Today’s reports of student accommodation price hikes reflect a worrying pattern in the Irish housing market. In Trinity, the cost of a room in Goldsmith Hall – hardly a building in mint condition – has risen by €389 since last year, with similar increases across all of Ireland’s cash-starved colleges.
This trend, of course, will come as no surprise to any student in the market for a place to live. Last week, The University Times reported that 93 per cent of student accommodation built in Dublin since 2016 costs at least €800 per month.
In a statement that now seems laughably out of touch, Minister for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, welcomed the surge in availability – which, in accordance with the National Student Accommodation Strategy, is designed to “increase supply and so assist in moderating rental costs for students”. The laws of supply and demand apply – but it’s disingenuous to suggest that rent prices this high are an inevitability.
With a decade-long funding crisis leaving them starved of finances, universities like Trinity have had to become increasingly creative in how they make their money. The College has done very well to raise revenue through philanthropy and commercialisation, and its application for an exemption to the local property tax shows that the College is cognisant of the cost of its accommodation. This shows possibilities are out there if universities put enough energy into exploring them.
Underfunded as they are, universities that allow rapidly rising rents become the norm are playing into a dangerous culture
But at some point we have to put the boot down and insist that passing the costs of education onto over-burdened parents and students is not just unacceptable but patently unsustainable for Ireland’s future.
It’s depressingly predictable to hear stories of private companies buying up lots in Dublin and repurposing them into luxury accommodation complexes far beyond the needs of the average student. But if we have any faith in our institutes of learning, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that we should be asking more of them. Underfunded as they are, universities that allow rapidly rising rents become the norm are, whether by design or not, playing into a dangerous culture that really could make education unaffordable.
We now live in a country where it’s no longer even remotely surprising to hear stories of extortionate rents pricing students out of Dublin’s housing market. And, if the experts are to be believed, the issue is only going to get worse in the coming years. Make no mistake: we are in the eye of the storm when it comes to student housing. This is a legitimate crisis of identity for a sector that was, just this week, flagged by the government as a risk area for the economy.
If the only way universities can fund improvements to their accommodation is by taking it out of the price range of most students, then they shouldn’t be doing it in the first place
Many of the universities that have increased their accommodation costs justify it by pointing to renovations they have carried out on their accommodation in recent years. But most students just want a warm bed, a functioning bathroom, a desk and a roof over their heads – and universities can’t have it both ways. Of course the government should be subsidising improvements to Ireland’s university-owned student accommodation, in order to keep the country globally competitive. But it isn’t, and if the only way universities can fund aesthetic improvements to their accommodation is by taking it out of the price range of most students, then there’s a strong argument that they shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
The caveat, of course, is that universities clearly aren’t lacking in students ready to pay for their accommodation, even as they hitch prices higher and higher. On the contrary – demand has probably never been higher. But when you take a step back and consider the fact that 4 in 10 parents last year were plunged into debt by the costs of their child’s education, you realise we’re hurtling headlong into a system that makes everyone a loser.
Universities need to keep themselves afloat. But they have to find better ways of bringing in revenue than hiking accommodation costs – not only for students’ sake but for the future of Irish higher education.