“One of the great privileges of our job is that we get to interact with people who are cleverer than us”

Juergen Barkhoff, the new Vice Provost, talks about TEP, his longstanding relationship with the Provost, and what Trinity means to him

Attending Trinity as a visiting student in the 1980s was, for a young Juergen Barkhoff, a formative experience.  

Life as a Trinity student meant, to him, developing all aspects of one’s personality, rather than merely burying one’s head in a book. This was a style of education he felt he hadn’t experienced as a student in his native Germany, and it amazed him. “Education is not just acquiring the skills and the knowledge you need for a job, but you should grow as a person. A sort of holistic approach to education. And I found in that year here [in Trinity]. The university was providing a community where you could excel, and do so many things. And that for me is an ideal, and ideal for what education should look like.”

When asked what kind of student he was, Barkhoff doesn’t talk about swotting in the library. Instead, he focuses on the social aspect. “We would often go to a talk or a paper or something or to a play and go back to the library, and go to O’Neills for a pint. I was a pretty committed student but I made sure that wasn’t dominating.” Pursuing a passion for acting, he joined Players, although “I never made it beyond the actor’s co-opt. I was front of house for the rest of the year but I went to the parties and that was the crucial thing.” 

His time as visiting student was the first of three trips to Trinity for Barkhoff. He studied in Tübingen, Hamburg and Dublin, and holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Hamburg. In 1995, he returned to Trinity to lecture in German and European Studies. He has since spent most of his professional life in Trinity, 29 years in total.

Barkhoff’s second visit to Trinity was a question of fate. A young Germanist at the beginning of his career, Barkhoff applied to an international academic scheme for the UK and Ireland. “When I went for at the interview, which was in Bonn in Germany, they had a list with all the vacant positions. There were 15 positions to be refilled and one new one, and that was Trinity College Dublin. I went into the interview thinking ‘that’s where I want to go’, and it worked.”

He does note that the university has changed significantly since he first came here as a student. The introduction of the Erasmus programme has been “transformative” in making the campus more diverse and international, and he describes this increased diversity of backgrounds as “fantastic”.

However, he still thinks “we have a big, big task to do. Like all other institutions in society” to increase inclusivity and accessibility. He cites the gender balance of academic posts in the university and the Trinity Access Programme as areas of success, but says we have to “continuously work to lower the threshold for coming to Trinity”.

In a decent society, things like healthcare, education, social welfare, these are the responsibility of the government

Relationship with Provost

He believes that a strong sense of Trinity’s unique identity is something he shares with the provost, Patrick Prendergast. The pair have known each other for a long time; they were both appointed to Trinity’s academic staff in 1995, and met for the first time at their induction. Years later, Barkhoff was the College’s Registrar while Prendergast occupied the top position, they “worked pretty well together”, and Barkhoff cites that relationship as a factor in his decision to take the vice provost post, when it was offered to him.

“I do think we have a lot in common,” Barkhoff said. “We both know the place from a student perspective, we both have a very strong sense of the Trinity’s identity, the pride, its history, its achievements and its distinctiveness” and they both want to preserve this. They share a desire to ensure Trinity is “at the forefront” of university achievement and leading social and political change. 

Barkhoff notes that Prendergast’s three vice provosts to date have all been Arts and Humanities professors, “and I think that makes sense, to have these different perspectives”. He believes strongly that the future of third level education lies in more interdisciplinary integration, citing climate change and the “digital revolution” as challenges that will be best overcome by the uniting of disparate fields of study.

Academic vision

Expanding on his academic philosophy, Barkhoff discusses his own career. “We talk about research-led teaching, and I am doing that, but there is also teaching-led research, where the students inspire you and give you fresh ideas”. He cites teaching as one of the great privileges of his career, and feels it is absolutely as important as his research and his leadership positions within Trinity.

He also believes strongly in ideals of academic “self-governance” that he believes Trinity embodies. “We are the only university in this country, and really on these islands, where we elect our provost, and the board is elected. That’s unusual and I think it’s very good”. Indeed, he describes this notion of self-governance as essential to basic academic freedom.

We have to continuously work to lower the threashold for coming into Trinity

Funding

The notion of education as a key public priority is “weakening” all over the world, says Barkhoff. In Germany, “it was accepted that, in a decent society, things like healthcare, education, social welfare, these are the responsibility of the government”. He is “very convinced” that education should be hugely funded by the state in order to ensure that everyone can access it.

Speaking specifically about the current funding crisis, he says he believes “substantially increased government funding” to the tune of about €300 million is needed in the university sector, to alleviate current shortfalls. He describes himself as “very concerned” that the education minister “kicked the can down the road” on the issue of funding over the last few weeks.

Citing again his strong belief in equal access to education, Barkhoff expresses relief that Minister for Education Joe McHugh ruled out increasing the student contribution or introducing a loan scheme in the near future, but he’s concerned at the lack of any positive proposal from those in government for addressing the crisis.

Asked specifically whether he’d support a lowering of the student contribution, Barkhoff believes it would only be “responsible” if accompanied by a corresponding increase in public funding, and “that won’t happen”.

“We absolutely have to put pressure on the government”, Barkhoff says. He believes not only that investment in education is essential to ensuring equal access for all, but that it’s smart policy. Citing the position of countries like Ireland, lacking natural resources and therefore relying upon international investment, he says “now is the time to invest in people”.

A lack of public funding has been a consistent problem for Trinity since the 2008 financial crisis, after which third-level budgets were slashed. As staff to student ratios were cut, it was necessary for the College to achieve “more for less”. It was on staff to work harder, for the university to increase commercial revenue, to rely on philanthropy, to increase the receipt of research funding, in order to fill the gap. They “mobilised the team spirit that characterises Trinity”.

Trinity has coped well though, he thinks. The college is “is in a better position” than it was a decade ago, having successfully diversified its income. “Very, very good decisions” were taken to increase commercial revenue, and up the number of international students, especially from outside the EU. “We pulled out all the stops,” meaning Trinity is apparently now running a small surplus, “but there is still work to be done”.

TEP

On the subject of the Trinity Education Project, the cause of much angst for students in the past year, the new vice provost emphasises his lack of involvement in the project’s planning or implementation thus far. He “very much subscribes to” to TEP’s aims and achievements but “we have a lot of work to do. That’s acknowledged”.  

He was already spoken to Laura Beston and Niamh McCay, the Students’ Union President and Education Officer, and “a big focus of our discussion was assessment”. He identified the “big pressure point” of the two exam periods and their reduction to one week each, and resolved to work to relieve this pressure.

Technology is going to play a part in easing pressure off students, it’s hoped. A mapping tool is being developed which will display student workload per module. This will give TEP’s implementers “a much better understanding how the student workload across programmes falls” and this will be used “to make adjustments”. Beyond that, it’s “too early” to name specific changes being made to the system, Barkhoff says.

Ultimately, Barkhoff is just glad to be back, having spent much of the last year in Berlin and Cologne, doing research for monograph he’s compiling on a famous Swiss writer. “Research is important to me,” he says, “but I also missed Trinity”.

Aisling Grace

Aisling Grace is the Editor-in-Chief of the 66th Volume of Trinity News. She was formerly Online Editor and Deputy News Editor, as well as an English Literature and History of Art and Architecture student.

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy is the current Online Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister Engineering student, and a former Deputy Online Editor.