Housing crisis has spread like a cancer, and now it's infecting our education system 2 weeks ago

Housing crisis has spread like a cancer, and now it's infecting our education system

And you thought the Leaving Cert was the worst of it.

As 78,000 Irish teenagers received their Leaving Cert results earlier this month, most will have breathed a sigh of relief.

For some, it would have been because they knew they'd secured the points they needed for their dream course in college. Others might not necessarily have gotten their first choice, but at least once you open that envelope, the two-year slog has come to an end. Their stress is over.

Little do they know.

For some, the stress is only beginning. On results day, Minister for Education Joe McHugh caused ripples of discomfort with his comments on how housing prices will affect incoming students.

"University is a very expensive journey for many families," he said. "Accommodation is one barrier, one thing I am very attentive to is that no more cost is put on parents and households, yes, we have a funding issue within universities."

He added: "There are other stepping stones to careers. There are regional options... There are different ways, different stepping stones, different pathways to careers. There are other options and they could be at regional level."

Similarly, Mary Mitchell O'Connor - who is the Minister of State for Higher Education - said that students who will struggle to pay rents could use their SUSI grant (a maximum of €6,000, depending on means testing) to cover those costs.

Think about that in the context of a radio ad for Uninest - which labels itself as providing affordable student accommodation - which offers rates starting at €240 a week (or €960 a month). You'd run out of your grant after six months, and that's without paying for textbooks, your phone bill, or, you know, food.

The ministerial comments expose the housing crisis for the contagion that it is. A malignant tumour that's mutating and metastasising and spreading. It's stopping professionals in their 20s and 30s from affording homes, and now it will stop those in their late teens from accessing the education that they've earned.

The first thing you need to know is this. The government knows what is happening. Joe McHugh is prepared to speak to the press, openly, about the matter. He is prepared to acknowledge that there are children who have done what was required to win their place at Irish universities, who will be done out of this right by financial constraints.

The second, and more important thing, you need to know is this. The government does not care. They are encouraging workarounds, circumventions, sleights of hand. They're encouraging children to give up on university altogether, explicitly suggesting these "other stepping stones". They're not offering solutions, because they don't see this as a problem.

Speaking to JOE, Maynooth Social Policy lecturer Rory Hearne, said: "In the outset, I think that the comments from McHugh and O'Connell shows how closeted and removed from the real world they are. These are Leaving Cert students who have just got the points, worked really hard, only to be told 'You can't do that course.'"

Hearne notes that it's the lack of affordable accommodation that's at the heart of the issue.

"Why is there no affordable accommodation? Because we're focused on private market approach. Because successive governments haven't built social housing and public housing for decades, everybody is forced into the private rental sector. Students are now third class citizens within the housing system. Competing with professionals and working people."

Every single university in Ireland bumped their on-campus rental fees up this year, some getting their increases in just before rent-pressure caps were introduced. Rent prices have increased by 11.5%. Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy gave universities advance warning of three months that the caps were coming to coincide with CAO offers, so there was plenty of time for rents to be hiked beyond the 4% annual cap.

"I am very disappointed that student accommodation was put up in our universities and higher education institutes," Mitchell O'Connor has said. But this development was inevitable, if not intentional.

The housing crisis is most commonly conceptualised as hitting those in their 20s and 30s the hardest. Young professionals with families forced to move back in with mam and dad, or indeed, emigrate.

It is similarly sad to think that the crisis is keeping bright-eyed young would-be doctors, primary school teachers, social workers from having the opportunities of youth that they deserve.

To young people, college is liberation, it's a time to break free from their cocoon.

Even the word "regional" will raise a lump in the throat of anyone who was raised in a small town where they could not find themselves. Couldn't find kindred spirits or anyone to share a laugh with. Kids who didn't make the parish football team. Or any of the many kids who simply want to step outside of their rural communities and meet new people, see more of what the world has to offer. After 18 years of school, they deserve it.

For the government to be so content for this opportunity to be limited is so sad as to be intolerable. And we shouldn't tolerate it.

Third-level education is about more than preparing you for a life of paying taxes, but McHugh's comments betray his attitude. In his view, it's all about stepping stones towards a career.

For the Minister to acknowledge this as anything besides an all-out crisis should tell us all we need to know. This is a feature of Fine Gael's Great Recovery, not a bug.

Opposition politicians have slammed Fine Gael for their attitude towards the housing crisis and its impact on students.

"He is totally disregarding the fact that many courses, such as Medicine and Primary Education, are only available in the largest Universities," said Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire. "Essentially the Government is saying that only those who can afford to live in cities such as in Dublin or Cork need apply for these courses."

He called Mitchell O'Connor's grant suggestion "arrogant and out of touch."

Labour rang a similar bell. The party's education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin called on McHugh to withdraw his remarks and apologise, saying: "For the Minister for Education to suggest to those families that can’t afford third level that it is something they just have to live with, is frankly outrageous. The Minister for Education should be leading the battle for access for everyone."

Equality in access to third-level in education is nothing more than a poor joke in Ireland. For example, in 2015, 76% of students from Dublin 14 attended a high points course, compared to 7% in D17, 15% in D10 and 21% from D24. And those are the kids who can comfortably commute.

It is a deeply unequal landscape, and one that is profoundly advantageous for kids who attend the likes of King's Hospital (like Leo Varadkar), St. Michael's (like Eoghan Murphy) or Clongowes (like Simon Coveney).

Income decides the opportunity of our children. It shouldn't, but it does. It is up to the government to level the playing field. Fine Gael have made it clear that they have no plans to do so.