Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
89. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills his engagement with third level educational institutes and the various stakeholders to resolve accommodation issues currently experienced by students; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58652/21]
98. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the plans in place with the shortage of student accommodation on and off campus to help students with the high costs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58616/21]
100. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the steps he is taking to create a situation in which universities are able to provide on-campus accommodation at affordable rates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58643/21]
102. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the measures he will put in place to alleviate immediately the pressures that students are under in view of the chronic shortage of student accommodation which has resulted in students living in hotels, couch surfing and travelling long distances to attend lectures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58587/21]
132. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the details of his strategy to increase the supply and affordability of student accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58633/21]
The availability and cost of accommodation is a huge burden for students. I am not sure if the Minister has had the opportunity to engage directly with colleges or different stakeholders and property owners on the issue. I ask the Minister to outline what action is being taken to reduce that stress and burden on students and their families.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 89, 98, 100, 102 and 132 together.
I thank the Deputy for the question on housing and student accommodation. The first thing this Government must and will do is to be honest that we need a new and better model for student accommodation. Yes, we have seen the supply - and I can ream off statistics - of purpose-built private student accommodation significantly increase, but that is not the point. We have not seen a pipeline of significant scale of college-owned affordable accommodation.
I have engaged directly in the Deputy's own county, with University College Cork and Munster Technological University. I have engaged with the Irish Universities Association, IUA, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, the representative bodies, and the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. Crucially, I have also engaged with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the issue. We have established a working group, chaired by my Department, working with housing and university and college stakeholders to try to devise a new model to build college-owned affordable student accommodation. I hope to be in a position to outline that model early in 2022. We have asked the universities and the institutes of technology to prepare a pipeline of projects on the understanding that a new model that will address some of their concerns is forthcoming.
As I indicated earlier, if at all possible, we should look at some of the cost-rental models the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is bringing forward, and see if there could be a tailor-made or a version of that that would work for the third level sector. I am very happy to hear the Deputy's feedback. I should also say that tomorrow I will meet with student union presidents from across the country online - all of them are invited - to talk about the issue of student accommodation and get their feedback and views, too.
I thank the Minister for the overview. While some colleges do provide accommodation, others do not. Is the Minister focused on all colleges, or just on those already providing accommodation? There are places where we need to make a start.
There are many private property owners involved, whether they are large apartment block owners or individuals who let houses. Has the Minister had an opportunity to engage with them on the issue? They are a very significant component in all of this. It is hugely important that there is reasonably priced accommodation available.
In respect of rent a room options, previously, these would have been more in the line of digs, but very little is available at this stage. Has the Minister looked across the board at all the different options to reduce the stress on students?
First, we are looking at all options across the range. All colleges need to see the provision of accommodation as a core component of what they need to do, because otherwise, a lack of it will become an issue in terms of participation in education. In fairness to them, institutes of technology and technological universities, until the publication of Housing for All in recent weeks, were not allowed or enabled to borrow to build accommodation. In the Deputy's own neck of the woods, I think there is huge potential for the technological universities, for example, Munster Technological University in Kerry and Cork, to name just two in the south-west region. There will be focus on all institutions, but a particular focus will be placed on the former institutes of technology and new technological universities. There could be some potential low-hanging fruit there if we can get the model right.
On private operators, I do not believe, from memory, that I have directly engaged with them, but I certainly will. On the rent a room scheme, more can be done in that regard in terms of a short-term fix or assistance. I think the Covid pandemic impacted that. I am already engaging with student unions and others about how we can look at rebooting that or perhaps even remodelling it for the next academic year.
One of the big issues that students who can get accommodation face is the payment of rent in one big lump sum, either at the start of the year or twice or three times during the year. They are looking at paying at least of a third or a quarter of it in one go. We are now moving towards the end of the first term and that massive demand for money is reaching many households around the country at this stage. Are steps being taken to prevent that and to provide a more realistic option so that people who are renting will be able to pay it and spread out the load, instead of having to respond to one big demand or the two or three big demands? It is hugely important that there is realistic accommodation available at a reasonable price for students. Those kind of issues need to be dealt with.
The short answer is "Yes". We came together on an Oireachtas cross-party basis on legislation passed by the Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ban that practice, so that no renter, student or otherwise, can now be asked to pay more than one month's rent plus a deposit. It was a huge issue that USI and others were highlighting last year. Students were wrongly being asked to pay, four, five or six months' rent in one go. I am pleased to say that we have made legislative provision to outlaw that. No more than one month's rent and one month's deposit will be required now.