Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
2. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the National Student Accommodation Strategy given that the last progress report was in the third quarter of 2019 and further noting the significant hardship the class of 2022 has experienced in finding sufficient and adequate places to live; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49585/21]
I congratulate the Minister and his wife on the new addition to their family. My question relates to the National Student Accommodation Strategy and its status, given that the last report was in the third quarter of 2019. Why has this accommodation strategy died? If it is not dead, it has certainly been let wither on the vine. We had an action plan. Why has it been dropped? Looking at Waterford, the plan appears to be to take no action. The goal of the Government appears to be to have no additional student accommodation in the city beyond what was developed a number of years ago. The Department was instrumental in disassembling Waterford Institute of Technology's capability to deliver student accommodation, most notably by removing its borrowing capacity. Having done that, the Department has provided nothing in exchange by way of new accommodation for students in the south east, in our regional capital city.
I thank the Deputy for his good wishes and his important question. I will not repeat the points I made when replying to Deputy Conway-Walsh but they stand with regard to this question too. I hope and expect that Waterford Institute of Technology will become a technological university shortly. I take the point that the Deputy makes but I disagree strongly with his assertion that my Department and the Government have done nothing to assist. With the publication of Housing for All, we have changed that policy or, one could argue, we have reversed that policy. We have made it clear that we want institutes of technology and technological universities to be able to access the borrowing framework and cheap money using the State's infrastructure. As recently as last week, my officials, including the Secretary General of my Department, met with the representative bodies, including the Irish Universities Association, IUA, along with officials from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and my advisers. They made it clear to colleges that we want them to come forward with proposals. I will shortly meet with the Housing Finance Agency and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I am encouraged by the pipeline of products that I see coming from institutes of technology, technological universities and the traditional universities. While I accept some of the criticism, it is accurate to say that there is a significant policy shift spearheaded by my Department since its creation, making sure that institutes of technology and technological universities can access the borrowing framework.
We have a National Student Accommodation Strategy. I can read some of the progress that has been made. Supply has increased. As I said to Deputy Conway-Walsh, that is not the entirety of my position because I believe that the strategy is in many ways out of date and has been overtaken by circumstance. It was too reliant on the private sector providing purpose-built student accommodation. I would much rather have college-owned, sector-owned accommodation. The rub is that if we allow institutes of technology and universities to access the borrowing framework, I want them to address the affordability issue too. I do not want to see what I have seen in some colleges and universities that have built fancy accommodation which is unaffordable for our students. When I meet student unions, they say it is no good telling them that there are an extra 500 or 600 beds because the price is extortionate. In return for access to the borrowing framework, we ask that accommodation be affordable for students.
Affordability will certainly be a problem if there is not supply. I have looked at the report and there was no additional student accommodation for Waterford in it. The reason that WIT was one of the premier institutes of technology in the country was because it was able to borrow until the technological university was brought to the Committee of Public Accounts and had its feet held to the fire. There was much smoke but no fire. There was nothing to be seen. The Minister could have reinstated WIT's borrowing capability but he did not. Waterford Institute of Technology had borrowed for more than 20 years to make itself one of the premier institutes in the country and that capability was removed from it in this national accommodation strategy. I have the report in front of me. There is no additional capacity for student accommodation in Waterford. The number of students has grown by between 15% and 20% in the past five years. We need remediation. While I am on the subject, there were applications from WIT for almost €20 million for buildings that are over 40 years old. Water is coming through the roof of the engineering building. There is no sign of any funding to sort that problem out.
I commit to engaging with and reverting to the Deputy on the specific issue he raised at the end of his contribution. The point we are making is somewhat the same. The Deputy says I have not done anything to assist. I am saying that I have done exactly what I think the Deputy is asking me to do. Along with my Government colleagues and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, I have rectified discrimination towards our institutes of technology and technological universities. I do not just want to create technological universities for the regions that people can commute to. I see potential for regional development, where people, not just from Waterford but from my own county or other counties, would say that it is a great university in Waterford and that they want to go there, but they need to be able to access affordable accommodation. We have made a significant policy shift in Housing for All. It contains a clear commitment to support our technological universities to develop purpose-built student accommodation. That is the difference. Up until now, we have been reliant on private developers building student accommodation. I am saying that we want to work with the technological universities to build or at least own accommodation themselves. I am happy to work with the Deputy on the matter of the south east.
As I said to the Minister, the key here is access to borrowing. The Minister says that he wants to do it through the technological university. We had the capability until the Department removed it from us. WIT was progressive. It was the first institute of technology in the country to provide its own student accommodation. That capability has been removed. We are waiting for the present accommodation strategy. The last report was in January 2019. It looks as if the strategy is withering on the vine. I cannot see any new capability to deliver affordable accommodation as the Minister is talking about. It sounds like something that is years down the road, when we are trying to increase the numbers that we take and add to the capacity of the university. Much work needs to be done on this. I will be happy to engage with the Minister but we need to see some clear action delivered.
The strategy is not withering on the vine. The targets of the strategy have all been exceeded. The 2019 target was exceeded and as of the second quarter of this year, some 10,700 bed spaces have been completed. I am making the point that we need to move beyond the strategy. This strategy measures how much private, purpose-built student accommodation was built. There is a role for that. I want the new strategy and new conversation to be about how we work with the regions and with all of universities, institutes of technology and technological universities so they can build their own accommodation. There is a significant shift that WIT will be aware of from its representative body's meeting with my Secretary General last week. We now have a mechanism to make sure that they can borrow again using the State's infrastructure to access cheap money. I am not going to be a bystander to this. If we are going to allow that, I want to have a conversation on what sort of accommodation it is and how it is affordable to students. There are examples in this country where the State's infrastructure or European infrastructure has been used and some of the accommodation that has been produced has had a prohibitive cost for students. That is not the direction of this policy. I am happy to engage with the Deputy further on this and make progress for the south east.