Last week, in my first act as a Trinity College alumnus, I requested my graduate reader’s card for the library. It came within five working days. In my first act as a graduate reader, I then requested a book from stacks. Even though I was told that I had missed the morning call for requests, and that it would be the next day before the book was in, I got an email four hours later saying it had arrived.
The next day I went to the Alumni Office in East Chapel to see about accessing wifi in the library as a graduate, as per the instruction in the letter that came with the card. I was asked what year I graduated (as it was this year the woman told me I wasn’t on her system yet) and then my name. I was then given a card with my TCD Guest username and password, and told I had access to the wifi for the next thirty days. Should I continue to need access after that, I just had to call in and it would be sorted. This exchange took place in under ninety seconds.
“I’m still waiting for the catch. It can’t have been that easy. It’s never been that easy”
In my four years as an undergraduate in Trinity, never, never, have I experienced the wheels of College operating in such a functional and straightforward manner. It all happened exactly as it was supposed to. I wasn’t told to come back or wait, or, as is so often the case, given no explanation at all as to why things weren’t working. It just worked. Seamlessly.
When I heard the woman say that I wouldn’t be on the system yet, my mind went back to my experiences of the Academic Registry and the annual trial of getting a letter proving I was a Trinity student in order to renew my scholarship. Of course I wasn’t on the system. Of course I should have known that nothing had changed, and that this seemingly newfound College efficiency I was experiencing as a graduate was just a fortuitous string of blips of competence that had somehow fallen through the cracks of the perennial, same old malfunctioning bureaucracy. And of course, fittingly, this efficiency would run aground when it came to wifi. I did, after all, spend Michaelmas of my first year on eduroam using my DCU housemate’s login because it was just easier than contending with ISIS. (I see that what used to be ISS is now just called IT Services.)
But no. Within seconds of telling me I wasn’t on the system, the woman handed me my username and password. It didn’t seem to matter that I wasn’t on the system. I went to the Ussher and logged in, and it worked on the first go. None of the drawn out pain of setting up TCDwifi, no struggling to get an appointment with ISIS. It just worked.
As I sit writing this on the first floor of the Ussher, I still haven’t accepted how painless it all was. I’m still waiting for the catch. It can’t have been that easy. It’s never been that easy. I’m waiting for the Ussher Changeover Librocop to throw me over the balcony, to land in the basement and find him already there waiting for me, and for him to whisper “TCD wifi firststeps” into my blood-oozing ear. Because there has always been hardship when it comes to dealing with College on an administrative level. What has changed? What’s going on?
My student card still works to get me into House 6, even though it says that it expired four months ago. This prompted a friend in final year to say: “For once a Trinity admin fuck-up actually benefits students”. She’s right, in the sense that, haphazard and capricious as College’s administration seems, it’s always the student who loses out to its whims, never College. But she was wrong on one key point. I’m not a student. I’m a graduate. Which brings me back to the issue at hand: as a graduate, College has been nothing but competent and accommodating towards me. So again, what has changed? What’s going on?
“College” vs “Trinity”
‘“College” is the faceless (or Prendervost-faced) education-industrial complex behind that – and a bureaucratic nightmare’
I think it’s worth noting the distinction between College and Trinity. Generally, “Trinity” seems to be used when we talk positively about our personal experience of being a student of Trinity College, Dublin (“The student life in Trinity is second to none”), and “College” is used when discussing the University of Dublin as an administrative institution, which is only possible in the negative (“College is taking forever with exam timetables”).
Though I think my impression of College as an entity separate from the day-to-day experience of student life is exacerbated by my having been actively involved in student journalism (which, by its nature means you often come up against, and are at odds with, College at its most explicit), I think the distinction holds true: “Trinity” is my friends, my lecturers, my education and my sense of community while an undergrad, which for me was centred around student media. “College” is the faceless (or Prendervost-faced) education-industrial complex behind that – and a bureaucratic nightmare.
“..as a graduate, College has been nothing but competent and accommodating towards me. So again, what has changed? What’s going on?”
