BORN and raised in Mahon, I was blessed to live at home when I attended UCC for undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
I have never had to deal with the stress of the late summer rush to find accommodation for the academic year, or even the massive expense of paying rent.
However, I remember many of my classmates from further afield talking about the enormous pressure they and their parents were under just to put a roof over their heads.
I started university following an economic collapse and at the height of the austerity era. Things were really difficult for everyone, families were struggling to afford to send their children to the third level. It is true to say that for many this was a step too far. Frustratingly, over the last decade the student housing crisis in Cork and across Ireland has intensified.
Every year we hear stories of students who don’t get a college spot they’ve earned through hard work or who have to travel crazy distances from their homes in other counties to get to lectures in UCC or MTU.
The student housing crisis is another layer of what President Michael D Higgins has correctly described as a housing disaster.
The figures for Cork are alarming. We have approximately 25,000 students between UCC and MTU alone. We must also consider the student populations of our colleges of higher learning.
Yet, according to figures from the Department of Further and Higher Education, there are only around 5,000 student accommodation beds in Cork City. The reality is that in Cork City, families, young professionals and students are all competing for the same housing stock. The serious consequences of this shortfall are unfolding before our eyes.
Recently, the UCC Students’ Union reported that they were contacted by 60 students a day who were having difficulty finding accommodation for the upcoming academic year. The situation will be particularly difficult for more than 6,000 first year students attending Cork universities this autumn, as the delay in delivering Leaving Cert results leaves them in limbo and sets them back in this mad rush.
The lack of housing is at the root of the exorbitant rents that students and their parents are now forced to pay. It is totally outlandish that many students attending University College Cork have to shell out upwards of £1,000 for a one-bed bathroom.
The cost of attending higher education is already considerable, but these exorbitant rents push the cost of college far beyond the reach of low-income students and parents. We’ve also seen food banks reopen on college campuses as students and their families struggle to cope with soaring costs of living. It is a vivid example of the difficulties that many students endure while trying to obtain a third-level education.
Access to education is the great equalizer. It is often called the silver bullet to advancing equality in society. Yet the stark reality is that the student housing crisis is increasing barriers to higher education for students from working-class families and students from rural communities, and if allowed to escalate further, it will fuel a situation where increasingly only the very well-to-do and privileged can attend college or university.
As a society, we must face the fact that this crisis risks setting us back generations in the fight to improve access to education for all. The existing barriers are already significant. Students here pay some of the highest fees in the EU and this must stop. We need to see the implementation of option three of the Cassells report which proposes the abolition of fees and the reversal of the commercialization of higher education.
The abolition of apprenticeship fees is also crucial if we are to make apprenticeships an affordable option for those seeking a vocational qualification upon completion of their studies.
Apprentices are paid less than minimum wage and work full time. Asking them to spit charges is very unfair.
We have seen a decade of underfunding of higher education. The commercialization of some aspects of higher education has placed increasing costs on the backs of students and their families. This race to the bottom is the root of the student housing crisis in Cork.
The truth is that costs across the board to go to college have skyrocketed in recent years and it’s only getting worse. This has a huge impact on equal access to higher education.
It is clear that the 2023 budget must include progressive measures to reduce economic barriers to equal access to higher education in Ireland.
Of course, the clear and immediate problem is putting affordable roofs over students’ heads. A new student housing strategy, in partnership with colleges and student unions, providing truly affordable housing for students on or near campus and greater protection for students in dig-style housing.
The student housing crisis must be tackled with vision and determination backed by a commitment to equality in education.
We cannot allow higher education to become a luxury available only to students from wealthy families. Our society has far too much to lose. Everyone should have the right to continue their education if they wish, regardless of their family’s bank balance.
Orla O’Leary is an alumnus of University College where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Government and a Masters in International Public Policy. She is a member of Sinn Féin.