Concerns raised over ‘expensive and isolating’ on-campus accommodation

With over 30,000 students, UCD is the largest university in Ireland. However, the main campus only has just over 3,100 beds, meaning that on-campus housing is usually restricted to first year and international students. For continuing students, finding housing off-campus is no easy task, with substandard living conditions and pricey apartments posing significant challenges. To tackle the shortage of student housing in Dublin, UCD has big plans to build a new accommodation complex on campus. Despite its potential to allow more students to live on-campus, the plan still has shortcomings as the model that the rooms will be based on is both expensive and isolating.

“It’s a project of grand scale that would double the amount of student beds here on campus, which can only be a good thing long-term … I think it’s badly needed, but my initial reactions were that it’s a bit too luxurious, that these rooms are a bit too large and that there was no need for everyone to have an ensuite. The price plan … I feel is still out of reach for a lot of students,” said UCDSU President Barry Murphy. The accommodation plan, which will cost €300 million, was recently approved by the An Bord Pleanála under its new “fast-track” planning process, The Irish Times reported.

The plan will add 2,178 beds to campus in a new residential community that will span 7 blocks and contain buildings that will vary in 5 to 10 stories in height. “It would mean that continuing students, not just first years and international students, would be able to avail of a room on campus,” Murphy said. According to the Residential Master Plan description, “the creation of a dedicated residential character area that facilitates the development of a sense of community, delivers quality public spaces, commuting, social, recreational, shopping and other facilities will significantly enhance the experience of students living on campus.”

However, Murphy, who along with the UCD Residences Working Group, had a chance to review and critique the plan last year, still has hesitations about the model that the rooms will be based on. In addition to being costly, Murphy fears that the set-up of the accommodation will not encourage social interaction. “The rooms are built in such a way that you kind of don’t have to leave your room unless you absolutely have to,” Murphy explained. “You have your own bathroom, you have your own desk, unless you need to go and cook a full dinner, you’re not really leaving. What that means is that students aren’t seeing other students. They’re in their rooms doing assignments, yes, but also watching movies by themselves, and so that’s not a good thing.” Based on conversations with current students living in catered accommodation on-campus, Murphy described a situation in which “sometimes there could be six people living in an apartment and they may not see other for a couple weeks at a time, which doesn’t bode well for making friends, for engaging in the student experience, and I suppose for orientating yourself to the college experience.” Beyond the rooms themselves, the new residential complex will also feature a student facility centre, known as the Fulcrum Building, which will include a function hall, gym and a health and wellbeing centre as well as shops and services such as a bank, convenience store and café’s. However, Murphy doesn’t think this will be enough to foster social interaction between residents. “I think there needs to be more social rooms, every couple of apartments there needs to be a communal living space where people can watch TV together and just to interact,” he said.

Taken together, Murphy predicted that the University will struggle to find enough students willing to fill up the new beds. “The impact is ... that they’re housing less students for more money rather than more students for less money. We don’t want to argue against quality of rooms, and these are really good quality rooms ... but cheaper options aren’t available, there’s no options to share rooms, there’s no options to have accommodations where you’re sharing a bathroom with two or three other students … so I do feel that they should have made those available, I do think that will affect demand.” Murphy said that he thinks students will still try to look for cheaper options off-campus, which is also not an ideal situation. “The problem with student housing in South Dublin at the moment is one that has been building over the last number of years and is not getting better anytime soon,” he said.

On one hand, students may opt to save on costs by squeezing eight people into a four bedroom apartment, but this could lead to substandard living conditions and the extra students have no rights because they are not officially tenants. Many students may also choose to live in digs, in which host families rent out their spare rooms, but there’s a lack of regulation surrounding digs, which could lead to underreporting of abuses. On the other hand, developers have been permitted to build large hotel-like luxurious apartments, which are often out of the price range of students or force them to work extra to be able to afford them. “All these things lead to an overall crisis where demand far exceeds supply, and not only does demand exceed supply, the supply that there is does not suit the demand, so it is either substandard or too luxurious and it’s very difficult to find something in the middle,” Murphy said.

The construction of the new accommodation at UCD will take place in three phases over the next several years. “The ultimate goal would be to have cheap, affordable, quality on-campus accommodation where students can easily access student activities and engage on campus and access their teaching spaces and lectures. It’s a good thing that they’re building accommodation, and that should be acknowledged, but also what are they actually building? What it will it entail? What will it cost students?”