Thursday, 19 May 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
104. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the measures that he intends to introduce to address student poverty and the shortage of affordable student accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25333/22]
The biggest contributor to student poverty is the extortionate cost of accommodation, whether it is private student accommodation built by investors or on-campus accommodation. We are talking well in excess of €1,000 per month in UCD or an even higher amount for some of the newer accommodation. Given that the Minister is giving €144,000 to developers per apartment, is there any chance of a subsidy from the State to bring down the cost of student accommodation to make it affordable and to do something about student poverty?
That is exactly what I am talking to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about. However, I will come back specifically to the point about whether there is a version of that scheme which could be applied to the delivery of student accommodation in circumstances where there is clearly a gap between the market's ability to provide and what students and their families can afford.
I am committed to addressing issues relating to the cost of education that are affecting students and their families, including those who are disadvantaged or experiencing poverty. Obviously, the student grant is an absolutely critical support for students who receive it. I have already made a number of changes to the grant scheme to help alleviate financial pressures on thousands of students and their families with improvements coming in September. From the start of the academic year in September, all student grant maintenance payments will increase. More families will qualify through the income threshold increase, and a number of students will see their grants significantly increase, by 25% or more, as a result of change to the qualifying distance for the non-adjacent rate of grant, which is being reduced from 45 km to 30 km. It is critical that the student grant scheme continues to evolve to reflect the financial reality that affects learners. The Deputy is right. When we conducted the student grant review, it showed that the single-biggest cost facing students was accommodation.
The review also showed that is why student grants need to significantly increase. It has made a recommendation that they need to increase by 25% to be at a level that is fully impactful for our students. That is why I commissioned the review. It will inform future deliberations on the direction of the scheme. In addition to the student grant schemes, as the Deputy knows, students in third level institutions who are experiencing financial need can apply for support under the student assistance fund through its access office. It assists students, in a sensitive and compassionate manner, who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to financial circumstances.
With regard to accommodation shortages, I am very much aware of the difficulties faced by students in obtaining affordable accommodation. I am glad to report that there were 970 new higher-education-institution-owned, purpose-built student accommodation bed spaces completed in the past two years. Work is under way on site on a further 929 spaces. These bed spaces are institution owned as opposed to privately owned. As of December 2021, approximately 14,500 purpose-built student accommodation bed spaces were owned by higher education institutions. Shortages in student accommodation reflect a need to increase the supply of all types of accommodation, including student accommodation, and I am working with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to see if there are some specific initiatives we can put in place to help colleges manage to build college-owned affordable accommodation. The Deputy raised an interesting point. Is there a way the State can subsidise bridging that cost in order that we can get our colleges building? A significant number of planning permission applications have already been approved for many of them.
The key point is that education is a right, not a privilege. I will go further and say it is now a societal imperative. In other words, every doctor, psychologist, apprentice, arts worker, scientist and engineer we get qualified is making our society better. We have a shortage of all of those people, and many others I am not mentioning, right across the board. It is the State's obligation, in its own interests and in the interests of the students, to remove barriers to progressing in education to the highest possible level. It is, in that context, frankly outrageous that in UCD we are talking about up to €14,000 in accommodation costs for the new builds. Even the lower stuff costs approximately €8,000. It is similar elsewhere. If a student has to access private accommodation, whether it is investor-built or other accommodation, the rents are extortionate. I will say a word about fees in a minute. Fees are also a considerable barrier. At the very least, we have to make accommodation affordable for students. Otherwise, a great number of students are put under extraordinary pressure and for some of them it is just impossible to proceed with their education.
We need to reduce the cost of education in range of areas. I have already outlined my views, which we will have a chance to discuss in a moment, on the registration fee, improving student grants and doing more on student accommodation. I will tell the Deputy about three specific actions we are taking. The first is that I wrote recently to all universities, technological universities and institutes of technology inviting them to put forward any local solutions. This is a departure from previous policy. They could identify an unused hotel or building that could be converted or modified to be college-owned student accommodation. We would help repurpose existing buildings that have not been used. There are vacant buildings throughout this country which could contribute to increased supply ahead of the next academic year. That remains an open invitation to all universities. We have received indications of interest already.
The second is that we have seen an increase in the number of higher-education-institution-owned, purpose-built student accommodation. I have already given the Deputy those figures. The Irish Universities Association reports that there are a further 3,500 beds either under construction or in planning for college-owned accommodation. With regard to the affordability piece, we changed the law in this House, specifically to try to help with affordability in terms of limiting the amount that a student can be required to pay up front. It was-----
-----and we have to do something about that.
On the fees front, I will make a point about a graduate entry medicine course that I heard discussed earlier. It is one thing for the Bank of Ireland to remove the loan, but people who we need to qualify as doctors should not have to take out a loan in the amount of €15,000 per year at all. We desperately need the doctors in our health service. It is madness to force them to pay €60,000. The latter means that working class people can forget about trying to become doctors. Even for people who might have a bit of money, €60,000 is crazy. It is self-defeating to put those kinds of barriers in the way of people who want to graduate in medicine, especially when we desperately need doctors.
I could say that about other allied health professionals too, but I do not have time. We should remove those fees.
I ask the Minister to reconsider bringing forward a new student accommodation strategy with affordability at its core. I acknowledge the different things he is doing, but we need a new student accommodation strategy to be able to tackle the extent of the problem we are facing. This issue cannot be separated from the issue of underfunding in higher education generally. Even on-campus accommodation was turned into another source of revenue for colleges to replace the public funding removed during austerity. It is not the fault of the individual institutions. These decisions were made at Government level. The on-campus accommodation charges nearly market rate because it is needed to cover the cost. It is used to attract the more lucrative students, to the point where some colleges give half of all on-campus accommodation to this relatively small body of students. We cannot build luxury accommodation. We have to build affordable accommodation for students.
The shortage of student accommodation is a widespread issue. Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to UCD specifically. The Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and I both know there is a shortage of student accommodation in Limerick. What are University of Limerick's plans to develop the Clare bank? It already has some accommodation on that, but there is a large land bank. Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke about the need to match third level places with the needs of industry. That is what the university hopes to do, to develop workspaces in conjunction with private industry, so that students can come out of university well-equipped and up-to-date, because skill sets change not even annually, but monthly, as the president of the university recently told me. I know the Minister may have an answer about the plans to develop that bank and I would like to know what those plans are.
I will do my best to address the three issues. The Government's position is not that graduate-entry medicine is the only route into medicine, which is important. We are talking about significantly increasing the number of medicine places, beginning in September. We ruled out student loans as a model to sustainably fund education. I said earlier that it is not about asking the bank to continue the loan indefinitely, but to remove the cliff edge while we come forward with public policy solutions.
We are changing the policy on student accommodation. I am trying to identify new solutions and I think that, once they are identified, a new or updated student accommodation strategy will be required. In response to Deputy McNamara, University of Limerick indicated that as part of its future campus planning, it is advancing an application for the designation of lands on the County Clare side of the campus, as an economic strategic zone. It has indicated to my Department that it sees potential for new and innovative models of teaching and learning through designation of a strategic development zone alongside its current campus. There will be a further deepening of engagement with industry. The close partnership between university and industry in the delivery of higher education could offer opportunities. I will give the Deputy a more substantive written reply.