Talk of rent hikes in campus accommodation hit an all-time high this week. A whopping seven out of eight of Ireland’s universities have now announced that they will be raising prices by between three and four per cent, which is the maximum amount allowed by rent pressure-zone legislation.
Predictably enough, students have shown their outrage by staging protests, sleep-outs, and rallies.
What may have taken some by surprise, however, was the hard-nosed response of certain university leaders, who showed zero sympathy for the many students increasingly being priced out of their education.
University College Dublin (UCD) President Andrew Deeks called student reaction to the rent hikes “emotional”, while Provost Patrick Prendergast said that students living on-campus cannot expect the cost of their accommodation to be shouldered by students renting in the private market.
This doesn’t only speak to a lack of understanding of the hardship many students are facing – it’s also peculiar that university heads appear so ambivalent about the clear reputational damage that arises from protestors storming college buildings and speaking to national media about their plight.
Deeks and Prendergast would no doubt point to the fact that demand outstrips supply for on-campus accommodation, despite the astronomical costs. But students’ options are desperately limited. Many in a bind may continue to apply for on-campus rooms, yet lend their support to the students’ unions promising to fight these rent increases for as long as it takes universities to reverse them.
But while rooms may continue to be filled, the conversation around the student accommodation crisis has shifted form. Words like “exploitative”, “toxic”, and “inaccessible” – previously reserved mostly for luxury student accommodation provided by private companies – are now embedded in the conversation about college accommodation.
Colleges are insisting that these price hikes are necessary in order to increase the supply of accommodation – and perhaps, given the higher education funding crisis, they are. But it remains the case that the focus of student resistance has now shifted away from overpriced, luxury student rooms to universities themselves.
Universities may be able to justify rent increases to themselves in the short term, and plaster over financial cracks, but if they’re not careful, they could be risking very real reputational damage.