Grian Ní Dhaimhín: “most of the people we talk to are completely unaware that they have been charged unlawful fees by their letting agents”

As Queen’s University Students’ Union prepares for its annual election of SU Student Officers, Grian Ní Dhaimhín talks to The Last Round about the issues Students are facing, what isn’t being done and why QUBSU Students should support her bid to become SU President.

When we go out knocking doors around the Holylands and Stranmillis with the Student Renters Group, most of the people we talk to are completely unaware that they have been charged unlawful fees by their letting agents. We explain that the wee £30-40 fee they paid, normally under the guise of an ‘application’ or ‘administrative’ fee is actually meant to be paid landlords rather than by potential tenants. Some students realise they’ve been done out of £120-160 over a number of years. These fees were deemed unlawful by the high court a number of years ago, but with no Stormont to implement the decision, letting agents have continued to charge them, landlords have continued to not pay them and students and tenants have been left out of pocket.

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I’ve lived in the Holylands for 4 years, and I definitely prefer the additional freedom I have living so close to the city compared to living in university-managed halls. But there is no denying that it’s deteriorating. I’m not saying students are entirely blameless, but we seldom hear about the bigger contributing factors in the media. We’re the ones constantly demonized. Rents are increasing year-on-year and non-student residents are being priced out of the area. Landlords are withholding deposits or charging unjustifiable and extortionate amounts for “cleaning” and “damages”. Damp and mould is nearly expected and often complaints or reports by tenants won’t be dealt with for long periods at a time. This honestly isn’t good enough and we aren’t seeing any way that we can hold our landlords to account, without facing the risks involved with withholding rent payments. Things aren’t really improving and won’t until student tenants, and students generally, are taken seriously.

The issues facing students in the North are part of the wider systemic problems facing young people across Ireland.

We are in the midst of a housing crisis, and we need to tackle the problems that are unique to us while standing in solidarity with those seeking rent freezes, greater housing standards and more social housing.

We are in a mental health epidemic and at Queen’s 78% of us are worried about are mental health. We need to radicalize our approach to mental health, have more compassionate exceptional circumstances policies, make sure any student representatives and staff have access to mental health training, and we really need to consider the most suitable alternatives to the current cramped academic year structure. All this is part of how other institutions have to change their own approaches to mental health to deal with this effectively.

We have to ensure that there are no barriers to higher education; be that through fighting for publicly funded education, or decreasing the additional costs of being a student such as printing, travel costs and studying abroad. We need to look at the needs of students of colour, student parents and carers and disabled students as we fight to break down these barriers.

Furthermore, we must ensure that our universities are playing their part in tackling climate change. Despite the radical Fossil Free QUB campaign in 2015/16 and the promises QUB made at the time, Queen’s still invests between £6-9million in fossil fuels. Their curriculums do not feature in sustainability and they have made no acknowledgment of the climate emergency to date. As the Student Representative on University Senate, I have seen that those at the top of our university not only run this place like a business, but are business leaders themselves. I personally believe that the current way this university operates is not sustainable and will only continue to put interest of business before the interests of the planet and those affected most by climate change.

There are so many changes that our students need to see and I’m proud that I’ve been able to help in some small way over the past 4 or 5 years through Fossil Free QUB and through the Save Our Schools Campaign that saved the Sociology and Anthropology courses from being cut, defending arts and languages against threats to support. I’m fighting for rights and change through the Student Renters Group and the Climate Action Group, and through the fight for bilingual signage on campus. And I’m proud of my time on Student Council where I was part of having QUBSU support the decriminalization of abortion and was a key part in the creating the first Irish Language Officer in an SU in the north.

I’m proud of every contribution I made, and as a candidate in the upcoming SU elections that students at Queen’s will make me their new President on 24th and 25th of February to allow me to bring all these battles to the university and make sure that students are seeing and feeling the changes they deserve.