Analysis of Impact / Covid-19

The short term impact of Coronavirus in two NI sectors: Social Housing and University Education

Edward Cooke
PhD Candidate in Anthropology

If later this year the coronavirus pandemic can be managed (prior to the current projections of a second wave arriving), different economic and social sectors within NI will be negatively impacted by the potential threat of further viral outbreaks. As the medical experts continually remind us that second and third viral outbreaks will arise, economic investment will halt and individuals and corporations will remove themselves from certain at-risk sectors to concentrate their investments in other sectors that are mores immune to the virus.

Take two specific NI sectors for study:

The social housing sector within which I include care homes, nursing homes and sheltered schemes, is likely to take a large economic hit. Over four decades sheltered housing (in all its different forms) moved from being seen as a form of prison accommodation for OAPs to becoming a lifestyle choice for people who were in their 50s+ Housing associations have invested heavily in sheltered housing, but the pandemic has shown that sheltered housing with all its lifestyle freedoms in ‘normal’ times becomes the gulags and the gas chambers in viral pandemics. Who today would in their right mind take up a tenancy in a sheltered housing scheme, or which daughter would now place her mother in a nursing or care home unless there were no other options? Which person living in solidary confinement in a sheltered scheme for the last month is not thinking of giving up their tenancy to return to living with a greater degree of freedom if the experts are correct and further viral lockdowns can be expected.

The housing associations will start to lose high levels of income from these valuable cash cows within the near future as void levels increase. The community based housing associations and those housing associations that have a high ratio of communal properties will suffer worst. One of the impacts of this drop in income will be the inability to borrow to build other new-build social housing and hence the management of coronavirus may impact upon future social housing programs giving rise to increased levels of homelessness? Government cannot be expected to bail out the third sector housing providers faced with decreased tax revenues, increased welfare payments and higher national debt interest payments. The management of the coronavirus in the last month will cause massive economic and social problems for the Ni social housing sector in the years to come.

A second sector that will face an immediate negative impact from the virus is the NI university sector. This sector is more dependent upon government funding that the sector within England and Wales. The Scottish university sector will face monumental problems arising from coronavirus as the Scottish government faces astronomical demands upon its welfare subsidies across many different policy areas. Quite simply two things have happened in the university sector. Third level learning has gone live, it is now on-stream and the energy provided for distance learning by the virus will mean the creation of more competitor on-line university providers such as the Open University and the University of Reading’s College of Estate Management. The NI universities will increase their on-line learning provision, but students will also be aware how unsatisfactory this type of learning is when engaged with for 3-4-5 years.

There are other massive challenges facing the NI university sector. the numbers of university students from the Far East will greatly reduce and this will impact on certain academic disciplines, post-graduate programs and student housing provision. The loss in student income will be substantial and the NI universities may come to regret having marginalised some sections of the NI population. The Ulster University which has invested heavily in China will take a huge economic hit. The UU has already heavily over-invested in the York Street campus and has had to go cap in hand for an additional £130 million bail out (this year) to the NI Assembly. The universities and private market housing providers have invested massive sums of money providing large numbers of ‘student halls’ in the north side of Belfast. These investment and development companies could face financial ruin if the NI student foreign population falls by 10 -15% as a result of the continuation of the virus. In addition, those UU and QUB university students who could not terminate their rental agreements with the private landlords in the Holyland will be less likely to want to return to the poorly regulated HMO sector around Queen’s University.

At the same time that university students question living in cheap HMOs, the private sector HMO landlords in the Holyland looking for security of income will most likely look to income stability and rent to the growing Romanian community. The Romanian community in the Holyland, increasing in size and confidence will not be inclined to tolerate the sort of anti-social, criminal behavior associated with QUB and UU students over the last decade. If university students look for alternative forms of accommodation, this will come at a substantial price and will greatly increase the individual cost of gaining a degree in NI. With unemployment levels bound to increase, students will start to question the value of a social sciences degree? Reduced student numbers, changing pedagogic delivery, reduced student housing provision and collapsed student housing developers will collectively put pressure on the NI Assembly to bail out the NI university sector. Alas, the increased funding demands on the NI Assembly by all sectors; including policing, health, welfare, housing, education, etc., means that there will be a significant reduction in the size of NI university sector to match that within the NI social housing sector. if this is so, increased homelessness, increased academic redundancies and reduced foreign investment from university students will be just a few of the problems facing NI (and the UK) in the next few years. And this is just a brief synopsis of the impact of coronavirus within two sectors within NI?!

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