Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Questions (4)

Mattie McGrath


4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the efforts he is making to provide dedicated student accommodation in the recently established university towns of Clonmel and Thurles, County Tipperary. [50015/21]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Tá an Teachta Michael Collins chun Ceist Uimh. 4 a chur in áit an Teachta Mattie McGrath.

I want to wish Deputy Mattie McGrath the best. He has had a surgical procedure and is out this week. I also echo the congratulations to the Minister and his wife on the birth of their baby boy.

What efforts are the Government making to provide dedicated student accommodation in the recently established university towns of Clonmel and Thurles in County Tipperary?

I thank Deputy Michael Collins for his best wishes and send my best wishes to Deputy Mattie McGrath and wish him a speedy recovery. He would normally be here very vociferously asking this question and I am sure he will be monitoring my reply very carefully.

I was delighted to see the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest open its doors at the start of the month to become the third technological university in the State. The communities in areas where there are campuses of the new technological university will experience a range of benefits. Clonmel is now a university town. Thurles is now a university town. You can now access university education for the first time in County Tipperary. The universities will attract more students, help communities to create and retain skills and employment, and act as a catalyst for research, innovation and enterprise. This will be critical to fostering our SME sector as well attracting increasing levels of investment, including foreign direct investment. It will help educationally but also contribute to regional and socio-economic development which is so important in provincial and rural Ireland.  

The development of purpose-built student accommodation is an important part of increasing the attractiveness of the new technological university to prospective students. As I have discussed with others this morning, we are currently engaging with technological universities to invite them to prepare to send forward proposals on how they can develop their own purpose-built student accommodation.

I visited Thurles and Clonmel very recently and visited the Mary Immaculate College campus in Thurles. From memory, it has accommodation for around 200 students and has proposals to develop more. The chief executive of its county council was there. I see great potential in that project. There are also many exciting developments in Clonmel. We will shortly invite the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest and other technological universities to bring forward proposals and work with them to make sure they can access the borrowing framework to deliver those projects.

While the establishment of a new technological university in the County Tipperary towns of Clonmel and Thurles and the resumption of on-campus learning is very welcome, these recent changes have resulted in an increase in the number of students seeking student accommodation in this area compared with previous years. The university towns of Clonmel and Thurles have no dedicated student accommodation. That is a massive concern to Deputy Mattie McGrath and to Councillor Máirín McGrath in County Tipperary. There is no accommodation for students of the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest. In order to secure County Tipperary's future as an educational centre, there needs to be purpose-built affordable student accommodation in these towns. Like many other towns and cities around the country, there is already limited accommodation available. The cost and availability of student accommodation are barriers to accessing education. The lack of student accommodation is resulting in students commuting long distances, staying in hotels, hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation or couch-surfing. This leaves students unable to concentrate on their studies or simply not being able to start college at all.

I agree that I would like to see our technological universities develop accommodation. I see it as important for students and their well-being and for regional development that people will choose to come to the regions and access their university education as well as people from the regions being able to access it in their own areas. I see a huge benefit from a regional development and socio-economic point of view. I am sending out a very clear message on the record of the Dáil and before this House today that the Government, through Housing for All, is putting in place an ability for our technological universities to access borrowing through a borrowing framework. This is a significant policy shift and a significant improvement. My message to all technological universities, including the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, is to prepare their proposals and to prepare their ideas.

I know from my visit to County Tipperary recently that there is no shortage of ambition or ideas coming from Thurles and Clonmel. I look forward to working with Deputy Mattie McGrath to try and advance them.

I thank the Minister. Deputy Mattie McGrath and Councillor Máirín McGrath were watching the budget closely yesterday. They were more than surprised that there was no mention of student accommodation in this year's budget, despite the housing crisis receiving significant attention. This has been described as "disappointing" by the president of Trinity College's student union. The announcement of an increase of 3,300 in third level places without any action on student accommodation illustrates this Government's disjointed strategies. This situation is important to the people of County Tipperary. As I said, they welcome the technological university in the towns of Clonmel and Thurles, but accommodation remains a huge issue for the people of County Tipperary and the people of Cork South-West. It is a huge issue for people in the constituency I represent because people are trying to commute to Cork and back. These are massive journeys of an hour or an hour and a half.

I heard Deputy Danny Healy-Rae speaking about Kerry last night. He told the same story of people from Kerry who are going to university in Cork. They have to live at home because they cannot get accommodation. The price of accommodation is spiralling out of control. People in Cork South-West have come to me to say that their children who attend college in Galway cannot get accommodation, so they are all couch-surfing. It is no way for children to have to live when they are working on their education.

I clearly outlined in this House this morning my views on the changes and policy shifts that are needed for student accommodation. I also outlined the actions that I am taking in this regard along with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and the wider Government. I get a little frustrated when people talk about yesterday's budget and then reference capital projects that were not included in it. Yesterday's budget was largely a current budget. We took a number of measures on the cost of living and affordability, including for students. Many students, including those in the Deputy’s constituency, will benefit from significant changes I introduced on the adjacency rate. Up until now, a student's family home had to be more than 45 km from their college in order to access the higher grant rate. That has now changed to 30 km. For some students, that will mean an increase of €2,000 a year in their grants. We did, therefore, take concrete measures yesterday. I accept that we have more to do to help students, along with all citizens, with the cost of living.

On the capital side of it, the national development plan, which was announced last week, significantly increased the capital allocation to my Department, to the higher education sector and to the further education sector. When it comes to student accommodation, the model that is likely to be used will ensure that these institutions can access the borrowing framework. The help that we are likely to provide to the technological universities will be in accessing finance. I want to sit down with the Housing Finance Agency to look at how we can progress the exciting proposals that no doubt will come from County Tipperary and the Deputy’s own region of Cork South-West. I look forward to keeping in touch with Deputies Michael Collins and Mattie McGrath on these matters.