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Student Accommodation

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (58)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

58. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to deal with the issue of student poverty and, in particular, the chronic shortage of affordable student specific accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58585/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I wish to return to the question of student poverty and accommodation costs. I know Rome was not built overnight, but if one lived in Dublin 8 one would swear that student accommodation, built by corporate developers that charge up to €1,800 to live in it for 8 months, was built overnight. It is all over the place. It is totally owned by corporate developers and is very expensive so that only the very wealthy or overseas students can afford it, or if they cannot be let, a change of use is sought for them. What will the Minister do about it? Where will we accommodate students because they are being pushed completely out of the market?

The first thing we have done is change the law, not once but twice, on student accommodation and student renters. The first thing the Union of Students in Ireland asked us to do - I think the Deputy co-sponsored legislation on this - was to change the rule so that a student renter could not be asked to pay four, five or six months' rent up front, which was happening. The law is now very clear. One month's rent up front and one month's deposit is the maximum amount anyone can be charged. The second thing the Union of Students in Ireland and the Deputy's legislation asked us to do was to make sure that students in purpose-built student accommodation only had to give 28 days' notice if they had to leave their accommodation for family or whatever reasons. We took both of those requests on board.

The Union of Students in Ireland, Opposition and Government Deputies and college authorities have told us that the next step must be a new model for student accommodation. I will not stand here and say the model we have at present is working, because it is not. I will be honest in that we need to put in place a new model and we need college-owned affordable accommodation. In my answer to Deputy Bacik, I outlined how I intend to do that. We have set up a working group with the colleges, between the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and my Department, to consider what the new model will look like. I would like to see a cost rental model that works for students put in place. I genuinely believe that could make a substantial difference. What we will not do is provide cheap access to State borrowings, if we do not get an assurance from a university that there will be an affordability piece as well, because we have seen too much college-owned accommodation that is beyond affordable.

I expect to bring forward a new model of student accommodation in the new year. I have already told institutions to prepare their pipeline of projects. I will give the Deputy one example, namely, the Technological University Dublin, which is either the first or second largest institution in the State. It does not own one student room because until now it has not been able to borrow under various borrowing frameworks. We are changing that through the Housing for All strategy. I am saying that we need to change the model. We need to build a lot more college-owned affordable accommodation. We delivered on the two request that were asked of us by the students' unions and Opposition Deputies last year, and we will work with Deputies on this too.

I am glad the Minister referred to college-owned and affordable accommodation because the Union of Students in Ireland is not the only student group protesting. University College Dublin student groups have been protesting about a 20% to 30% increase in accommodation costs. They are being charged €1,400 for 8 months.

The Minister mentioned the cost rental model and I am curious as to what he means by that. In the Government's homes for all Bill, cost rental is defined as 25% below the market value. If this is the Minister's vision of cost rental, all he is doing is subjecting students to the diktat of market, albeit 25% below the market value. The market value will inevitably go up, therefore, the cost of accommodation will go up. I look at the number of students from my area in Dublin 10, where something like 16% of all young people get to college. The figure is 99% in Dublin 6 and Dublin 4. There is a huge disparity. It is reflected in the wealth and poverty of students and it is even deeper when one tries to educate people who come from economic backgrounds where they cannot afford these prices, costs and fees of books, IT equipment, travel and everything that goes with it.

In the time available to me, I will take as read the answers I have given on the immediate measures we are taking through increasing the student assistance fund and the like for day-to-day costs and the cost of living increases, which are real. The Deputy has asked me a very direct question in what I mean as to the cost rental model. A number of our higher education institutions currently hold existing lands on which purpose-built, college-owned student accommodation could be developed. In these cases, development of this would unlock land that would otherwise be unavailable for the provision of housing. Further, the required specification of student accommodation has the potential to make it more cost-effective than other types of development. The potential for access to affordable accommodation to become a barrier to access to education creates a social imperative to increase the supply of affordable student accommodation. In this context there is an opportunity to utilise supports under the Housing for All strategy to enable higher education institutions to increase the provision of affordable student accommodation. The cost rental model deployed by housing with regard to social housing considers costs associated with development of financing, management and maintenance. It models it over 40 years to determine a one-year rental value and a scheme known as cost rental equity loans is also operated.

They are great plans and sound lovely and all the rest of it, but the model of cost rental really matters and the one the Government envisages is not good enough because it leaves people subject to market fluctuations. We cannot do that immediately but there are some things we can do immediately which would help to alleviate student poverty, one of which would be to scrap the registration fees. All fees could be scrapped and the Government could cough up and make sure we get the quality training, education and skills we need for the future workforce. We need that in every area. It is way too expensive for people to do postgraduate courses. It is way too expensive for most of the cohort I referred to earlier to go to college. Apprentices have to pay fees and we are screaming out for people to move into the construction industry to retrofit homes. These sorts of exorbitant fees on training and education could immediately be scrapped, whereas the houses will take a long period of time to build, and that could contribute to them being able to afford the accommodation they need.

I take the point about the devil being in the detail on the cost rental model and I am happy to further engage with the Deputy on that as we explore the matter with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I am genuinely excited about the prospect that this could be a new beginning for student accommodation.

On the issue of cost and affordability, I made the point that I have prioritised the additional funding my Department received into targeted supports in the first instance, such as student grants that had not been increased in more than a decade and income thresholds that had not been increased. It is now true, and is sometimes not said, that somebody with an income of more than €50,000 can qualify for student grants in this country. Around 45%, nearly half of students, access the free fees and are not subject to registration fees.

We have also abolished the levy to do a post-leaving certificate course in the last budget. We are implementing a number of measures. I accept the Deputy will argue that we need to go further and quicker, and I take that point. We have taken a number of significant steps to address the issue of affordability and ensure there is education for all in this country at third and, indeed, fourth level.

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