In an interview with The University Observer, President Andrew Deeks has said “absolutely, there’s no way that we’re going to back down on the rent increase.”
President Deeks spoke to The University Observer about the recent protests against the proposed 4% per year increase in on campus rents, saying “You have to keep it in perspective. I think that there has been a couple of small demonstrations. I know the Students’ Union leafletted the whole of the 3,500 residences that are there, and there was a small demonstration. So I think there’s a danger of overstating that position, and there will be many other students that see the bigger picture here.”
He also justified building more accommodation and increasing rents; “What we really need to do is address the housing crisis in Dublin, and that can only be addressed by building more houses. It can’t be addressed by capping or reducing rents; that doesn’t solve a housing crisis. It can’t be addressed by subsidising students; it just means that pushes the rents up further. So we need to build more housing, we need to build more residences, and that is the way to solve the housing crisis.”
When asked about his reaction to a recent interview in the Irish Times, in which he described student reaction to the rent increase as ‘emotional’, he admitted that he had been surprised by the student backlash; “over the last five years we’ve had rent increases of 4%, 3%, 3%, 2-3% last year, so there is not a significant difference between the rental increase this year and the rental increase last year, or the one before, or the one before that. So the context of it being a rather emotional response is that this is a very small change from what has happened in previous years, yet the students haven’t reacted in the same way in previous years.”
Despite his refusal to back down on the proposed increases, he expressed sorrow at the breakdown in communication with the Students’ Union; “I think for the specific issue of the rent increases, we could have handled that better. I think that the Students’ Union were taken by surprise, and in retrospect, I should have met personally with Joanna before the decision was made, to discuss it and to put in perspective why it would be necessary to make an increase of that sort of magnitude.” The Students’ Union does not hold a seat on the University Management Team (UMT) where the decision was made. They do hold seats on other boards such as the Governing Authority (GA) and the Finance, Remuneration and Asset Management Committee (FRAMC).
He admitted his relationship with this year’s Students’ Union sabbatical team was not as cordial as it has been in previous years; “For some reason the meetings with Joanna haven’t happened as frequently as perhaps they’ve happened with some of the other Students’ Union presidents, and that’s a situation where my door is always open to them, and if they have a particular issue they can come and sit and discuss it with me. It’s fair to say that some Students’ Union presidents have taken that opportunity much more frequently than others, and I’d be encouraging both Joanna and whoever succeeds her next year to take full advantage of the opportunity.”
“We’ve always had student representation through the last few years and I think the listening should be going both ways.” When pushed on whether or not he thought the Students’ Union were being listened to on the various boards they sat on, Deeks said; “I’m sorry to hear that the current student representatives feel that their voice isn’t being listened to. I would have a frustration that they’re, perhaps, not listening to what we’re saying, and that in the past we’ve managed to have a better two way conversation, and so I would hope that going forward we would be able to work together perhaps a bit more in partnership and listen to what the other is saying.”
When the issue of the amount of money spent on business class flights was raised, Deeks admitted he understood that some students were frustrated and said that a new travel policy would “allow staff members to fly economy class while putting the difference into a research account to support their research.” He added, “I think what has to be put into context is that those flights are part of an operation which is generating income, which is underpinning our operation here, so it’s effectively an income generating activity, which brings more money in, which can be used towards student services and towards the provision of more faculty members, more support staff.”
“I can absolutely understand it, and it’s something that only through looking at the big picture when you see that there is a million on these flights, it’s actually bringing into the university much more than that, and so the net benefit to the university and to the experience of the students here is in fact a positive one. But I can certainly understand how that would be a frustration.”
In terms of financing and spending as a whole, Deeks expressed hope that students understood the benefit of investing in construction and real estate. One of the main topics that was discussed was the spending on projects such as the University Club and renovating Ardmore House against the backdrop of rent increases and a lack of spending on services. More money was spent on the aforementioned business class flights in 2018 than on the counselling service. Deeks defended the decision to add to and renovate infrastructure across campus. “I would hope that students would see that what we’re attempting to do is to build all aspects of the university and not that ‘we could be doing this if we didn’t do that’. In actual fact, if we’re going to expand the student support in the university in the absence of an increase in government funding, we have to generate additional revenue from other sources, and that will include using O’Reilly Hall and the [University] Club as a conference venue.”
“When you look at the student residences, we’ve borrowed the money to allow that to happen, when you look at the University Club, the same thing, we’ve borrowed that money and then its paid back through the operation of the club. So that’s not money that could have been used to support students. Yes, we support students, and there is expansion that we plan to do, but that’s not an either-or with the University Club, just as much as it’s not either-or with the student residence development.” he expanded.
When asked if he understood student frustration that by continually investing in real estate and construction, student supports were not getting the funding and consideration they required, Deeks reaffirmed: “we have to be planning for the future in ensuring that future generations of students will have an even better experience than the current students. If we simply said “right, we need to make this an ideal situation for the current students” without putting that future investment in, rather than things being better for future generations of students, they’d end up being worse.”
