Higher Education and Even Higher Rents

There is a serious concern about the long term effects that higher rents in urban areas could have on third level choice in Ireland. This is not a short term concern, and the impacts countrywide could change the way Ireland develops forever.

Trending in the news over the past few days has been the unwelcome reports of the rapidly increasing rent prices countrywide. The release of this data in the form of the annual Daft report on rental prices seemingly coincided with the release of CAO first place offers. When the joy of the first-round offers has subsided, the difficult decisions will come to light. Not for the first time, genuine worry will encapsulate the mood as young men and women eager to embark on the rest of their lives need to make significant financial decisions. It is fair to say that these decisions have been made for decades, but it is equally fair to say that the past number of years have seen rent increases which may well change the way school leavers make important decisions about their higher education.

Much of what this article will entail will be speculative, although since I started writing it I’ve seen more related examples. I think that there is a distinct possibility that much of what will follow here may happen, as it may already be the case, and it is hard to predict to what extent it is already occurring. I fear a little that this article will also add another straw towards breaking the camel’s back as Ireland grows tired of the problems in our housing sector. Someone might say ‘not another problem’, and see university students as less of a priority. It is my feeling though that the issues here could accentuate an already overstretched system and put greater pressures in areas where previously it has not proven to be an issue.

The increasing rent prices, regardless of who is to blame for them, will impact on where people decide to take their third level study, if it hasn’t already happened. The scale with which this will happen is probably something we can’t measure, and while large numbers of students who live in the likes of Dublin or Cork may have less to be concerned about, students from rural areas or outside of major towns and cities who work hard for excellent exam results may be forced to choose courses based on proximity above all other factors.

Going to third level for the first time is a big step, not just for the student but also for the family, who experience their son or daughter with a very different lifestyle and with more independence. Parents recognise this and do their best to support their children on this important journey. If we start looking at situations where a family is left looking at trying to afford urban rent prices, especially those in Dublin, tough family decisions will be made. Families and individuals and will not only be looking at the quality of the course they choose, but the overall economic value of higher education.

Higher education institutes in Ireland struggle as it is to justify the value their courses have to individuals, and you could suggest that it isn’t really their fault that rents are as high as they are. But I don’t really think that matters, because when me make a decision like this, we take everything into consideration and evaluate the finished project. If you think of it a bit like a Ryanair flight that you buy to London Stansted or Paris Beauvais for €10, but when you arrive you discover all the add-ons of time and travel into the city, the value of the deal is somewhat reduced. I use this analogy merely to simplify my point. I wish choosing a college course or career was as easy as buying cheap flights online, but for the most part it is a more complex task.

I take a particular view of education and higher education in particular, and that is the education is there for helping you to grow and improve as an individual, and this can be achieved through learning. I don’t subscribe to the idea that education is primarily for employment, although it is significant, and I think when people choose a higher education course many also take the importance of these broader social and experiential benefits into account. When the cost of study increases, and especially for those who make a proportionally large financial investment for accommodation and living, the way they choose their courses will change. We have increased our propensity for considering the job trends when choosing our courses, especially since the recession, but with recovery we have become more selective in our choices, and with the advice that we give. Employability takes a precedent, and if you are to leave university with a significant debt following four years of renting in Dublin, for example, the importance of promptly entering employment will loom over new graduates.

You’ll have to forgive me for my constant references to Dublin in this article, but it is the centre of Irish higher education. Dublin has over 100,000 full and part-time students in higher education. There are three universities, three institutes of technology, as well as numerous high-quality private colleges with fine reputations. Not only this, it is home to some very specialised courses, such as veterinary, and some of its bigger universities are certainly attractive to ambitious students. I think that if you look around the country at the other universities you can say the same things, but my knowledge stems from Dublin. You could also say that Ireland is a small country and we believe if you work hard your results will matter more than where you got them, and I couldn’t agree more. However, we also spent much of our time reinforcing the idea that if you’re good enough you can go wherever you want to study in Ireland, because if you have the points then the world is your oyster. But times are changing, yet we can only predict how quickly and dynamically they flux.

As I mentioned, people will begin to choose courses based on proximity over the courses suitability or the individual’s desire or ambition. I am aware that this happens already, indeed when I filled out my own CAO I didn’t pick anywhere I couldn’t get a bus too every morning. Growing up in the Dublin Bus’s 70 terminus of Dunboyne being a blessing in this instance.  The problem with this situation is that it’s all well and good for people within commuting distance of Dublin, but those in other parts of the country are significantly less resourced in higher education options. Studying in Dublin or Cork or Galway will increasingly be seen as a luxury or status symbol, and there is something intrinsically wrong with this.

The situation becomes somewhat more austere as places in regional education centres become taken up by students who traditionally may have looked at going to university. This does have the benefit of increasing the quality of the classroom and student groups, but at the expense of students who previously may have found opportunities in higher education through local Institutes of Technology who will now find the competition for places to have increased significantly.  I think that perhaps we’ve already seen this process begin with the demand for a university to service Ireland’s south east. Educational snobs like to laugh at ITs as centres of basket weaving studies or advanced hairdressing (side rant – who gives a shite what another person wants to do with their life? Just support or be happy for them ye big Business and Law graduate), but their importance to the wider educational environoment of this country is vital. While they may indeed have nonsensical courses, their role in providing gateways to the technical workforce for many is vital.

Without something being done about this in good time, the situation will worsen. I think that we are already witnessing this situation in flux, although it will be hard to recognise the extent to which this is happening. The larger universities will always be able to fill places in in demand subjects, such as engineering or those geared towards services according to the recent news reports. Free spaces can be filled by international recruitment strategies, which benefits the universities in global ranking places and their bank accounts.

As a parent with young kids, the solution for me is quite simple, and this is to move closer to the urban centres with greater diversity of educational opportunities. Especially now, young professionals are more flexible as their backgrounds in IT or engineering allow for increased transiency. This kind of migration shouldn’t really perturb many of us who have already been a part of it, but it is the kind of migration which doesn’t pull at the heartstrings as much as the emigration which tore at us not many years ago. This in-country migration is no less disruptive, especially to rural communities. It is at this point where we see ourselves coming full circle once again to the issue of housing in our major urban areas. Young families will leave their homes and move to the cities because this is the best option for their families growth, even with the costs involved of paying exorbitant house prices or tackling overly competitive school enrollments. When you start to see less and less children on the streets of our town and villages as we journey further from the cities, are we not to blame because we never raised our hand and said that something is not right here.  This problem will extenuate itself increasingly in the coming years, if not decades to come, unless we some how try to curb it.

The housing crisis is not just about the cost of  accommodation, it is a wider social crisis that cannot be solved by a quick fix. It is clear to any person who tries to rent property or who opens a newspaper how much this issue is shellacking the country. I see it as an opportunity to reassess our understanding of what this accommodation crisis is causing. It goes beyond the problems which families are facing each day who are forced into emergency accommodation, or the prices which young people may be faced with paying for apartments in the cities. It is not my place to argue that any situation is more important that another, as what I see here is an extension of the increased housing neglect which is impacting countrywide. The right to education is one which we do not even debate in this country, and is one that has long hoped to be based on foundations of exceptional standards and equality. Are we in danger of reversing this?

In September, thousands of young people will wander off into this world in the hopes that they can be provided for. In the hope that everything will be ok. It’s a sobering thought that some may be forced to grow up quicker than others due to preventable situations. If we take a moment to consider what this means to be people, if we have stood in those same shoes ourselves as so many of us have, perhaps we can see more of the reality that Ireland’s 21st century crises continues to lay upon us.

 

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