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Overall Winner: Sarah McHale, Coláiste Bhaile Chláir, Co. Galway

 

What is the best way to guarantee the availability of affordable student housing?

With the latest reports showing that students are having to pay up to €6,000 a year for accommodation, it is clear that third-level education rose past “costly” long ago. In August 2017, the Irish Times wrote that “Rising costs are worsening college drop-out rates.” Learners in this country are in desperate need of help and though it seems hopeless, there are some people who owe the world of Irish education big time, if we would only link this problem to its debtors. However, to make this link we need to get some historical context – let us stand back for a moment and look at the roots of learning on our island.

In 1432, the Catholic Church founded the very first school in Ireland – St Patricks Cathedral Choir School, which is still taking admissions to this day. It was many church-run schools like this which brought about the masses of hardcore Catholics and intelligent thinkers that this country is known for – essentially christening us - “The isle of saints and scholars.” This tradition of schooling being the responsibility of the students’ religion continued right up until the late 20th century, with many of our parents and grandparents being taught directly by nuns and priests. Our doctors, lawyers, bankers, and teachers are a product of church-run primary and secondary education. Even today, over 85% of primary schools are owned and under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

At first glance, it would seem as if this holy community has been one of the country’s biggest assets over the last few centuries. However, several revelations in the media linking the Catholic Church to child abuse in the 1990s prompted the government to investigate the treatment of children in church-operated institutions from the 1930s onwards, in particular their sixty residential “Reformatory and Industrial Schools.” This resulted in the introduction of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) which released a report in 2011 showing that 90% of the 1,000 witnesses interviewed had been physically or sexually abused during their time in the schools. This confirmed the allegations that many priests and nuns had been using extreme corporal punishment regularly, in many cases when it was uncalled for. One particular investigation stated that - “During the period under review, there were four archbishops […] Not one of them reported his knowledge of child sexual abuse to the Gardaí throughout the 1960’s, 1970’s or 1980’s.” These horrific revelations were a huge disappointment to the Irish population; and it was decided that the church must pay back the country for all of the damage it had caused. A settlement was reached which required religious organisations to pay for all costs incurred by the State as a result of the abuse. This means that the government had made an arrangement which would provide them with a lot of money.

However, in March 2017, the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, announced that religious groups still owe €1.3 billion to the Irish government for institutional child abuse. Both Bruton and former Taoiseach Enda Kenny had urged the Church to act on this, but there seems to have been no movement thus far, despite the generous offer of a 50-50 payment between the Church and the State which received no response. With almost €4 billion worth of assets in its name, it is not a payment which would send the Church into bankruptcy. In fact, many of these assets, such as Nuns Island Monastery in Galway, are in central locations and could be put to better use. The Poor Clare sisters who live in the monastery rarely leave their residence to avail of the city’s facilities, yet this 4-acre site is used by only a dozen nuns while we talk of the ridiculous housing shortages in our cities.

So here we have a student population begging for affordable housing, a church that has let down the education system and needs to redeem itself, and a government who are seeking a solution to both of these problems. The Catholic Church, the founding fathers of teaching and learning in the country, have a duty to Irish education. Their failure only makes this duty even more important, especially at a time when rising costs are forcing young people out of third-level education. The land and buildings they own in city centres should be handed over to the government for student accommodation. With just over 6,000 nuns left in the country, a number which is on the decline, we are seeing an increase of convents on the market – if the church were to give these sites directly to the government it would pay off a large amount of their economic and moral debt, as well as helping to solve one of Ireland’s biggest problems.

In terms of costs, buildings such as convents and monasteries are already designed to house and cater for large groups of people. Costs would not be as significant as buying land and starting from scratch – turning several rooms into bedrooms and providing more student-friendly décor would be all required. With these low renovation costs, the government could charge a cheaper price for this type of accommodation. As it becomes available in more and more cities, the low prices would force competitors to drop their prices, thus lowering the overall cost of student housing.

However, the State can’t just suddenly come knocking and seize land that doesn’t belong to them. The responsibility lies with the Church to recognise this as the perfect way to pay back the country in the area where they let us down. They need to look back to their beginnings as great educators and find it in themselves to contribute to this cause as they did so well centuries ago. In conclusion, it is clear that this is the perfect opportunity to solve multiple problems in this country, and it is up to the Church to take action.