Vulnerable students

Vulnerable students

Gozitan University students are not managing to find affordable housing even as lectures start again next week. In any major city students are vulnerable to unaffordable rent prices but here in Malta most students live with ma and pa. Gozitans do not have that luxury. Commuting daily is impractical and unreliable. At least on weekdays they need to be on the main island to be able to use college facilities into the night and make an early start in the morning.

I used to be a student leader in easier days. At that time Gozitan students had disparities with their Malta-based counterparts but they were mainly issues of inconvenience: the commute from hell and the additional expense of rent.

The costs could be mitigated with a few extra hundred euro a year in dedicated stipend payments reserved for Gozitans to compensate for the rental costs in Msida apartments they shared two to a room.

It’s student life after all and though a little bit rougher for them, Gozitans had the closest thing to proper university life as I later only really experienced when I continued my studies elsewhere.

But Msida has changed since then. It has changed especially in the last two to three years. When space in Sliema and San Ġiljan ran out, expats moved to Msida (and Gżira and San Ġwann) happy to pay over a thousand euro monthly for a roof over their heads.

Landlords who charged students a third of that for the same property struck gold. They are under no social obligation to consider the needs of university students. As they see it maximising their return is a right, even a duty.

Students – real students who move away from home to study, not the ones that have their mother do their beds every morning – are another vulnerable part of our community that is suffering under the pressure of a failure of our perverse property market.

Anti-student prejudice in a generation who benefited from free education, a state-funded stipend, and the bank of mum and dad, will blind the community to the real hardship suffered by these students.

But Gozitan students are coming upon a reality not seen in Malta since the late 1980s: a barrier to entry to university education. No student can afford to pay a four figure monthly rent, not on a stipend, not on a parental allowance, not on a small income from part-time work, not even on a combination of all three.

At that cost students have to confront the reality that they cannot afford university education and in a society where sinecures and ‘positions of trust’ are granted to the appallingly unqualified and the politically connected, people with connections as much as people without wonder if all the effort is worthwhile after all.

This failed rental market not only causes personal hardship to vulnerable people, but in this case, eats into the intellectual capital our nation’s future relies on.

This is where the state must interfere. We should stop being so bloody puritanical about market intervention when it is clear that the government’s neocon dogma, at the behest of the propertied and the newly wealthy, is making things worse for people and for the country.

Universities the world over provide student accommodation in expensive town centres where rent is charged to recover cost and not to maximise yield from premium real estate. Our university is dependant almost entirely on funding from the national budget. A guarantee from the Finance Minister will allow it to borrow money to acquire and develop properties at a reasonable distance from college in order to accommodate students living away from home.

There never has been a more logical and eminent justification for an addition to the national debt. For what is the state for if not to ensure equality of opportunity?

The Finance Minister assures us all the explosion in rental fees is not a crisis. Certainly from the point of view of landlords it isn’t. Is that as far as the Finance Minister can see?