A Question of Accommodation

Two weeks into the Autumn Semester, we’ve now had a week of teaching first-year students and two-weeks for all other years. I won’t say there have been no challenges but I think it has gone as well as can be expected. In particular the students (at least in my lectures) have impeccably observed the protocols. Although I’ve had to improvise with the equipment they do seem to appreciate my attempts to record my classes too.

The biggest problem Irish universities seem to be facing as we emerge from the pandemic is student accommodation. The media are full of stories about this issue, pointing the social cost as well as the difficulty posed to students’ education; see, e.g. here. There is a chronic housing shortage in Ireland anyway and this is a specific manifestation of that general problem.

The situation here in Maynooth is particularly acute, with some students having to make 220km round trips by bus to and from Co Wexford. I saw that bus the other day, actually. It’s always been an issue with my Tuesday MP110 lecture (which starts at 5pm) that some students have had to leave early in order to get a bus home. Even more students are doing that this year. I’m definitely glad I decided to record my lectures for the benefit of these students who have to miss part of the class for no fault of their own.

So why is there a student accommodation crisis? One factor is that Maynooth has had a bumper year for recruitment. There is only room on campus for 1,170 students out of a total enrolment approaching 14,000 and those rooms were all snapped up weeks ago. It’s a similar situation elsewhere. Universities have not been able to construct sufficient numbers of sufficiently affordable student rooms to keep up with demand. This is partly because of high building costs and planning bureaucracy, but also because Irish third-level institutions are strapped for cash thanks to decades of underfunding.

But there’s another issue, caused by the lingering effect of Covid-19. A significant number of students at Maynooth usually rent rooms locally in a family home on a four or five days a week basis, sometimes with meals included. This sort of arrangement is highly unusual in the UK, so it surprised me when I first moved here that so many students live that way. On the weekends they go back to their families, often travelling a considerable distance to do so. Typically these students arrive in Maynooth on Sunday evening or Monday morning and leave on Friday afternoon or evening; we see lots of students waiting for buses on the Kilcock Road on Friday afternoons.

Because we’re not fully out of Covid-19 restrictions, the supply of rooms available on this kind of letting arrangement is greatly diminished because of the perceived risk of a tenant being infectious (especially for elderly landlords). I know personally quite a few people who used to offer this kind of accommodation but are not doing so this year, hence the particular difficulty. I hope this situation improves soon, but for the time being it leaves many students having to commute great distances. I hope this doesn’t lead to some with difficult journeys dropping out.

I actually feel a bit guilty about this myself. I have a spare room in my house in Maynooth. It’s not huge but it has a single bed and a small desk in it so would work quite well for a student. I don’t really need the money, though it would be useful, but given the crisis I’ve thought of offering it as a weekday let. I do think, however, that it would be very awkward for a member of University staff to be landlord to one of their own students (both for me and for the student). On top of that, after such a long time as a bachelor I’ve just got used to living on my own! It’s a bit selfish, I know, but I therefore decided not to do it, though if there is an emergency (such as if people get snowed in as happened a few years ago) I would obviously offer my spare room as temporary accommodation.

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