by Rachel Cunningham
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Rachel Cunningham

Students across third level colleges in Dublin are facing an unprecedented shortage of accommodation this year, as politicians and student bodies issue last-minute appeals to homeowners for help.

UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU) responded to the shortage by launching its ‘digs drive’ this week, asking homeowners to make spare rooms available for the next academic year. This followed a similar appeal last week by Further And Higher Education Minister Simon Harris to Dublin families who may have room to help ease the acute shortage of places to stay.

The representative body for over 33,000 students has strongly criticised successive Irish governments for its “failure” to address the issue, claiming that this has led to a “higher education catastrophe”, which has put the on-campus experience of a growing number of third level students at risk.

Trinity College’s Student Union President, Gabrielle Fullam, also spoke critically of previous government policies, which, she told the Dublin Gazette, have “unequivocally failed”.

“Affordability has never been a key target of housing policies, which consistently benefit vulture funds and private developers”, she continued. “We have seen a structural deficiency in state-led housing projects and soaring rents and, consistently, it is vulnerable populations that bear the brunt of this manufactured crisis.”

“Many students struggle to find anywhere to live, particularly in Dublin, which is now quoted as being the sixth most expensive city in the world to rent in, with landlords scarcely prosecuted for breaches of rent pressure zones. New properties that come onto the market usually do so at an exorbitant price”, the TCD president commented.

She explained that TCDSU runs an accommodation advisory service, regulating an online database of accommodation and digs services to assist the “astronomical” number of students in need of housing. She described dealing with students who are at risk of being shut out of higher education due to the housing crisis as “truly upsetting”.

Highlighting the seriousness of the issue, UCDSU Welfare Officer, Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich commented: “Students who can’t find somewhere to live for the year are being forced to take leaves of absence, defer their courses or to take on significant debt to pay for somewhere to live, if they can find somewhere at all.”

Minster Harris has described the situation facing both the authorities and students as “very challenging” and expressed the hope that the Rent-a-Room scheme, which provided 3,000 beds prior to the pandemic, could help to ease the crisis.

UCDSU has arranged for a mass leaflet drop about the ‘digs drive’ in areas close to the campus and those well-connected by public transport and is asking homeowners to bear the current cost of living crisis in mind when setting rental levels for students.

Commenting on this move, UCDSU President, Molly Greenough, said: “We are urgently appealing to homeowners to consider housing a UCD student under the Rent-A-Room relief scheme ahead of this academic year. A safe, affordable roof over a student’s head will empower them to excel in their academic pursuits, get involved with social life, and develop into people who can contribute to Irish society.”

This issue is not exclusive to the south of the Liffey, as DCU’s Vice President of Community and Citizenship, Nathan Murphy, told this newspaper: “Students in DCU are really struggling to find accommodation at the moment and when they can find something, it’s an at an outrageous price.

“Students are coming to us in dire need of somewhere to stay, saying they won’t have a roof over their head by the end of the month. The issue is not getting better and the government isn’t catering to the needs of students. The longer it goes by without action, the more students that will either be commuting from places like Cork or Galway or dropping out of college altogether.”

UCDSU reiterated its call for a “meaningful cut” to be made to the student contribution

charge in advance of the academic year to “put money directly back into the pockets of students and their families”.

“A cut of just €500 would only cover about a fortnight’s rent with an overwhelming majority of purpose-built student accommodation providers. We would like to see the minister go much further and make a meaningful cut, allowing students to decide for themselves how to make the best of a really bad situation,” Ms Greenough said.

Meanwhile, DCU has called on the government to introduce legislation that “protects students entering digs, as they have no rights as it stands.”

“We need the government to step in and assist higher education institutions with the costs of building student accommodation and we also need legislation to ensure that purpose-built student accommodation stays affordable for students and that its function as purpose-built student accommodation stays put”, Mr Murphy stated.  

Ms Fullam said that, while TCDSU welcomes any immediate action that could assist students, such as reducing the student contribution charge or Dublin City Council approving the use of Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) for purpose-built student accommodation, there remains a “deeper more significant problem in our housing system, that goes beyond short term cash injections or subsidies which favour landlords.”

“We need to fundamentally rethink our housing policy to centre affordability, and we need colleges, the higher education sector, the government and local councils on board”, she advised. 

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