But the reality is that now, as a graduate, my links are fundamentally with College rather than Trinity. Currently, there’s a certain amount of what Trinity was to me still here – I was drinking cans in the Pubs office last Saturday with other graduates and friends in final year – but when the current fourth years leave that’s essentially the end of my experience of Trinity. After that, Trinity as I know it is gone. That’s the nature of the four-year undergrad turnover. Trinity doesn’t really have institutional memory. First years won’t remember IS Services. Some old hacks might get a cheap laugh out of calling them ISIS, but I wonder how many of them read TN now. To anyone who started this year it’s just IT Services. But College remembers, because it was College that presumably changed the name.
And it’s College, not Trinity, that, through the alumni database, remembers me. And it’s College that sends me emails about alumni things and allows me to access the wifi on campus. But what I mean when I talk about “Trinity”, whether to those who were there with me or people that weren’t, in essence, doesn’t actually exist anymore.
What I fondly remember about my time here was “Trinity”, and now that that’s for all intents and purposes gone, as a graduate my only real ties to here are now through College: the antagonist of my undergrad. The only institutional memory that the University of Dublin has is afforded to what I liked least about it. And College knows that.
College’s engagement with (and attitude towards) its alumni, as evidenced by my experiences so far, is nothing like how it engages with us as undergrads. Because when the Trinity element, the worthwhile and personal part of our undergrad experience, is effectively over, College knows that it can’t continue its role as antagonist, not when we might be worth something to it one day.
Because as a graduate, I’m no longer an expense. I’m potential income. I don’t cost College anything any more, but I might be worth a lot to it one day, alumni philanthropy being a key aspect of the vision of privatised higher education the provost has for Trinity.
So College ups its game because it knows it has to, if I’m to think of Trinity College, Dublin thirty years from now when looking for somewhere to dump my millions. Hence my flawless graduate experience so far.
“When our Trinity days are behind us, College tries to capitalise on our nostalgia for an experience it actively undermined at the time”
College seeks to foster a relationship with us as graduates that belies the reality of the role it plays in the undergrad experience. When our Trinity days are behind us, College tries to capitalise on our nostalgia for an experience it actively undermined at the time. The incredible experience of Trinity student life that many of us have is down to other students, working through the publications, the societies, the clubs and the unions.
During my time at Trinity, College has been undermining this experience through the exclusion of students from decision-making on any meaningful level, the cutting of funding for student activities, and a general attitude of disdain towards the level of work undergrads put into making Trinity what it is. There has been a growing and worrying culture of decisions being made on a commercial, rather than an educational, basis.
With graduates, College tries to fill the vacuum that Trinity has left and hijack our nostalgia so we might one day give money to further the programme of disenfranchisement, disregard and privatisation that College has targeted at undergraduates for several years.
To look for money from us to carry this out is low, but to try and cash in and do it in the name of Trinity is odious. College has nothing to do with Trinity, but they know that, in its absence, we might forget that distinction – or just accept College as a stand in for the Trinity that we experienced but that doesn’t last. College knows it can reach out to us as potential benefactors, cynically aware that our nostalgia means we would more than likely rather have some tenuous link to Trinity than none at all. College is banking on us paying up – and in one respect, then, College’s position on graduates is the same as on students: it’s still a numbers game.
So with College’s attitude to me thus changed, where do I stand? Does my attitude to College change as a graduate? I hope it stays the same as it was when I was in Trinity. But, as an alumnus, how do I maintain an engaged relationship with Trinity, or have a conscientious stance towards College after I leave? Can I? Or does it even matter? I don’t know what the position of engaged graduate looks like, or if it’s even tenable or useful. Maybe it’s not possible.
If the opportunity ever arose, would I give College money? College, that cut student services without letting us know until months after the fact in 2013? College, that spent €91,000 on rebranding, having made those cuts? Of course, speaking now, I say no. If I ever become a wealthy alumnus, College won’t see a red penny of it. I’ll gift TN money for Freedom of Information requests. I say this confidently now, less than a year out of the place, but in thirty years, when my Trinity has been gone for longer? On the back of decades of alumni emails from Trinity College, Dublin, the deviant work of College pandering to my nostalgia for Trinity?
I’m still uncertain, as a graduate, how best to combat the increasingly grim culture of Trinity’s ever-growing education-industrial complex. But I know that that uncertainty is all the more reason for us to use our time in Trinity to fight for Trinity’s right to thrive, in spite of the agenda of College. Because while I can’t say for sure what it’s worth as a graduate, while still in Trinity that can be a potent force.