed routinely in Maynooth. I have better lecture capture facilities in my study at home than the University provides in its lecture theatres.

Although this crisis has been brewing for many months, the Irish Government has done little to help. Individual universities have also been staring into the headlights and doing nothing. Government funding per student has been falling steadily so Universities wishing to maintain their income have been forced to recruit more students, despite the lack of investment in accommodation and other infrastructure.

It’s stressful enough for academic staff having to contend with this looming disaster, but I can hardly imagine how awful it must be for students. All I can do is apologize, which is something the people really responsible will not do.

3 Responses to “The Student Accommodation Crisis”

  1. Does the university have its own student accommodation, as many institutes do? Could this be expanded?

    • telescoper Says:

      It does, but it has limited capacity at the moment (see the post). Of course more could and should be built, but that takes time…

  2. […] an article on the RTÉ website drawing attention to the national crisis in student accommodation. Included in the article is an example of a student at […]

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