Government allows developers to exploit students
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
Last October, 15,000 students sent postcards to Bertie Ahern calling for three things: investment in purpose-built student housing, the abolition of all college fees, and maintenance grants to be brought into line with social welfare payments. He did none of them.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) costed their proposals at £48 million, which Philip Madden, President of USI, points out represents three days' worth of the 1999 budget surplus of £6 billion. ``It is unacceptable that students are forced to live in overcrowded and often substandard accommodation and that they are forced to work long hours in part-time jobs which has a detrimental effect on studies,'' he says. ``It is unacceptable that poorer sections of our society are denied their right to education because of an inadequate grants system.''
Discrimination against poorer students
The following month, USI published a report which showed that rates of participation of students from poorer backgrounds have fallen substantially. Comparing the two latest census years of 1992 and 1996, students from `unskilled manual workers' had fallen from 1.8% of the university population to 0.7%, and students from `skilled manual workers' which comprised 14.2% of university population, was now down to 11.3%.
``The reason for the fall in participation rates of the less well off families in third-level education is quite simple,'' says Chris Newell, of the Students' Union at NUI Galway. ``The student whose family cannot afford to support them in college, simply can't afford university. Students from poorer backgrounds are severely disadvantaged in their studies. They have to work in poorly paid, unsuitable, night time jobs, which eats into study time and clearly affects their results.''
The Students' Union at NUI, Galway, surveyed students and found that well over half the students had part time work, and nearly half of these worked over 16 hours a week. The average wage was £4.13p an hour, well below the proposed minimum wage. The work was mostly work in bars, discos, shops, or restaurants, or night watchman jobs.
Housing the major cost
The largest item in the student budget is of course rent, which averages around £45 a week. ``It leaves students with under £5 per week to pay for everything else - food, travel, books, clothes, heating, etc which USI reckons to come to at least £85 a week for students living away from home.
The local housing shortage is of course a contributory factor. ``It's not just the cost of housing but the extreme difficulty in obtaining it,'' says Mary Flaherty, student accommodation officer at NUIG. ``Students queue all the way down the street, for four or five hours in the pouring rain to get a copy of the local newspaper in Galway to chase accommodation advertised,'' says Chris Newell.
Housing in Galway is a major problem. There are just under 1,000 on the city's housing list. The Corporation has ,under the four-year `multi-annual' plan, an allocation of 460 houses. As Vincent Forde, a Sinn Féin spokesperson in Galway says: ``It wouldn't even begin to solve the housing crisis, even if all the houses were completed in the first year. And the list is growing all the time, as people are drawn to take up jobs coming to the town in the boom economy.''
There are 11,000 students at Galway University, and another 4,000 at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). At least 75% of these students depend on finding rented accommodation in Galway city.
``Under these circumstances, you might have thought that the University and the GMIT would have gone out of the way to build, perhaps with government funding, good student accommodation which could then be available at subsidised prices to students who simply cannot afford the rents in the town,'' says Chris Newell, student union accommodation officer.
Tax relief on Legoland
``Far from it. The college sold land to developer Bernard MacNamara, who built Corrib Village, popularly known as Legoland, which has 126 units with capacity for 750 students. On a beautiful site, right beside Corrib River, there it is in pastel shades, fenced off from the river by a high steel fence. Students must pay £59.32p a week to MacNamara, who owns the village for the next ten years, when it reverts to the college.''
``I used to live there'' says Ógra Shinn Féin's Daithi Mac an Bhaird, now in his third year at the university. ``But I left. No one likes it. You are not a tenant but a licensee. You are not allowed to put anything on the walls or anything on the window. sills. The slightest damage incurs major fines. You've no privacy. The Corrib Village management come into your room at any time they choose. You can be evicted at 24 hours notice.''
The conditions are so strict, and so completely unsuitable to students, because in the summer months, when students leave the college, the houses are rented to tourists. At least 50 of the Corrib Village places are empty, according to the vice principal of NUIG, Jim Ward.
Student housing is an extremely lucrative venture due to the 1999 Finance Act which, under Section 50, allows tax relief of up to 90% of the purchase price of all student accommodation to be offset against any rental income, commercial or residential, within the state. In effect, this means that a developer with substantial rental income gets the property for 10% of its cost.
Selling like hot cakes
Only last week, Kenny Investments Ltd cancelled its plans for a housing development in the town, in place of another dedicated student village for NUIG. Kenny Investments applied to Galway Corporation for planning permission for 88 apartments.
This will be the Kenny Group's second student village. They built the Glasán scheme opposite GMIT, where the 167 apartments, townhouses and semi-detached units provide 714 bed spaces. Prices for the first phase of the scheme started at £164,950 for townhouses. The properties have sold like hot cakes, according to selling agents Sherry FitzGerald. All but 37 of the 167 units are gone already.
``It is a disgrace that the government, far from helping students with accommodation problems, has created an extremely lucrative investment opportunity,'' says Daithí Mac an Bhaird. ``This encourages developers to exploit students who can ill afford the exorbitant rents, who are then forced to devote long hours of study time to earn enough money to subsidise the developers' tax free income.''
The results of a survey conducted by USI in Galway show that Corrib Village rents are higher than the equivalent accommodation rates at any other university in the state, where the average is £45. It is exactly the opposite of what USI asked the Taoiseach to do back in October on the 15,000 post cards the students sent him.