Perhaps unsurprisingly, the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth has often stood apart from Ireland’s other third-level institutes in many regards. While the college prides itself on being an institution of Ireland’s best and brightest (admittedly supported in this claim by annual world university rankings), through other lenses it has long been regarded as being exclusive and elitist. Its legacy as an institution of the Protestant ascendancy class, and more recently, a reputation for South Dublin snobbery, result in an overrepresentation of students from affluent areas of the capital, while the rest of the country focus instead on the constituent colleges of the National University of Ireland, such as UCD, UCC, and NUIG. However, the phenomenal increase in undergraduate applications to Trinity reported recently suggests that Trinity is shedding such appearances and, consciously or otherwise, taking on a new image with a broader appeal. Data released by the CAO indicated a significant 38% overall increase in demand for places on undergraduate courses. Courses across all schools rose remarkably, including a 58% boost in first-preference applications for medicine, and an extraordinary 90% rise in the same for history, to name but two.
“A combination of beautiful photography, the stunning architecture of College campus, and an infamously attractive cast no doubt piqued the interest of Leaving Cert students suffering the combined pressures of lockdown and looming exams.”
Of course, in discussing Trinity’s boost in popularity, we must address the elephant in the room. In the initial months of the first lockdown last year, a certain limited series in which Trinity College featured prominently reached an audience of over 62 million on BBC iPlayer alone, and was viewed by millions more on streaming services and television networks worldwide. The resounding international success of said series, as well as the original novel by Trinity graduate Sally Rooney, was credited by many media outlets for a significant 10% increase in applications to the college between May and June. While the series in question may not have presented the most optimistic vision of college life, featuring bad breakups, traumas, and mental health issues, it also romanticised Trinity to a significant degree. A combination of beautiful photography, the stunning architecture of College campus, and an infamously attractive cast no doubt piqued the interest of Leaving Cert students suffering the combined pressures of lockdown and looming exams (as they stood at the time). The series certainly did not shy away from the notorious “elitist” attitudes found in the college. Numerous characters sporting pronounced D4 accents, represented the wealth and social status which Trinity students are stereotypically obsessed with flaunting. There was no illusion that one is not bound to run into many such individuals in Trinity. The series did remind its viewers, however, that for every member of this arrogant and privileged minority, there are a dozen friendly, approachable, and like-minded peers around campus – normal people, one could say.
Whatever may have sparked Trinity’s newfound popularity, such change will likely prove to be self-perpetuating. More applications from across the country will mean a student body more representative of the population, encouraging others from areas outside of the capital to apply. When school friends and neighbours advertise their student life on social media and in the parish, College becomes a more attractive option; the experiences of friends offer a far more informative insight into the college than any open day could. As well as this, College will likely be eager to embrace a new image of openness, and consequently make good on the changes which have come about rather suddenly through increased demand from students around the country.
“Discussions around the holding of the Leaving Cert in the midst of COVID-19 have revolved around questions of fairness and equitability; however, the reality is that the Leaving Cert was never a level playing field to begin with.”
While the jump in CAO applications may signal a broader appeal and perhaps a decline of exclusivity, it is altogether possible that such a rise may have the contrary effect in the long run. As CAO points are determined by demand, popular courses consequently become much more competitive and places are awarded to those achieving the highest Leaving Certificate points – disproportionally private educated students. Discussions around the holding of the Leaving Cert in the midst of Covid-19 have revolved around questions of fairness and equitability; however, the reality is that the Leaving Cert was never a level playing field to begin with. 2016 research by the Irish Times showed that private schools dominate high-points courses in third level, with 20 out of the 25 schools which send the highest proportion of students to third level are fee-paying.There is a myriad of reasons that private schools consistently outperform their public counterparts. Some will argue that the quality of tutoring and education in these institutions is simply higher, however, it is also true that students who attend these schools come almost exclusively from affluent backgrounds, and are often free from the pressures of part-time jobs, and can afford private tutoring or “grinds” outside of school hours. Therefore, while Trinity may enjoy a significant boost in applications from all demographics, and pat itself on the back for openness and inclusivity, the consequent rise in points ultimately leads to a greater proportion of students from affluent backgrounds to the exclusion of socioeconomically disadvantaged candidates.
“The considerable room for College to become more inclusive does not regard opening geographical borders, but rather closing gaps of wealth and class.”
As the “most international” university in Ireland, it may seem ironic to suggest that there is any urgency for Trinity to diversify. However, research by the Higher Education Authority last year revealed that Trinity has both the lowest proportion in Ireland of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and highest of those from affluent areas. Trinity’s exclusivity is not simply a matter of national or ethnic demographics, but also social and economic. The considerable room for College to become more inclusive does not regard opening geographical borders, but rather closing gaps of wealth and class.
Trinity’s domestic reputation certainly seems to be undergoing a favourable transformation. However, College must go beyond appearances by fostering genuine economic diversity and encouraging and enabling those from disadvantaged backgrounds to bring their skills and talents to Ireland’s leading third-level institution. Trinity’s long-term priorities must be to educate and nurture questioning minds, wherever they may come from. College has a responsibility to bridge the class divide, and take initiatives to both attract and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds if Trinity is to move past its elitist reputation not only in appearances, but in reality.