The candidates running to be Trinity’s next provost had their first opportunity to engage in a live, in-person debate this afternoon during a discussion that spanned higher education funding, rankings, student services and the future of Trinity’s governance.
Professors Linda Doyle, Linda Hogan and Jane Ohlmeyer were pushed by journalist Sharon Ní Bheoláin to give concrete plans to back up their ambitions and distinguish themselves from their fellow candidates.
The discussion was held in the Public Theatre in the Exam Hall in a move away from the use of Zoom in previous debates and forums.
The candidates were quizzed on their plans for funding Trinity in the wake of the pandemic and the specific sources they would seek to generate income from.
All three candidates stressed that they would be making a case to the government for a substantial increase in core funding, however while Professors Doyle and Ohymeyer focused on philanthropy as a main focus for an alternative revenue stream, Professor Hogan emphasised partnerships with business and peer universities. She stated that through these partnerships Trinity could “grow our additional income by 20%”.
Ohlmeyer challenged this narrative, stating that “the last decade was the decade of commercialisation and internationalisation”, whereas “the next decade is about philanthropy”. Ohlmeyer said that for every €1, the College currency invests in philanthropy, it sees a €17 return, adding that Trinity has “a fabulous story to tell”.
Doyle argued that an increase in government funding at the time of financial crisis is realistic because “it is so important for this country” to come out of the pandemic in a strong way and that the university had proved its worth during the pandemic, citing examples of donating equipment and facilities. Hogan argued that it was important that Trinity put a “specific ask” to the government in terms of funding.
Doyle also ruled out increasing fees, saying that “widening” access to education would be a priority for her.
On a topic that had not yet been addressed to this extent during the campaign period, the candidates were pushed on their plans for the land Trinity holds at the grand canal docks which has been earmarked for a technology campus dubbed Trinity East.
Doyle said that Trinity East should be developed as a “fully thriving second city centre campus location”, with a focus on sustainable architecture. “There’s an enormous opportunity for us to do things in an absolutely different way down there, to catch climate and biodiversity by the neck,” she said.
Taking a different perspective, Ohlmeyer said that “what we are doing is risking bankrupting the mothership” and that Trinity East risks taking money that should be put towards promotions, new hires, and the student experience. “There’s an opportunity to do something utterly transformational there and I think we should take our time and get it right.”
Hogan said that a key purpose of the campus would be providing quality spaces for researchers that are not currently available in Trinity. “I understand that the Board yesterday approved an ask to government of €100 million,” Hogan said. “If that ask is a yes, then this would be a major, transformative investment in the area of sustainability.”
Addressing the issue of Trinity’s place in the global university rankings, Hogan and Ohlmeyer were in harmony on stressing the importance of rankings, with Hogan offering the most ambitious and most concrete target of getting Trinity back into the top 50 ranked universities in the world. She said that she would do this by tackling “our problems with systems, with bureaucracy that are really impeding people’s ability to do research”. Hogan said that this was an issue where many academics had told her they were dissatisfied with the status and she committed to “focused, below the radar, detailed work” to reduce the administrative burden.
Doyle noted that she has “a very different view about the rankings”, from the other candidates. She stated that she would contest the usefulness of a number of the metrics used to calculate rankings and accused the current impact rankings of “greenwashing” on the issue of the environment. She said she would not be led by rankings in deciding what the best action to take for the College was, and also argued that where Trinity was currently falling down was out of the control of the provost and in the hands of the government.
Ohlymeyer once again took on the most combative approach during this section of the debate, directly challenging Doyle by stating “the rankings do matter and anybody who says they don’t I simply disagree with”. She argued that “they’re a reflection of something, a reflection of how much we care about doing excellent research and the quality of the student experience”. Ohlmeyer said that her main strategy for increasing Trinity’s ranking would be reducing the staff to student ratio.
On student numbers, the three candidates agreed that they wouldn’t seek to grow them beyond 21,500, a benchmark that plans are already in place to work towards. Ohlmeyer added that College “should be really careful about whether we want [to meet that number]”.
The area where the candidates were in the firmest agreement was the need to safeguard Trinity’s governance structure from government plans to enact change.
Plans are currently underway at a government level that would significantly change how Ireland’s higher education institutions are governed, which for Trinity could mean the reduction of the number of Board members from 27 to 12 and an increase in external members.
All three candidates were in harmony that the move would be detrimental to Trinity and that they would petition the government for an exemption.
Doyle said that the government’s proposal was put forward in a way that presented there being “only one way to look good” and that she wanted to see what the evidence is for their strategy’s effectiveness. She said that a core ethos in Trinity is one of democracy and collegiality and that those need to be protected and developed further.
“Trinity’s collegiate governance has been the engine of its excellence,” Hogan said. She agreed that Board may need some restructuring, such as by reducing the number of members from 27 to 23 and separating the role of chairing the Board from the provost’s remit, but not in the way put forward by the government.
Similarly, Ohlmeyer said that “we have our collegiate governance that has served us well. Anything that destroys that would not make any sense and I think the government recognise that”. She also wants to separate the roles of provost and chair to remove a “fundamental conflict of interest” and allow Board to hold the provost to account.
When asked how they would better provide supports for students, all candidates praised the current systems in place, particularly the counselling service, and said that the solution was to better resource these services. Doyle stated that Trinity’s counselling services are “hugely renowned” but they are completely overburdened, and that Covid-19 had exacerbated this. Doyle said she would increase investment in student services and facilities, such as the 1937 Reading Room, give better supports to capitation bodies, and put a focus on disabilities and a wider investment in the Trinity Access Project.
Hogan also emphasised the importance of the provost in providing “clarity” to students and said that much of the anxiety experienced by students this year was due to uncertainty about whether in person classes would be taking place and whether they should move into student accommodation. She also said that the provost must “lead a discussion about what we do to build resilience”, stating that there was a danger of allowing “this narrative to be about crisis rather than building resilience”. She said that Trinity needs “much more diversity in our university, but it is also about enabling our students to come in early through community engagement”.
Ohlmeyer said that when she was vice president for global relations, there was an “undertaking” that a proportion of income generated from internationalisation would flow directly to support services. She said that she had recently been “very distressed to hear that that never happened”, and promised to implement this. On diversity and equality, she said that Trinity needs to do a “huge amount to reach out beyond the walls” and pull disparate programmes together for a cohesive approach.
Next week, the candidates will be quizzed by students for the first time in hustings led by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) and the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU).