TEP and society life: an impossible pair?

Has semesterisation irreversibly harmed our society culture, or are these just teething problems?

In an open letter to the Provost last year, a group of students wrote that the Trinity Education Project (TEP) “serves only to detract from our college experience and devalue our education by damaging Trinity’s international prestige and influence”. The Project has been met with criticism over the faults and oversights associated with parts of its implementation, which affected not just academic work but the dynamics of college life as a whole. Societies in particular suffered from the uncertainty of the changing structure. Now in the second year of this system, societies are trying to learn from last year’s events.

The changes to the academic calendar last year, which saw the introduction of Christmas exams and the replacement of the traditional three week study period with a single study week before each set of exams, had a notable impact on society engagement in the latter part of each term. These changes, coming before most departments had adapted to the system of continuous assessment envisioned under TEP, resulted in assignment deadlines falling immediately before or during the exam period. The stress this placed on students was reflected in a drop in attendance at society events in the month before exams. JS English Literature and History student Grainne Sexton, who has previously spoken out about the failings of TEP, said in a statement: “Our thriving society scene is previously what set Trinity apart from other Irish universities. TEP, in my opinion, has had a detrimental effect on that.”.

Societies have had to adjust to the new calendar, pushing Christmas events back to mid-November and holding AGMs earlier in spring to avoid running too close to study week. A decrease in society activity in the run-up to Michaelmas exams may be a feature of life under TEP, and societies are bracing for a potential decline. Though Politics Society auditor Harry Humes suggests the effects of TEP this year are not yet “wholly perceptible”, he notes: “… I am expecting student engagement with the Society to dwindle as we approach Christmas. Last year, the drop-off in event attendees was severe, but I would hope that the teething issues associated with TEP in 2018/19 have been at least somewhat mitigated for the coming year.”

Are the problems of TEP’s implementation so far indeed just “teething problems”, or is this new year structure in some way incompatible with the thriving society life that, for many, characterises the Trinity experience? TEP’s aim of spreading assessments more evenly throughout the semester may eventually succeed in creating a more manageable workload and better distribution of the pressure currently placed on the final exams, but when students are asked on a regular basis to complete assignments that will contribute to their overall grade, it’s reasonable that they would prioritise those assignments over extra-curricular activities. SF Maths student Luan Fletcher said: “While I do like the fact that we’re not assessed on all our modules in summer now, it does mean there’s constant pressure there to study and that eats into society time.” Particularly for Sophister students, continuous assessment means that there’s a direct opportunity cost to committing time to a society in any given week.

“Is this new year structure in some way incompatible with the thriving society life that, for many, characterises the Trinity experience?”

Grainne Sexton, having experienced both systems, feels that “the new academic year structure doesn’t allow for the same level of time to be channelled into society involvement,” citing contracted essay deadlines and exam study periods. Especially for students who have entered Trinity since the new calendar was introduced, looming Christmas exams and regular assignments leave less time to get familiar with societies in the first term. Luan Fletcher said of his experience that “getting accustomed to the workload in first year and getting involved in societies at the same time was hard, so by the stage I was able to actually put in the time to get involved, it was too late [to run for a committee position].”

It may be more difficult under TEP to commit to the weekly obligations that are generally asked of society committee members, or to regular volunteering or trainings. However, this hasn’t necessarily been the case for everyone: Voluntary Tuition Programme (VTP), a society which relies on student volunteers being able to make time each week to tutor primary and secondary school pupils, says that, despite TEP, their engagement is “steadily improving”.

Though in practice TEP’s implementation so far has failed to provide the more holistic experience it claims to, there are potential benefits to students from learning to manage their time between extracurriculars and academics in a consistent way across the whole college year rather than study falling mostly in a period of just a few weeks at the end of the year. First year Philosophy student Claudia Friel sees a balance between academics and social life as difficult but achievable: “I do anticipate being under pressure towards the end of November … I’ll probably prioritise essay deadlines, exams and socialising over society events. That being said, I do see myself continuing to go to society activities, just perhaps a bit more sparingly.”

Either way, societies will have to make changes to adjust to college life under TEP for the wellbeing of their members and committee, and the success of the society as a whole. Harry Humes says of his society’s plans to accommodate the effects of TEP, “PolSoc will likely run bigger events but at a lesser frequency, and try to collaborate more with other societies to ensure higher turnouts.” VTP Secretary Fiona Walshe describes the changes to their schedule under TEP as “a mixed bag”. For VTP, the earlier start to the college year is “a huge positive” in that it allows the start of their programmes to be more in line with the school year, but the introduction of the Christmas exam period means that the first term of grinds ends several weeks before secondary school Christmas exams to avoid “negatively affecting our tutors’ academic priorities”. University Philosophical Society president Ryan Grunwell said that the Phil has used lessons learned from last year “to buck recent trends on both attendance and sign-ups”, reportedly receiving the highest number of sign-ups in three years. According to the president, the Phil now tries to hold as many events as possible in the evening “so that students can attend outside of classes, or on a study break from the library”.

Whether TEP is indeed incompatible with society life as we know it remains to be seen, as teething issues will be resolved over the coming years and societies adapt to a changed landscape. However, many of the students caught in this transitional period feel TEP has robbed them of something fundamental to the Trinity experience. Grainne Sexton, who was in second year when the new system was introduced last year, spoke of the difference between the two experiences: “In first year, I had a part-time job, sat on the national board of a not-for-profit organisation, regularly wrote for the college newspapers and attended debates run by the Phil and Hist on a near-weekly basis … [the Trinity Education Project] has played a concrete role in forcing me to majorly step back from extracurriculars.”

Maggie Larson

Maggie Larson is a Computational Journalist for Trinity News, and a former Deputy Societies Editor.