Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has condemned as “absolutely reprehensible” comments made by Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan to UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU) about accommodation.
Mr Harris added his voice to criticisms of Mr Keegan ahead of a demonstration by students at 1pm outside Dublin City Council offices over the matter.
In an exchange of letters with UCDSU president Ruairí Power about student accommodation, Mr Keegan said he was surprised the union had not entered the property market itself.
He suggested it should have become a developer to provide “lower cost” accommodation for its members given its concerns about the “excess profits being made in the PBSA (purpose-built student accommodation) market”.
Minister of State Niall Collins has previously criticised the remarks and The Journal reported that Taoiseach Micheál Martin had said Mr Keegan “should withdraw the statement and articulate some regret for it”.
During Dáil question time on Wednesday, Mr Harris told Sinn Féin spokeswoman Rose Conway-Walsh that the “snide, flippant and sarcastic comments by a senior official…really showed a lack of understanding of the seriousness of that situation” regarding the lack of student accommodation.
Ms Conway-Walsh had highlighted cases where students were travelling for up to seven hours a day to get to college or were couch-surfing because of lack of affordable housing.
She said she was “absolutely shocked” that someone in Mr Keegan’s position could say or think such a thing. It’s absolutely disgusting.”
The Mayo TD, who said she would join protesters at the demonstration outside Dublin City Council’s offices, asked Mr Harris if he agreed Mr Keegan should resign.
Mr Harris replied: “I find them (the comments) absolutely reprehensible. It does show a real failure to understand the serious challenges that people are facing. It also shows …..a complete and utter disrespect to students.”
Ms Conway-Walsh had highlighted the critical need for student accommodation and the “extremely weak response” to purpose-built students housing being used for tourists from local authorities and An Bord Pleanála.
The Minister said there had to be collaboration with students’ unions and colleges and they should be listened to.
“And the idea that one of our most senior officials in our capital city would just dismiss their views using such sarcastic language is quite frankly contemptuous,” he said.
He said a meeting last week with the Department of Housing and college representative bodies heard there is an opportunity to build college owned accommodation.
Mr Harris said “I expect to be in a position (to have) a very significant policy shift” to college-owned accommodation as opposed to previous policies which had been reliant too much on the private sector.
Waterford Independent TD Matt Shanahan raised concerns about accommodation for Waterford Institute of Technology students. He said the accommodation strategy appeared to have been allowed to “wither on the vine” because there had been no progress since the last report on the strategy in 2019.
Mr Harris said there would be changes to ensure the permissions for colleges to access funding to build accommodation would be contingent on affordability for students.