In a few weeks, thousands of freshers will be going to orientation lectures. They’re going to be told, as you were, and as I was, that they’re lucky to be here – that they’re privileged to be going to the one of the great, internationally renowned universities.
In the last number of years, Trinity has gone through a great deal of confusion over the meaning of that expression. Any business or political expert will say that in order to succeed, an institution must have a clarity of purpose. It must know what it’s trying to be.
Trinity’s ambition is to be a “university of global consequence”, yet its impact is far below its aspirations. We’re somewhere around 100th according to the best available global measure. The Times and QS rankings get more criticism than they deserve; both balance reputation, citations and teaching – they do so imperfectly, but well. They’re the best measure there is, and by no means a bad one.
And according to them both we’re circling 100th. Of global consequence we are not. Nor are we the university that offers the best or anything near the best student experience: I don’t know about you, but none of my friends and family in UCC have ever described anything close to my experiences with Trinity’s IT network and Academic Registry. Anyone who’s still using TCDwifi and hasn’t borrowed the details for someone else’s eduroam account has no idea what it really means to live.
Our departments and student services are underfunded and constantly vulnerable. A decade ago, an incoming JF English student could expect 12 tutorials per term per module; now it’s 7. Inhibiting those services is a sclerotic and heaving bureaucracy, through which bizarre staffing decisions and a general atmosphere of inertia prevent most things from getting done.
We are, in short, a university with deep problems and a razor-thin sense of who we are. Our brand is our history: Oscar Wilde, the Book of Kells, the Long Room. But without a sense of how we relate to those traditions, they mean nothing. The university of Oscar Wilde isn’t much more than a museum if it in no respect resembles the kind of university that could produce someone like Wilde.
But Trinity finding itself now in who it was before is impossible for deeper reasons. Who it was, was the university of the wealthy Protestant Ascendancy, who to many represented British male rule. As women were excluded, as war raged and people starved, Trinity’s Fellows drank port – and published very little in the way of research.
It was, for example, less than 2 generations ago that the Hist finally allowed women into the society. The embarrassing fact is that Trinity most likely produced Wilde for no reason other than because it was the nearest place for men of Wilde’s class to get an education, and one of those men happened to be Oscar Wilde.
It’s in this sense that the story behind the rankings – the story of Patrick Prendergast’s new branding, his rankings committee, and the controversy that it has all generated – is actually about much more than Trinity’s strategy. Those things represent an attempt to define it: to end the struggle for self-definition that Trinity has faced since the beginning of the Celtic Tiger. It’s no wonder that op-eds by the likes of David Norris and Seán Barrett on the rankings-race and the commercialisation of Trinity are so frequent and impassioned. They’re part of a fight for Trinity’s soul.
It’s hard to know in the long run who will win out or is ultimately right, but the evidence of today’s rankings show that in spite of their annoying tendency to characterise every tiny victory as monumental, the strategy of the provost’s camp is working. There are no more panicked assertions that we could fall out of the top 200.
The decline has been reversed, and Trinity is rising, and this without any meaningful intercession from the government in the 3rd level funding crisis. Though the number of CAO applications fell this year, the number of applications to Trinity increased.
The other point, which is inconvenient and often forgotten, but which any major SU figure will hammer home after only a few minutes of conversation, is that rankings matter. They matter whether we like it or not.
They’re how governments and businesses measure returns on investment, and how students, particularly international students, particularly wealthy international students whose fees could pay for several impoverished students, decide where to go.
They’re how academics, who bring up teaching and research standards, who bring interested colleagues and doctoral students with them, decide where to go. Our entire ability to be whatever it is that Trinity would like to be is, whether we like it or not, a hostage to the rankings system. For us to ignore it would be to bite that hand that feeds.