Comment & Analysis
Feb 11, 2017

In Trying to Secure Student Accommodation, Universities Face a Multitude of Challenges

As the student accommodation crisis rages on, institutes are trying to secure their own beds, but face plenty of roadblocks.

Simon FoyOpinion Editor
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

For many students, finding suitable accommodation is a plight they face year on year. This is largely as a result of a wider housing crisis currently affecting everyone, from those looking for social housing to renters looking for affordable accommodation in the private rental market, including students. In July 2016, the government launched its action plan to address current housing shortages. The plan includes a target for the government to facilitate the creation of an additional 7,000 student accommodation places by 2019, to establish a new Student Housing Officer and to create a new national student accommodation strategy by the end of this year. Furthermore, the government’s plan also committed to making it easier for higher education institutions and private companies to build student accommodation.

Despite this, the situation at present remains dire, with there being an estimated unfulfilled demand of 25,000 student beds across the country, according to the Higher Education Authority (HEA). In comparison, universities in other countries where accommodation isn’t a big issue, such as the US, often provide universal on-campus residences, often in the form of dormitories. Speaking to The University Times in September, the Dean of Students, Prof Kevin O’Kelly, outlined the problem with attempting to establish similar dormitories on a large scale in Ireland: “This is not like the US where everyone gets dorms. There are a lot of students who want to be in digs, because they want that more family environment.”

At present, Trinity is focused on developing more accommodation places close to its main campus. Speaking to The University Times, Provost Patrick Prendergast discussed how living in Trinity’s Botany Bay in the mid-1980s contributed to his view that Trinity should remain a “residential university”. He discussed how “that’s the kind of university I have a vision for, a residential university. I think it’s very important we build student residences on the main campus. When I became Provost, there was no idea that we’d ever build student residences on the main campus. It was me that pushed that despite facing ‘opposition’ from different parties”.

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The delays in developing Trinity’s Oisín House into a student accommodation complex highlights the difficulties certain universities face in providing greater resident places for their students

Having greater accommodation places closer to the main campus would be the ideal situation for many students, especially since Trinity only provides such residences for a limited number of students, mostly fourth-years, at present. Although there is not the demand to adopt the US’s predominantly dorm-based system here in Ireland, the Provost and others should be commended for trying to expand on-campus accommodation in Irish universities. However, it must be taken into consideration that not every Irish student would want to live in on-campus residences in their university. Apart from the reasons that O’Kelly cites, such as some students wanting a more “family environment”, living in on-campus accommodation means living under stricter rules set by the college which can influence a student’s decision to live on-campus or not.

The delays in developing Trinity’s Oisín House into a student accommodation complex highlights the difficulties certain universities face in providing greater resident places for their students. In July, An Bord Pleanála rejected Trinity’s proposal to create a 280-bed accommodation complex after the national trust for Ireland, An Taisce, appealed the decision, claiming the project was “overscaled”. However, the revised proposal of a 250-bed complex was approved by Dublin City Council in December with construction set to begin this year.

Prendergast expressed his frustration at the roadblocks faced by Trinity in acquiring new spaces for accommodation, outlining that “[Trinity] have been bursting a gut to get more student residences. We’ve looked at, I’d say, ten different sites around the city in the last two years. It’s really made me angry that we haven’t been able to do a deal on any of these”. He continued by citing some examples: “The one on Gardiner St … two stories now … I think it’s going to go until five. We were very close to getting that. That would have provided 400 student residences for Trinity College on Gardiner St … [within] walking distance to the main campus.”

The blame, therefore, cannot be put at the Provost’s feet. These examples highlight the lengths College is going to to acquire new spaces for accommodation near campus. When asked should the government be helping to acquire and develop student accommodation, Prendergast said he’s “given up on the government for this sort of thing”. Although Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, TD Simon Coveney, has a tough job attempting to address the current housing problem – which includes the ongoing homelessness crisis – there seems to be little real initiative towards addressing the problems students face in acquiring affordable accommodation from within Leinster House. Indeed, the Labour Party’s spokesperson for Urban Regeneration, TD Joe Costello, recently criticised the construction industry’s focus on student accommodation in the wake of the wider national housing crisis.

According to O’Kelly, Trinity and other third-level institutions are left with three options to deal with the current situation: “Developing our own sites that we have; procuring new sites and developing them; and leasing [new sites].” However, he is unsure about College’s future relationship with student housing companies because these companies know they can fill these accommodation places without the help of Trinity or its brand. As Dean of Students, O’Kelly would be much happier if Trinity owned and controlled the accommodation for its students because Trinity “can manage as much as possible the price, but we can also put in our pastoral care model, which is excellent”.

With the number of students applying for third-level education increasing annually, the only solution to the accommodation crisis is to build more student complexes and houses in the private rental market for students to rent

In spite of the many difficulties students continue to face in finding suitable accommodation, there are some positive signs. Even though it won’t house as many students as previously expected, the construction of Oisín House is a step in the right direction. Furthermore, the announcement last month that a “student village” – containing 541 beds that will adjoin part of the new Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) Grangegorman campus – will replace the Park Shopping Centre is yet another encouraging development.

With the number of students applying for third-level education increasing annually, the only solution to the accommodation crisis is to build more student complexes and houses in the private rental market for students to rent. In this regard, the draconian restrictions Dublin City Council places on the height of buildings in the city should be reassessed.

Notwithstanding that, there needs to be greater cooperation between third-level institutions, private construction companies and the government in order to build an adequate number of residences for students. Relying on that, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

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