Covid supports must not be paid to accommodation providers who refuse student refunds – Naughten

In Education, Local Issues, News, Young People by Denis Naughten

Limerick University should have public funding stopped until it refunds its students

Denis Naughten has called on the Government to ensure that no student accommodation provider should be able to avail of financial support from the State if it has not refunded students forced to leave college early due to Covid-19.

“This is not just private providers of accommodation because the Minister for Education has confirmed that the University of Limerick remains the only University in the country that has refused to refund students who were forced to leave their accommodation due to Covid-19,” said Denis Naughten.

“It is just not good enough that students have not been refunded the fees they paid upfront for college accommodation across the country, despite a call supported by the Minister for Education  who in a reply to me earlier this month said he would like to see private providers of student accommodation provide pro-rata refunds.

“The academic year has now finished with students missing out on half of their college semester and yet there are many private providers, along with the University of Limerick, who have yet to make any refund to students and it is now imperative that no public funding to cover any Covid costs should be paid to these providers until they refund students.

“In recent weeks I have been contacted by several students raising concerns that places like UL Campus Living in Limerick and several private providers of student accommodation in Galway will not refund rent for accommodation they have been forced to leave due to the pandemic,” explained Denis Naughten.

“There are numerous reasons given for refusing to provide refunds, but the fact is this student accommodation is shared – possibly with between three and seven other students – making it impossible to socially distance and comply with Government advice.

“Many of these accommodation providers received public support through tax incentives, sites or other supports from the State in the past and should have acted in a responsible manner before now. However, many of these providers will now be losing out on summer rental income and may be seeking a rate reduction from Local Authorities or other State supports through various agencies.

“Clearly the softly-softly approach has not worked and despite Government requesting that refunds be made, many student accommodation providers – including UL – have failed to return accommodation fees by the end of the academic year.

“I am now asking Government to make it clear that no application for any financial assistance will be considered until 50% of the semester rental fee is returned to students.” said Denis Naughten.

“I’m deeply disappointed that the University of Limerick has failed to follow the lead set by the rest of the Universities across the country by refunding fees. While the University is quite willing to take public funds for courses that are no longer being delivered, it wishes to take a different approach when it comes to its responsibility to its own students. If UL does not reverse this decision, then the Minister for Education should seek a return of student tuition fees paid by the State for the three months in question until this matter is resolved.

“Some providers have argued that students were free to stay in their accommodation but why would they remain in student accommodation with six other people and be expected not to return home between March and May when colleges were shut down?” asked Denis Naughten.

ENDS.

See blog post for replies from accommodation providers:  https://denisnaughten.ie/2020/04/22/student-accommodation-providers-must-refund-those-forced-to-leave-college-due-to-covid-19/

 Department of Education & Skills

Oireachtas Members’ Questions: Covid-19

Answers Due: Monday, 11 May 2020

 5.270

 

To ask the Minister for Education if he will provide an update on the progress of discussions with University of Limerick and other providers of student accommodation on the refund of deposits and accommodation fees

Denis Naughten

 Response

 The majority of students in Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) have vacated their accommodation. A limited number of students have opted to stay due to circumstances such as vulnerable family members in the family home, difficulties to return to their home countries, or ongoing medical placements. The universities have confirmed that these students will be able to remain in their accommodation.

The Department of Education and Skills is working with representatives from the higher education sector to address the challenges faced by students in this difficult time. The Department understands based on the information available to it that the six of the seven universities (TCD, DCU, UCD, NUIG, UCC and MU) who own student accommodation have confirmed that students who have vacated their accommodation will receive pro-rata refunds of their accommodation fees.

Universities are autonomous bodies and it is not within the remit of the Department to direct any university to offer a refund, however The Minister for Education has called on UL to join with the other universities and offer refunds to students who have left. We understand that the issue is currently under consideration by UL, and that a decision will be made shortly.

A number of reports have been received of private owners of PBSA refusing to refund accommodation fees in cases where students have vacated their accommodation. The Minister has indicted that he would like to see private providers of student accommodation provide pro-rata refunds.

At the moment, where private PBSA remains open for students, refund and cancellation policies are governed by the licences or contracts signed by the students. In other cases, the students should engage with their accommodation provider in the first instance to see if an arrangement can be reached in regard to a refund. If this is not possible, under the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 students have access to the Dispute Resolution Services of the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB).