University students, along with the rest of the population of Ireland, are currently facing into one of the worst cost of living crises in decades.
Already poised on the brink of recession due to successive, pandemic related economic shut downs, and inheriting a legacy of poor infrastructural and housing planning from successive governments, the current fuel crisis is pushing the government purse, and public good will, to a breaking point.
Many pundits are now categorising the housing shortage as an emergency, rather than a crisis, as it has been categorised for the past half decade. In this emergency, students in particular are feeling the pinch.
Since the completion of the Leaving Certificate exams this summer, the majority of media coverage on student issues has centred on the continued housing shortage - there are simply not enough beds available in Dublin at student accessible rates to meet student demand.
Speaking on the Late Late Show on Friday, September 2nd, Sai Gujulla, Student Union President at University of Galway, spoke on his own issues sourcing accommodation during his time at university. While he has now found accommodation, he began his time in college staying in hostels - a solution that was popular among students last year, when “digs” had lost popularity, partially due to COVID based anxieties. On the Late Late, he put words to a phenomenon that young people in Ireland know all too well, “Unless you know someone, you can’t get accommodation.” He went on to say, when asked if there were any reasons for hope, that there would be none “Unless the government introduces rent caps, unless they introduce legislation for tenancy rights in digs, unless they implement social housing policy for students, I don’t feel that there’s any optimism.”
This edition of the Late Late Show went out the same week that reports of students requesting to pitch tents on campus hit presses, and the same week that UCDSU had launched their “Digs Drive”, an initiative where the current sabbatical officers leafletted commuters to promote the UCD Accommodation Pad, a service which connects current UCD students with vetted households offering digs for the academic term.
This initiative is one of many being undertaken by the union to support students during this current crisis, and at present has seen 450 new accommodation providers link with the Accommodation Pad since August 22nd. Further initiatives are expanded upon in our interview with the current UCDSU President Molly Greenough and C&E officer Robyn O’Keeffe, as seen below.
When contacted for comment on the current crisis and its impact on students, the Department of Further and Higher Education responded by saying: “The Department is in ongoing engagement with the Union of Students of Ireland, who has outlined the significant pressures students are facing. The cost of education, transport and accommodation have been raised with the Department as particular concerns. The Department has made some changes to address these issues. The SUSI grant has increased by €200, the eligibility criteria has widened and the adjacency rates have changed. In addition, the cost of public transport has been halved for all higher education students. These matters remain under consideration as part of the forthcoming Budget.”
Students, faculty, and staff alike assuredly await the upcoming budget with hope for some alleviation to the pressure of the current cost of living, as otherwise it will be a long winter ahead.
Interview with UCDSU President Molly Greenough and UCDSU Campaigns and Engagement Officer Robyn O’Keeffe
As the 2022/23 Academic Year commences, many students find themselves facing immense financial hardship and precarity. The housing emergency, compounded by the cost-of-living crisis, has presented major obstacles impeding many students’ access to higher education.
On Thursday 15th September, Molly Greenough, President of UCD Students Union, and Robyn O’Keeffe, Campaigns and Engagement Officer at the SU, sat down with the University Observer to discuss the challenges facing students, the role played by Government policy in exacerbating the crisis, and the work undertaken by the SU on behalf of students.
The conversation was broad in its scope, ranging from intense discussions of campaign strategies employed by the SU, to criticisms of the ostensibly lacklustre response of UCD administration to the challenges affecting students. Throughout the interview, both Greenough and O'Keefe demonstrated their political acumen, speaking passionately on an array of policy issues affecting students’ access to housing and financial supports.
When asked what specific steps the SU was taking to address the crisis, Greenough spoke on how, nearing the end of the summer break, they had launched a digs drive to help students find housing, adding that it had: “got a good bit of national coverage and helped highlight the issues that students are facing.” The campaign has been moderately successful, with Greenough having received figures indicating that over 450 people have come forward to offer up a room.
