Archive for Accommodation

The Student Accommodation Crisis

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 13, 2022 by telescoper

These days many of Ireland’s newspapers are carrying stories about the drastic shortage of accommodation for students ahead of the start of the new academic year.; see, for example, here and here. Sinn Féin spokesperson on Further and Higher Education, Rose Conway-Walsh, has called on the Government to prepare emergency measures to tackle the crisis “before it’s too late”.

Unfortunately I think it’s already too late. I think this year we’re going to see a complete breakdown of the University system and that’s even without the industrial action that looks likely to take place. Although third-level institutions could have done more, the root cause is the funding model. There’s also a lack of housing nationally which is caused by systematic underinvestment over many years.

To illustrate the problems let’s look at Maynooth University, where I work. Some of the issues here are common across the University sector but some are specific. Maynooth is Ireland’s only real “University Town” in the sense that the University constitutes a very large part of the population; the local football team is even called Maynooth University Town. This is often used as a selling point for the University and indeed Maynooth is a pleasant place to work and study, but this year the special status of Maynooth is exacerbating the national crisis.

The number of permanent residents in Maynooth is about 15,000 and there is a similar number of students (13,700, including about 11000 undergraduates), so the population almost doubles during teaching term. Both populations are steadily rising. The University is recruiting more and more students without comparable increase in student housing – this year looks like being another record intake – but there is also pressure on housing due to other factors, particularly the dramatic expansion of the Intel plant in nearby Leixlip, with many of the new workers trying to find places to live in Maynooth. New properties are being built but at a rate much slower than the demand is increasing.

It is now mid-August, about a month before term starts for returning students. This is the time when foreign students start arriving and looking for accommodation. As a matter of fact I have two PhD students due to start in September, both of whom are new to Ireland. Usually getting in ahead of the home students helps them find somewhere ahead of the rush, but this year there is absolutely no accommodation to be found in Maynooth. I don’t mean there’s a shortage. I mean there isn’t anything. And the incoming first-year students haven’t even started looking yet.

This year’s Leaving Certificate results will not be out until September 5th. After that more than 3000 students will begin looking for accommodation. But the supply is already exhausted in August. Some will find accommodation on campus, but at the moment there are over 800 Ukrainian refugees living in the halls who will have to leave at the end of August to make way for students, but where will they go? And in any case there spaces vacated will only accommodate a fraction of the new arrivals.

There’s also the question of cost. The law of supply and demand is merciless in this situation so as private accommodation is so scarce, the rents payable have soared. That’s fine if you’re a landlord, of course…

The only solution I can see in the short term is temporary accommodation in caravans or tents or perhaps in large buildings such as sports halls. That’s highly unsatisfactory of course, but the alternative is lengthy commuting which is exhausting and which we saw last year leads to widespread disengagement.

Maynooth has just opened a new building on campus, the TSI Building, with large teaching rooms anticipating ever-increasing class sizes driven by the bums-on-seats mandate. But how many students will be able to attend?

New Teaching Room in the TSI Building

I’ve been arguing for over a year that we need to accept the reality that many students will not be able to attend on-campus sessions as we would like them to so we should invest in remote teaching methods to allow them to study at home. We did this during the pandemic emergency and we should do it during the accommodation emergency too. I am appalled that Maynooth has not bothered to install proper lecture capture facilities in its teaching rooms. These facilities were commonplace in the UK long before the pandemic and it’s shocking that they are not deployed routinely in Maynooth. I have better lecture capture facilities in my study at home than the University provides in its lecture theatres.

Although this crisis has been brewing for many months, the Irish Government has done little to help. Individual universities have also been staring into the headlights and doing nothing. Government funding per student has been falling steadily so Universities wishing to maintain their income have been forced to recruit more students, despite the lack of investment in accommodation and other infrastructure.

It’s stressful enough for academic staff having to contend with this looming disaster, but I can hardly imagine how awful it must be for students. All I can do is apologize, which is something the people really responsible will not do.

Offering Refuge

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on March 6, 2022 by telescoper

As the humanitarian consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold, Ireland expects something like 20,000 refugees to arrive many of whom will require accommodation. Around 1300 have arrived in Ireland so far, but these have mainly been taken in by Ukrainian family members and friends already in Ireland.

(The number of Ukrainian refugees so far accepted into the UK is just 50.)

We had a Department Meeting on Friday which began with a minute’s silence for the dead, the bereaved and all those suffering in ways we can’t even begin to imagine as a result of Russia’s heinous crimes in Ukraine. As I stood in silence I felt frustration at the smallness of the gesture; that feeling wasn’t at all assuaged by making a donation to the Irish Red Cross appeal later that evening.

When I learnt that the Irish Red Cross has launched an appeal for emergency accommodation I saw the chance to do something practical. I have a spare room, which I decided to register as potential accommodation for a refugee. It’s quite a small bedroom but can be made available very quickly once I’ve moved a few things out and given it a clean. At least the bed is quite comfortable: I know because I slept in it for several weeks before my new bed arrived. Of course if anyone comes they can have the run of the rest of the house.

Pledging accommodation in this way is not a trivial process. The property and the host have to be vetted to check that nothing nefarious is going on. I expect I’ll be contacted next week for this purpose and if my pledge is accepted and an appropriate individual found, a case officer will be assigned to ensure everything is going OK. There’s no guarantee my offer will be accepted, though. I’ll just have to wait and see.

As a single adult it would obviously be more appropriate to host another single adult. It crossed my mind that an offer of accommodation in a university town such as Maynooth might enable a student or academic from Ukraine to continue their studies in some way, but I’m not going to limit the range of possible people to that. I can offer an LGBT+ friendly environment too if that is important to anyone.

I’ve lived alone for quite a long time now so it is not without apprehension that I registered this pledge. I can see that there may be many difficulties, but they would be as nothing compared to the difficulties facing the Ukrainian people right now. I feel it’s the least I could do.

I am glad that, within the European Union, Ireland is playing its part in the response to the Ukraine crisis. When I look across the Irish Sea at the United Kingdom’s callous indifference to refugees alongside its half-hearted implementation of sanctions on Putin’s evil regime, I am once more glad I no longer live in a country with such a corrupt and mean-spirited Government.

A Question of Accommodation

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on October 3, 2021 by telescoper

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.