Ireland has a full-blown student housing crisis. Is the UK next?

It looks like there are proper private rental crises on in Glasgow, South Belfast and St Andrews - but we should look to the Republic of Ireland to see just how messy this can get at pace.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

A couple of years ago the debate was about price – with a tight market in the republic enabling developers and landlords to price some students out of living away from home. The shortage saw the Irish government launch a national student accommodation strategy in 2017 aimed at supporting the development of purpose-built units (PBSA) – and while it helped deliver thousands of additional beds, predictably many were targeted at the high end international student market.

But progress has slowed over the past two years – and now the rising cost of construction means developers argue they will be forced to charge high rents just to break even. In the Irish Times, Una Mullally argues that instead delivering an affordable and flexible model of student accommodation that works for the Irish context, all that PBSA has done is create a “ridiculously high floor” when it comes to what’s acceptable to charge a student for a room:

In this form PBSA is a marketing ploy concocted by corporate developers to squeeze more profit out of every square metre. Very unfortunately instead of focusing on affordability and looking at the cultural context in Ireland where students prefer to share in cheaper accommodation than live in pokey Insta-tenements with tacky add-on “luxuries” like games rooms and micro-cinemas, the Fine Gael crew in Government fell hook, line and sinker for this nonsense, and we’re stuck with it.”

So that has all now evolved into a proper raw shortage. Throughout the course of last year the Irish media was packed full of stories of students having to commute painfully long distances to get to campus and paying through the nose to boot. University College Dublin (UCD) SU president Molly Greenlough describes the evolution of the issue well:

I’d say this time last year, students were struggling to find somewhere affordable. Now it has gotten to an overall supply issue so we’ve seen students extending themselves far beyond their price point and the means that they have to pay. We have students asking whether it is permitted to camp on campus and bring in tents.”

On Monday the SU launched its own “digs drive”, asking homeowners to make spare rooms available to students this September if they can. It has had to arrange a mass leaflet drop in areas close to UCD and those well-connected by public transport – with students delivering to 20,000 homes to point to a webpage with a draft licence agreement.

Over at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Provost Linda Doyle described the accommodation shortage as a “real crisis”, noting there is “huge anxiety” among students and arguing that even being in spare rooms in house means students are being “robbed” of an education and “a proper college experience”:

There’s no end of people telling us really, really difficult stories about how hard it is to find accommodation… we’re due to have another 250 rooms available in the next few months in what’s known as Printing House Square in Trinity. That’s good but it is a drop in the ocean in the context of the crisis that we’re facing,”

If you are commuting long distances or if you’re living in really expensive accommodation and you have to work all the extra hours that exist, you can’t focus on your study and you can’t get the wider benefits of college; mixing with your peers and developing all of those life skills that people deem so important.”

At the new South East Technological University’s Waterford campus, SU President Patrick Curtin thinks the crisis will be worse than ever:

We’re a university, now, which may see an uptick in demand. A lot of private accommodation isn’t there any more; it’s been sold on or used for Airbnb… some homeowners have also been reluctant to rent out rooms for digs due to Covid.”

He’s even talking to hotels in the area to see if they can do student-friendly deals:

It’s not a long-term solution, but it is a fallback option for students who can’t find anywhere to stay,” he says.

Public broadcaster RTE sums it all up as follows:

Hostels. Hotels. Sleeping in cars. Accommodation cancelled at the 11th hour. Mad money. Long commutes. Lost college places. While the student accommodation scramble is always pertinent at this time of year, many student leaders and university heads are already reporting the 2022 version to be far worse than anything they’ve encountered before.”

The problem has even spread to the International English language sector – with RTE reporting that one group of Brazilian students were living in a disused nightclub in Dublin for two months before being relocated to a “crowded and mouldy flat” nearby, paying €400 a month for the privilege.

And Ireland’s Property Services Regulatory Authority (PSRA) is advising students across Ireland who are searching for accommodation to be aware of potential bogus letting agents attempting to scam tenants following a string of stories impacting in particular international students.

There’s a particularly unpleasant immigration angle to the crisis too. Since late spring and into summer, around 5,000 Ukrainian refugees have been staying in student accommodation in Ireland, but alternative arrangements are not fully in place – with some commentators gleefully jumping on that bandwagon to criticise the help offered to Ukrainians in the first place. The Irish Red Cross said last week that it didn’t know where refugees will be rehoused when they are due to move out this week.

Could this scale of crisis come to the UK? It may already be happening in some cities – and this blog from an academic at university town Maynooth is probably as good a canary in the coalmine as any:

The number of permanent residents in Maynooth is about 15,000 and there is a similar number of students (13,700, including about 11,000 undergraduates), so the population almost doubles during teaching term. Both populations are steadily rising. The university is recruiting more and more students without comparable increase in student housing – this year looks like being another record intake – but there is also pressure on housing due to other factors, particularly the dramatic expansion of the Intel plant in nearby Leixlip, with many of the new workers trying to find places to live in Maynooth. New properties are being built but at a rate much slower than the demand is increasing.

In truth, all the elements of a perfect storm look like they’re coming to UK university towns and cities too – and it’s probably too late to avert them. A housing crisis isn’t new, of course – but the cross over into the sort of thing that the press will get upset about may well be a version of the housing crisis that stops people being able to go to university – with the plight of students not being able to take up a place reminding us that the universities minister in Westminster is really the “minister for parents with middle class kids who want to go to university”.

Una Mullally has two further paragraphs that ought to haunt any HE minister, if not in the next few weeks then next September:

Your average student from your average family moving up to Dublin to go to college doesn’t have a hope in hell of finding an affordable room to rent this autumn. They barely have any chance at finding an unaffordable one. How could they when people in well-paid, full-time jobs are barely hanging on in our broken rental market?

This is going to become a serious issue yet nobody seems to be talking about it. We will hear more and more stories of student homelessness, students sleeping in vans and cars, students sleeping in university buildings, students opting to alter the course of their future by not taking up college places in different counties because of the rental crisis, students undertaking incredibly long and tiring commutes, students sleeping in hostels, pooling their funds to share hotel rooms, or piling into AirBnBs… what a failure that at a time of employment opportunities in this country, the rental crisis is bulldozing young people’s futures.

One response to “Ireland has a full-blown student housing crisis. Is the UK next?

  1. I have very direct experience of this in Dublin this summer – a real challenge for everyone from students to HE and city planners. I visited one PBSA in late July which was still a building site with two pre-fab units to view and a hoped for handover date in August with ‘some snagging’ inevitably…
    Still waiting for someone to suggest underused cruise ships being brought into play as a stopgap…

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