She continued: “There are still certainly problems in terms of affordability. We have no control over the prices that are set by the UCD accommodation pad. On multiple occasions we’ve asked them to put in suggested price ranges of, say, maximum €500 a month for a 5-day let, or €700 a month for a 7-day let. Our requests have fallen on deaf ears unfortunately.” Greenough highlighted several campaigns that the SU has worked on in order to support students and vouch for their interests, however she lamented that: “Our hands are tied to a certain extent’, recognising the limitations on the capacity of the SU to alter Government policy.
She discussed other projects that she and her SU colleagues have worked on, including requesting meetings with Ministers Simon Harris and Darragh O’Brien (“yet to be seen!”), organising events, and calling for a drastic increase in SUSI rates (“in our view are completely inadequate (...) certainly not in a normal year let alone in the midst of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades”). Greenough demonstrated an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex socio economic issues under scrutiny.
Greenough discussed working on a project to establish food banks around UCD in order to address food insecurity experienced by economically marginalised students. She aims to host these in a discreet location to protect vulnerable students from the stigma associated with poverty and admitted that these may have to operate on a monthly basis due to a lack of resources. On that topic, she discussed reaching out to food providers on campus, attempting to set up and expanding existing food voucher schemes that may ease the financial burden on struggling students.
Both SU leaders expressed frustration at the Government’s perceived failure to adequately address the crisis, and UCD’s administrative response. When asked whether she thought the administration was supportive or not, O'Keeffe described their role, from her experience, as: “a lot of talk and not much walk”, a sentiment echoed by Greenough, who acknowledged that although there had been a: “notable difference with this current administration compared to when former President Deeks was in charge, there is an overall [feeling] that the concerns are heard but, as O'Keeffe said, there’s still not been a lot of direct action.”
Greenough went on to argue that: “There hasn’t been, really, the level of urgency that I would have expected with the current state of affairs. To be honest, I think we have been leading the charge on most of the [ongoing] actions. We had to convene a meeting on the accommodation crisis, and I view it as an emergency situation, so I would have hoped that members of the UMT (University Management Team) would have as well, but I guess that puts it in perspective.”
When asked, Greenough said that she agreed that administration had been broadly sympathetic, but that they hadn’t sufficiently internalised the gravity of the situation facing students.
The discussion then turned to legacy: O'Keeffe and Greenough both discussed what they hoped to achieve during their respective terms in office, and what issues they wished to highlight
the most. O'Keeffe responded that she hopes to ensure that: “everyone feels included, both
within the university and within our own union, [...] that everyone on campus has a say
in how we run as a union. Like we always say, we are a member-led organisation.”
O'Keeffe also expounded several compelling arguments, making the case for scrapping unpopular fees. She stresses the urgency of achieving results within the limited time frame under which the SU operates, saying: “We really need to take advantage of the opportunities that arise during our year [in office]. The academic regulations are up for review, so we will absolutely be pushing for the abolition of the resit and repeat fees.”
Greenough said that her main goals are to: “Keep pushing on the larger issues that students are facing [...] in particular timely access to mental health supports like the counselling service, and really meaningfully influencing the University’s approach to the provision of on-campus accommodation. [...] You just have to chip away and do what you can within a year and not let the issues die out. Keep students informed on what’s happening, transparency.
“There’s a lot of students who might not know the work we do, whether it’s providing peer-
to-peer support or raising student issues on a range of boards and committees.” She went on to call for greater integration between the entertainment events and political activism carried out by the SU, arguing: “I think bringing the political elements to all social elements of the union as well will help get people engaged and interested.”
Greenough and O'Keeffe have organised numerous events and campaigns to highlight the crisis.
They have revealed numerous policy positions and proposals throughout the course of the interview, including support for an increase in the SUSI payment rate, support for the establishment of food banks and voucher schemes, increased funding for mental health supports and affordable housing, and campaigning for the abolition of exam resit and repeat fees. Greenough also voiced her opposition to developer-led housing policy and called for better accommodation options to be made available to struggling students.