News Breaks of Maximum Rent Increase
UCD’s on-campus accommodation will increase by 4% year on year for the next three years. A premium of €1,000 on average will also be charged to the 1,000 newly built student bedrooms. This news was announced on February 5th by UCD Students’ Union. In the weeks to follow, Belfield would see several acts of protest from various student groups on-campus, with unending calls to reverse the increase.
A UCD spokesperson has said the decision was made “in order to secure adequate funding for the maintenance of existing on-campus student accommodation and the provision of 3,000 new beds; 924 to come on stream in September 2020.”
In an “infuriated” press release, UCDSU President Joanna Siewierska hit back at UCD, saying: “It is shocking to see Ireland’s largest, public university use student accommodation to make a profit, and do nothing to help students manage the crippling rents in Dublin.” The Students’ Union is also calling for an “immediate reversal” of this decision.
The decision to increase UCD’s on-campus rents was made by the University Management Team (UMT). The UMT is made up of 12 UCD Staff members, including: Professor Andrew Deeks (President of UCD), Professor Mark Rogers (Registrar and Deputy President of UCD), the heads of the six colleges of UCD and other notable UCD staff members.
The revenue gained from an increase in rents will help fund the ‘Residences Masterplan’, of which the latest development on Belfield’s south end will be a large part of. In a wide-ranging interview with the University Observer, UCD President Deeks said: “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.”
Students Start Making Some Noise
Despite vocal calls from the Students’ Union, the UMT showed no signs of going back. On Tuesday, February 18th, over one hundred students marched to UCD’s Tierney’s building. The protest coincided with a meeting of the UMT.
Students gathered in the Atrium of the Old Student Centre early that morning. Led by UCD Students’ Union, Fix Our Education UCD and Anti-Casualisation UCD, students began marching towards the centre of Belfield campus at 9:30am.
When the group arrived at the building, students began chanting directly below the third-floor windows of UCD President Andrew Deeks’ conference room. While the chanting continued, six student leaders made their way to the UMT meeting. UCDSU President Joanna Siewierksa, Graduate Officer Conor Anderson and a representative from UCD Anti-Casualisation entered the UMT meeting. They were not allowed recording devices or photography. They read out a statement to President Deeks and his colleagues. The student leaders also submitted their demands and a petition signed with 2000 signatures to the committee. These demands included: an immediate retraction of the decision to increase on-campus rents, a reduction of on-campus accommodation rent and the establishment of a student rental-assistance fund for students on and off-campus.
UCDSU President Joanna Siewierska said in a statement that the three student groups are “on a united front that the rent increase is unacceptable. Our rents are already way too high on campus and we also wanted to present the issues faced by casualised PhD labourers on campus.” She went on to say “we want to make it clear to management that the decision they took two weeks ago to increase the rent by 12% over three years has not gone down well with students at all. Not only were we locked out of that decision-making process, and our demands have not been responded to in two weeks, but this decision is going to continue crippling students who want to pursue an education here.”
When asked about the response from the meeting, Siewiersksa said “I asked for a formal response and we got a few words from our University President, just acknowledging our presence in the meeting. I would like to see a formal response from the University Management Team for our petitions and our demands.”
UMT Gives A Big Fat No
Following this first protest, the UMT decided not to back down on the planned on-campus rent increases. In a letter to UCD Students’ Union regarding the rent hikes, University President Andrew Deeks has said that “it is in the best interests of our community overall to proceed.”
The Tribune obtained the letter which was sent in response to two previous S.U. correspondences on the 4th and 18th of February. The entire University Management Team signed off on the letter sent to the S.U. on Wednesday February 19th. The letter explains that it is the view of Andrew Deeks and the University Management Team that “proceeding with these developments will contribute to longer term rent stability and potential rent reductions, and that it is in the best interests of our community overall to proceed.”
It continues by saying that while the Management Team sympathizes with calls for a rent freeze from the Student Union, “such an action would require [UCD] to freeze any further development of student accommodation.” The letter further accounts for the rise in rent by explaining that “the bringing of student accommodation under the Rental Tenancies Act, together with inflation in the costs associated with maintaining and developing accommodation, has meant that [UCD] must raise the accommodation charges.”
The official response acknowledges the difficulties that both students and employees of UCD are having in finding affordable accommodation “within reasonable commuting distance of the University”. The letter explains that UCD are increasing the current on-campus housing stock by 40% in comparison with that of 2014 “in order to help release pressure on the Dublin housing market”. The UMT claim that this “ambitious programme” will have added 3300 additional bedrooms by 2025.
The letter also suggests a number of existing supports for students struggling with accommodation: “We recognise that some students will not be able to afford our accommodation or indeed any accommodation within a reasonable commute of UCD, and so we have put in place an increasing range of scholarships and hardship funds to assist these students. The money for some of these scholarships comes through philanthropy, while others are supported through operating funds.”
In response to UCD Anti-Casualisation’s calls to increase pay and improve working conditions amongst graduate students, the UMT stated “We reject any suggestion that we are casualising our workforce” citing that the University has created more than 500 jobs in the past 6 years. The UMT have also announced that they “will be undertaking a review of the payments for casual teaching to ensure that these contributions are appropriately recognised.”
