Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris remarked this week that an “urgent conversation” is needed on the issue of student accommodation following a bill on the matter brought forward by Sinn Féin in co-operation with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).
The bill in question would, if passed, provide increased protections for student renters, including preventing student accommodation providers from requiring more than one month’s rent in advance and allowing students to exit accommodation contracts with 28 days’ notice if they cannot take up their room due to coronavirus restrictions.
But this conversation has been going on for years, and Harris ought to know that. Student accommodation has been a staple of discussion regarding accessibility to third-level education. Student unions have been having this “urgent conversation” for a long time.
Fine Gael politicians in similar roles have a history of dubious comments regarding accommodation for third-level students, perhaps indicating a fundamental lack of understanding in the party of the gravity of the issue. For instance, former Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor came under fire in 2019 for suggesting that students use their SUSI grants to pay for rent – despite the fact that the cost of accommodation in Irish cities is significantly higher than the maximum stipend that SUSI pays.
In a similar gaffe just a few days beforehand, then-Minister for Education Joe McHugh suggested that families who were struggling to pay for the costs associated with third-level education should consider more affordable regional options. Fine Gael’s recent history on student issues is remarkably poor, and it’s telling that USI have had to turn to opposition parties to get their plans put on the Dáil table.
It’s a worn-out cliché at this point that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of protections for student renters. Many were forced to leave accommodation without notice and others unable to receive refunds for accommodation they weren’t able to take up due to restrictions.
“Urgent conversations” mean nothing without decisive action. Harris has control over this issue, but it’s not likely that his party will support a Sinn Féin-tabled bill. If Harris is truly committed to making students’ lives better, he should ensure that this bill does not join the pile of good ideas lost to party politics.