- 11 Mar 20
The announcement of rent increases in on-campus student accommodation at three of our major universities means that a national strike is now a real possibility.
The campuses of University College Dublin, University College Cork and NUI Galway are dotted with tents. There’s no one living in them, but students are braving the cold, in protests organised by the three Students Unions, to let these venerable institutions know that there is trouble brewing.
In what looks like a carefully co-ordinated move, UCD, NUIG and UCC have all announced plans to increase the cost of student accommodation by up to 4% within the next year. UCD intend to go even further, plotting a whopping 12% increase over the next three years. It’s become the final straw for students, already struggling with the soaring cost of living in a major city.
Having suffered a 76% increase in housing costs over the past decade, the situation for UCD students is already dire. Average costs hover around €7,000 and above, with the potential to reach nearly €10,000 a year with the proposed rent hikes. Too often, students are forced to make a choice between eating and paying bills; between going to class or going to work. Yes, it is that bad.
RED FLAG SITUATION
Joanna Siewierska, president of the UCD Student Union, is up in arms. Understandably so. “Students are turning up to the union and saying, ‘I can’t afford to have dinner today’,” she says. “Or ‘Am I going to pay the next bill or am I going to buy myself some food?’”
Ruairí Powers is co-chair of UCD’s Fix Our Education campaign. While things are bad for those living in college accommodation, he stresses, they are even worse in private rental accommodations, where students are often taken advantage of by landlords. “You’re between a rock and a hard place, whether you’re living on campus or off campus,” he says.
For many, achieving an affordable rent involves commuting long distances on a daily basis. With a packed and stressful schedule, the travel time can be unsustainable. The response of some students smacks of desparation.
“This is a red flag situation,” Siewierska adds. “We started seeing students come in with sleeping bags, sleeping in friends’ cars, on friends’ couches, things like that.”
Things are little, if any, better in NUIG or UCC.
“There is no accommodation available in Galway,” Clare Austick, president of NUIG’s Student Union says starkly. Rent in the popular tourist destination is already above the national average, and students who do find housing are often exploited. Meanwhile, campus accommodation in Cork increased by 11.5% last year alone.
The price hikes and lack of accommodation hit international and first-year students hardest. If you’re moving away from home for the first time, or travelling to a new country, staying on-campus is generally the safest and most attractive option. But if prices escalate, it will act as a barrier. In many cases, prospective students will decide that it is a luxury they can’t afford.
“A lot of students have been priced out of education already,” Powers says despairingly. “A lot of people who would like to be studying in college just can’t afford it.”
In response to student objections, UCD have stated that they need to increase prices both to maintain existing accommodation, and to fund more spaces on campus. But this is turning things upside down. Why should today’s students pay for accommodation for students of the future? It makes no sense whatsoever.
The administration at NUIG launched a strategic plan a month ago, in which they committed to affordable and sustainable housing. The current price increases seem to make a mockery of that.
“The university President actually wasn’t aware that this was happening,” Clare Austick explains. “He has since said that he would be in favour of reviewing the decision to increase the rent, given that it doesn’t coincide with the university’s strategic plan.”
A meeting has been set up between the President and the board of the directors of NUIG. While it is not a solution, Austick is relieved that at least there is movement in the right direction. Meanwhile, UCD protestors are still fighting to have their voices heard. In an interview with The Irish Times, college President, Andrew Deeks dismissed the reaction to the rent hikes as “emotional”, saying students were caught “off guard”. Inevitably, the comments have sparked further outrage.
“My response to that is, am I being emotional? Yes. Frankly, I am angry. I have good reason to be angry,” Siewierska says. “This condescending approach should be revisited.”
With potentially dire circumstances looming, student leaders are preparing for a serious, ongoing battle. Protesters in Cork will continue camping until administrators there listen, even braving Storm Jorge to prove their commitment to the cause. And in UCD, students are planning bigger protests to force the administration’s hand.
“They’re not backing down on this,” Powers says. “They have expressed the view that the group protesting is too small to be representative of the entire college. That sets us the challenge of building up the protests and launching national strike action.”
Watch this space.