Asked if the decision to increase rents would have been affected had he consulted and interacted with students around campus, Deeks said it would not have. “I've been to various student functions so I absolutely understand the concern. It wouldn’t have changed this decision, because this decision is about making sure that longer term there is a brighter future, where these issues are taken care of and we can contribute to that brighter future. So no, it’s not through lack of understanding of the situation that we make this decision, it's through understanding the situation that we make the decision.”
Deeks was also asked about comments that had been made to UCDSU President Joanna Siewierska in various governing meetings she had been in attendance at. In a recent interview with The University Observer, Siewierska said that a board member had said to her “but if you have a house in Mayo surely you can’t be homeless in Dublin?” and commented in regard to Direct Provision students “these students were not invited here, they applied”. In response to this, Deeks said; “I haven't heard those quotes directly. I think the university's position is to give opportunity for all students. We understand the particular difficulties of Direct Provision students, we’ve had discussions with the Department of Justice around the situation that they find themselves in and we are continuing talks to see if there’s any kind of arrangement that we can come to in terms of that accommodation.” When pressed for a direct answer, Deeks said; “They certainly weren’t representing the university when they made those quotes, they might have been representing a personal opinion, and if I knew who they had come from, I would have a word with them perhaps in how they express that opinion.”
In addition to those comments, Siewierska told The University Observer that she and other members of the sabbatical team had made a presentation to the UMT in October last year regarding rent prices for students. She further added that students had been coming to the Students’ Union with sleeping bags with nowhere to live. In response to whether this was an example of university management not listening to the Students’ Union, Deeks replied; “It’s very unlikely that the students with the sleeping bags would have ever been seeking the level of accommodation that we’re providing here, and whether it’s 4% higher or 4% lower is not going to make any difference.”
He added further that the Students’ Union discussing students from lower income backgrounds who may not be able to afford on campus accommodation and conflating it with rent increases was “unfortunate”; “...that the Students’ Union insists on trying to conflate the two things, I think is unfortunate, and perhaps if we’d engaged a little bit more with them before they’d embarked on this campaign, so that they felt more involved in the decision making process, then we might not be where we are today.”
The issue of casualised work on campus, in particular the work of tutors and PhD students, was also raised with President Deeks. UCD Anti-Casualisation have been rallying alongside UCDSU and Fix our Education UCD against the proposed rent increase and for better conditions for themselves. In response to being asked about why tutors were paid around €1 per essay they corrected, and the absence of the restoration of the pay cut made in 2011, Deeks said; “This is something which we are in the process of reviewing, so it was actually on the agenda of the last UMT meeting. We’re taking forward a review particularly of the casual teaching and the marking rates, recognising that this has been an anomaly, that as you say, other pay rates have been restored, but these ones weren’t, so we hope to take action on that in the very near future.” When pressed on how soon “the near future” was, Deeks responded; “We don’t know how soon. We’ll wait for the review to come back with a set of options, there’s a number of suggestions, particularly in terms of the marking, which I have to say, to me it seems quite unfair, and we need to take action and we will take action on that.”
President Deeks was also asked about his strategy of future proofing campus, and whether by doing so it was negatively affecting current students. “I think sometimes it’s difficult for students to see the benefit of some of the investments that have been made before they came here, for example the Science Centre which is a state of the art science facility. A few years ago, science students coming to UCD didn’t have access to that. For the current students, when they were recruited, that was already there. The Student Centre, the swimming pool, etcetera - these are facilities which students are benefiting from but, to an extent, it was always there for them, when they came to the university it was there. But those things wouldn't have been there if previous administrations in the university hadn’t been planning for the future and putting those things into place.” The current Student Centre Levy, which is not covered by the SUSI grant system, was €254 per student for the 2019/20 academic year.
An overall theme across the interview involved Deeks’ day to day interactions with students, how often he interacted with them and whether he felt he engaged with them enough. When asked how often he interacted with students, he responded; “There are many students that will say hello to me and talk to me as I walk round the campus, and given that I walk in everyday, it’s almost everyday that I’m having some sort of interaction with students.” When asked if he could be perceived by some students as being unapproachable, Deeks said; “it’s certainly not how I’ve been viewed throughout most of my tenure here, and certainly in my previous roles, and when I was an academic teaching, as you’ll be aware I won a number of awards for teaching, and those were voted by students, and one of the things that they emphasised was how approachable I was.”
On a final point, he expressed a desire to interact with students, if he is invited to by societies or the Students’ Union; “I'd be happy to come along and give an address to students in the Fitzgerald Chamber, and I’ve made that offer to a couple of Students’ Union presidents over the years that I’m happy to come along and have a discussion about fees or whatever. So I guess in the past I’ve offered these things and they haven’t been taken up, so we’ll pursue it with a little more vigour given the perceptions that are clearly out there.”