Anti-Casualisation, the graduate student group claiming to fight for better working conditions, have defined casualisation as “any kind of work which is done without a salary.” A spokesperson for UCD Anti-Casualisation responded to the UMT’s rejection of “any suggestion that [UCD is] casualising [its] workforce” and their announcement that they will be “undertaking a review of the payments for casual teaching…”
The spokesperson said: “Though they claim they created 500 jobs, and they reject claims of casualisation, what kind of jobs have they created? Short-term, casual workforce without any guarantee of health. That’s a huge problem. […] [The review] has to be genuine and they have to take our claims seriously. It can’t be some kind of lip-service that they are paying to our demands.” She also stated: “The undergraduate teaching is overly dependent on tutorials. […] Who is taking on the responsibility of taking care of these students, getting the lessons out to them? It’s the PhD students. Who are the most exploited? It’s the PhD students, because they don’t get a stipend to do [teaching].”
In response to the UMT’s statement, the spokesperson concluded: “UCD has got to take research seriously. PhD students are creating value for the university, in terms of research, in terms of teaching and the responsibilities that they undertake. So, PhDs should not be paying fees to do research and the work that they take on should be remunerated properly. […] It’s time to mend things. It’s time to make things right.”
Peaceful Protest of Governing Authority
Students later protested outside a meeting of UCD’s Governing Authority (GA). On Thursday 20th February, members of the Students’ Union, Fix Our Education UCD and Anti-Casualisation UCD organised a silent sit-down protest, in which they broadly obstructed the entrances of the GA meeting. The peaceful protest attempted to highlight students’ upset with the recent decision to increase on-campus rents. SU President Joanna Siewierska explained that they are protesting “to ensure that it’s clear to governors that we’re not happy with that decision.” The students dressed in t-shirts labelled with “#notabusiness” and “STOP THE RENT INCREASE.”
After the SU provided coffee and refreshments for the would-be political activists, the students sat around the entrances to the Red Room in the UCD Student Centre. Signs were held up saying “STOP The 12%” and “#notabusiness”. The peaceful obstruction began shortly before the GA’s 11am meeting, with the up to 37 members intermittently arriving in awe and amusement of the student antics.
Though the GA did not make the decision to increase rents by 4% year on year for the next three years, totalling over 12%, the student groups were keen to show their opposition to the UMT’s decision. SU Sabbatical Officers Joanna Siewierska, Brian Treacy, Úna Carroll currently sit on the UCD Governing Authority. The SU reportedly circulated their demands to GA members before the meeting, with a plan to discuss the rent hikes.
UCD President Andrew Deeks arrived shortly before the commencement of the meeting. After briefly speaking with SU President Siewierska and Graduate Officer Conor Anderson, Deeks meandered around the students to enter the meeting.
Students Camp Out for The Morning
The next action for the student groups was to be a tent action at the main entrance of the Belfield campus. The action on Thursday 27th February, which lasted from 8:30 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon, had a small number of students and a number of local politicians in attendance. Ruth Coppinger and Richard Boyd-Barrett of People Before Profit paid a visit to the students.
This is not the first time that UCD Students have pitched tents to protest an increase in campus rents. In April 2010, UCD students held an eight-day tent action and successfully lobbied the University Management Team not to increase the on-campus rents. Then UCD Student Union President Gary Redmond explained to the Tribune that the students were “sending a message to the university authorities that we will not tolerate their ludicrous policy of increasing campus rents annually”. The rent increases were frozen for two academic years, until they began increasing again in 2012.
Speaking to the Tribune at the tent protest, People Before Profit TD, Richard Boyd-Barrett, explained how he felt it was “utterly disgraceful to increase already extortionate rents on a public university campus without any consultation or consideration of the stress or financial hardship that it will cause students and their families.”
“It is beyond belief,” Barrett continued, “that rents on a public university campus would be more expensive than private off-campus accommodation. So, the University is acting as rack-renting landlords rather than acting in the interests of students.”
Speaking to what the government could do to alleviate the crisis, Barrett explained “I think the government should abandon what is obviously a deliberate agenda of corporatizing our universities. We should have the same levels of investment in third level education and the students as the rest of Europe, which we are chronically below in this country.”
During the protest Students’ Union President Joanna Siewierska told the Tribune: “Two things which we discussed with the University were that we need to get the Student Union a lot more involved in budget discussions for the year ahead.” Siewierska cited the need for the Union to have greater inputs on student supports and to be able to negotiate in the budgetary process. “What we need is a student partnership agreement between the university and the union to set out exactly what committees we sit on and our ambitions are going forward.”
Other Universities across Ireland have also protested similar rent increases in their respective campuses.
Numerous sources have suggested a continuation of protest in UCD, with students being asked to keep their calendars clear for March 4th. Student groups are galvanising together on a national level and preparing for larger, bolder action. This political game of chicken will likely end with the students or management blinking first. Both parties are firm in their stance, and not backing down. With rumours of national action from student groups, we may not have seen the end of rent protests in Belfield.
Conor Capplis – Editor
Hugh Dooley – Reporter