Seanad debates

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Student Accommodation

12:00 pm

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for coming to the House. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State when I say I would have preferred the Minister, Deputy Harris, to be here. I appreciate the Minister of State's time. I understand that the Minister is at a Cabinet meeting.

The issue I wish to raise is access to third level education and, most importantly, the affordability of third level education. The introduction of free education in Ireland in 1967 was a historic moment. It is one that we as a country experience the benefit of every day, not just socially but economically, and something we are recognised as a nation around the world for having achieved and led on. Today, outside Leinster House, students will protest about the financial barriers preventing students in Ireland from accessing third level education. Education is not just good for the individual, society and our economy but is also an investment in our collective future. Financial barriers are preventing an increasing number of students from accessing education. I appreciate that the Government in place over the past year has recognised those barriers and taken action to address some of them. The recent improvements to the SUSI grant in the budget, specifically the increase in the income thresholds and the qualifying distance and the enhanced funding of €17 million which the Minister, Deputy Harris, secured for the enhanced student assistance fund, were really welcome. I have also engaged with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, as has the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, on the caps on rents, the caps on upfront payments for student accommodation, the reduction in the notice period for students to give on accommodation and the direction given to local authorities not to allow purpose-built student accommodation to be converted to short-term lets. That is all very welcome.

The reality, though, is that the research that has been conducted indicates that the cost of a four-year degree is €50,000 on average, which is still too expensive. In Housing for All, the €20 billion commitment that has been made to address the housing crisis is welcome but, on top of that, Covid has had an impact. The number of digs has reduced. Families are no longer willing to take additional residents into their homes, quite understandably. The pressure on students is therefore enormous. I know that the third level institutions have been given €170 million or €180 million in funding to build purpose-built student accommodation and that the technical universities have been given funding. However, we need an urgency on the provision of affordable student accommodation because the accommodation element is proving to be a very significant cost. The Union of Students in Ireland is asking the Government to take action to remove these financial barriers. It requests specifically that the €3,000 student contribution charge be abolished. It also asks for further reform of the SUSI grant scheme. More than anything, it is asking the Government to take urgent action to ensure that student accommodation is affordable to all students.

I hope the Minister, Deputy Harris, has sent the Minister of State here with some good news. I look forward to his reply.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris.He was keen to attend but, unfortunately, but due to Cabinet meeting commitments, he will be unable to do so.

The Government has taken action to address affordability in student accommodation. Rent increases in student accommodation are capped under the rent pressure zone provisions. From this year onwards, students cannot be made to pay more than two months rent upfront when commencing a tenancy, ending the practice where students had to pay several thousand euros upfront to secure accommodation.

A number of supports are available to students facing financial barriers to attend higher education. The principal one of these is the student grant scheme, which assists more than 70,000 students annually to access third-level education. The student grant scheme includes a non-adjacent rate of grant, which is a higher rate of grant that takes into consideration the additional costs which may be associated with living further away from college, such as accommodation costs.

From September 2022, the distance for the non-adjacent rate will be reduced from 45 km to 30 km, meaning that more students will qualify for this higher grant rate. Students experiencing exceptional financial needs can apply for support under the student assistance fund. The allocation to the student assistance fund for the 2021-22 academic year is €17.2 million, which includes an additional €8.1 million on the Covid-19 return to education funding.

Fundamentally however, this challenge is one of supply. As a country we need to dramatically increase the supply of all types of housing and accommodation, including student accommodation. That is why the Government has launched Housing for All led by my Department. This sets out a series of actions to be delivered to fix the housing crisis. The plan is backed up by the largest ever housing budget in the history of the State, at in excess of €20 billion, to transform our housing system.

The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, contains a commitment to work with higher education institutions to ensure that more accommodation is built on- and off-campus using cost-rental and other models. An important element of this is to ensure that the higher education institutions have access to low-cost financing.

Since 2017, the Housing Finance Agency has approved a total of €157 million in loans to support the provision of more than 1,400 new students bed spaces across three universities. At present the technological universities, TUs, are unable to borrow to build their own student accommodation. Housing for All contains a commitment to support our TUs to develop purpose-built student accommodation through access to appropriate financing such that TUs borrowing from the Housing Finance Agency.

The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Minister, Deputy Harris, have been engaging with representatives from the higher education sector on this issue to better understand how they can be supported to build more student accommodation. Together with these stakeholders and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, we are looking to develop a stronger pipeline of affordable student accommodation which we know is critical. As part of that work we will examine the potential for the use of funding models such as cost rental in the education sector as well as examining existing barriers to the building of student accommodation.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I accept and welcome the innovations that the Government has made in enabling the TUs, the consideration of the affordable cost-rental model, the other innovations in the capping and limiting of the rents and upfront payments and the reduction of the notice periods. We have to go further, however, to fully ensure that any of the purpose-built student accommodation that has been built is hit with a vacant property tax if it is not being used and that students who are struggling financially are supported through the assistance funds which are in place. The Government and the Minister of State need to be ambitious to ensure that every person and citizen in our society has access to third-level education.

Education makes people smarter and better and enables people to make better choices for themselves, to live smarter and better and to make a greater contribution, not just to their own immediate community and family but to our society at large. We have the proof of the value of investment in education. As we move out of Covid-19, let us make an investment in our future to ensure that every citizen has access to third-level education that is affordable and, ideally, free.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for her Commencement matter. There is great ambition contained in Housing for All.In his role in higher education the Minister, Deputy Harris, has brought additional technical universities together, tried to navigate borrowing capacity for low-cost loans, which will be very important, and brought a guaranteed 10,000 more apprenticeships into the economy every year. This is a big statement. Now we have it on the CAO form and students considering their third level options can see there are more alternatives and more stable careers, which is very important. We want to try to get as many people as possible into further education. We want to eliminate all barriers to access. Education is the key to unlocking all our potential. Throughout the history of the State we have seen how important this is. The Minister, Deputy Harris, will be to the forefront working to ensure we build more low-cost affordable housing in our institutions throughout the State. Be it at a technical university or the university network, on-campus accommodation is very important. We continue in our singular focus to do this.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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This is a very important matter. My son could not find a place to live for college this year so is commuting from Clare and burning lots of fossil fuels because the public transport is not yet there. It is a huge issue. We are all aware of the fact that we need to build more houses and the empty sites issue is massive.