The pandemic is a feeble excuse for delays in allocating student accommodation

Image Credit: Sinead Mohan

Delays to the allocation of on-campus accommodation, and in awarding student grants, have been blamed on the pandemic. However, with high vaccination rates and an impending reopening of society, Michael Bergin asks if this is still a legitimate excuse.

These are extraordinary times, we’re told. Once-in-a-lifetime, story-to-tell-the-grandkids, the-like-of-which-will-never-be-seen-again times. Yet, as I boldly commute past the boundaries of my five-kilometre radius, making use of the train, which now has no issue with passengers sitting in every available seat, and notice senior citizens on their walks around UCD, long freed from the safety of their cocoons, I begin to wonder when the extraordinary became so… ordinary?

I meet with friends in the clubhouse. Yes, actually inside the clubhouse. We can talk to each other without masks, and no matter how expensive our meal is, we’re not at any greater risk of spreading Covid. In fact, we don’t even have to buy a meal.

The fact of the matter is, things haven’t been quite at DEFCON-1 for a suspiciously long time now. Without us noticing, and at a glacial pace, the new normal is beginning to look remarkably like the old normal. Which is great, if you’re not dealing with UCD.

Our beloved university appears to be the Internet Explorer of Irish colleges. That is, it seems to be about five to six months behind everyone else, and crashes pretty badly when too many people try to ask it questions at the one time. 

“Our beloved university appears to be the Internet Explorer of Irish colleges”

My case in point is the delayed allocation of on-campus housing to incoming UCD students. Citing the pandemic, the allocation of these places was delayed until the absolute last moment, forcing some students to look into much more expensive private options, and forcing others to pay for accommodation far more expensive than what they had anticipated, at extremely short notice.

From an outside perspective, one understands how this could be more than a little frustrating, so the mind boggles when contemplating the students actually embroiled in this disaster. One of the most exciting aspects of college life is getting your own place, away from home, and the social life that goes with it. Yet, these students have spent their summer in limbo, many of them unaware of whether or not they had even secured a place in UCD due to the rampant grade inflation of this year’s Leaving Certificate, and at the last possible moment could be expected to pay almost double what they might have expected to (the cheapest accommodation in UCD rose last year to just over €8000, while the most expensive goes almost as far as €14,500).

How could this delay possibly have occurred? At this stage in the game, the usual excuse of an international pandemic has grown more than a little feeble. Surely, it doesn’t take a mass gathering to organise and allocate students to campus accommodation. Surely, a computer programme, better able to achieve the random allocation that UCD desires, does most of the work anyway? Computers don’t usually catch viruses, unless they work for the HSE.

Even if there had been reason for an extensive human gathering to organise campus accommodation, which in all likelihood, there wasn’t, the pandemic isn’t breaking news. Lockdown happened in March. In 2020. For a whole year before discussions even began about the 2021/22 semester, people were getting used to online Zoom meetings, working from home, and a lack of human interaction. Many of the good folks at UCD residential services might have been fairly used to that last one anyway.

“students have spent their summer in limbo, many of them unaware of whether or not they had even secured a place in UCD due to the rampant grade inflation of this year’s Leaving Certificate"

How on earth could they have pulled off the allocation of accommodation for the 2020/21 semester, in a much more efficient and competent fashion, and at a time when the pandemic was much more threatening and new, than one year after the event?

While work on giving students their due peace of mind stalled, other projects raced ahead around UCD. A whole new block of apartments was constructed, academic fees were collected with notable precision, and graduation ceremonies were pulled off without so much as a hitch. Yet, co-operating with new students, and helping to make them feel at ease in not just their new school, but their new home, seems to have been much further down on the universities’ list of priorities.

The allocation of on-campus accommodation is not the only administrative aspect of UCD that has been plagued by delays. Students going abroad for their Erasmus year have spent the summer waiting anxiously for details on the Erasmus grant application process, which for so many is absolutely vital. Yet, information on this was not given to students until September, a time when many international universities require people to fly to far-flung destinations, now without financial security.

UCD has failed students new and old, and in many ways during the pandemic, but perhaps no aspect of its administrative ignorance is more contemptible than the simple lack of communication and reassurance between the university and its newest, most vulnerable, and most fearful students. Blaming this astounding indifference to student worries on a pandemic, the worst of which is thankfully long past at this stage, is lazy, insulting, and a sorry reflection on where the university is headed. 

Over the past 18 months, academics at UCD have courageously fought the virus, getting involved in studying the disease, contact tracing, and even setting up an on-site vaccination centre. They have shown that UCD can be a brilliant, innovative place, almost worthy of the honours with which it bestows itself.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the other end of the spectrum, those students who do not bring funds into the university, an altogether different attitude is much too readily observed.