Tens of thousands of students walked out of lectures on Thursday 13 October at campuses across Ireland as part of a national day of protest over an accommodation crisis and huge cost-of-living increases. Organised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the protest was the biggest of its kind in recent years.
The Senior Tutor at Trinity College Dublin Professor Stephen Smith told a huge crowd of protesters on the campus that the situation was heart-breaking and said that students cannot learn if they are hungry. Virtually every tutor in the college had phoned him to highlight the “desperate situation” that students were facing, he added.
Students struggle every year to find accommodation, but the situation has deteriorated drastically for a number of reasons. These include the creation of thousands of additional college places over the past few years by the government in a country which already has one of the biggest participation rates in higher education in the OECD.
To make matters worse, many private landlords have withdrawn from the rental market in recent years and sold their houses or gone into holiday rent arrangements such as Airbnb.
This reduction in rental property comes on top of years of underinvestment in social housing by successive governments at a time of increasing population. Over 50,000 Ukrainians have been warmly welcomed in Ireland, but their presence has added to the demand for accommodation.
Dublin is now one of the most expensive capitals in the world for renters, while other university cities such as Cork, Galway and Limerick have also seen huge rent hikes this year.
Many students report working long hours in part-time jobs to pay for accommodation and cost-of-living increases. Some remain at home but face long commutes in getting to college. A few have resorted to tents, camper vans or sofa surfing with friends.
One desperate student went on national media and talked about having to squat in order to find a place to live.
The protest was raised in the Dáil, the lower house of parliament, by opposition parties who demanded action in support of students. However, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar (the deputy prime minister) said that significant measures had been announced in the recent budget, including reductions in public transport charges, cuts in student fees as well as increases in student grants. He agreed that more needed to be done, particularly in the area of student accommodation.
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris will bring proposals to cabinet shortly to boost the supply of student accommodation on college campuses.
Many universities already have planning permission for purpose-built accommodation but say rising construction costs are delaying progress. It is expected that the state will part-fund the construction in return for ‘affordable’ beds.
USI President Beth O’Reilly said there was evidence of a huge number of students deferring their college entry because of inability to secure accommodation. But unless action was taken, the situation would remain the same, said O’Reilly, who announced further protests to put pressure on the government.