Trinity continues to fall from grace

Dwindling CAO applicants, falling world rankings, and a worsening accommodation crisis paint the picture of a university in decline

Trinity is a university that has relied upon and thrived under its reputation. The college has a rich history, esteemed scholars, and a picturesque campus in a central location that has kept students coming for centuries. Is that reputation crumbling beneath the realities of today’s universities? Has the college that shaped great Irish minds like Edmund Burke, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett disappeared, the prestige diluted down to a vague pretension and pomposity?

As the oldest university in Ireland, Trinity has long held a reputation as the most elite and renowned institution in the country, ranking with sister colleges Oxford and Cambridge as one of the most prestigious universities in Europe. However, in the modern world, that stature is slowly being chipped away by other colleges in Ireland. In order to escape that, Trinity has sought to create modern, innovative places of learning, and not to retain a traditional ideal of an “elite” institution.

The hallmarks that once made Trinity, or The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, an impressive bastion of civility and sophistication in what was perceived as a thoroughly unsophisticated country, seem decidedly more like disadvantages in today’s Ireland. The limitations that forbade Catholics from enrolling in College until 1793 and women until 1904 are long gone, but their effects still ring true for many through the reputation of elitism and exclusivity of the college.

Whilst official listings like the Times Higher Education world university rankings still cite Trinity as Ireland’s best overall university in a number of categories, the data shows the College falling in the world rankings. Whatsmore, in specific subjects, Ireland’s other institutions are bridging the gap that a supposedly elite university should hope to maintain ahead of its competition.

Since 2010, Trinity’s place in the Times Higher Education ranking has tumbled from 76th in the world all the way down to 115th, losing the coveted top 100 spot that is expected of one of the leading universities of the world. The QS world university rankings tell a similar story, with Trinity falling from 52nd in the world in 2010 to 104th in the most recent 2018-19 results.

Even more telling is the individual subject rankings, where Trinity trades the lead year by year with UCD in areas like English and Nursing. In 2017, Trinity’s number of subjects in the global top 50 fell from 18 to just two, the same amount as UCD. In the rankings taken in 2018, UCD attained the highest individual subject ranking of any Irish university, at 24th place in veterinary science. Both of these institutions now sit well within range of one another, and the lead Trinity has on total subject areas in the top 100 is quickly being closed by UCD, providing clear data that the reputation so dear to Trinity as Ireland’s superior university is beginning to come under threat.

These rankings have tangible parallels in reality. The CAO applications in 2018 observed an 8% decline in first preference applications to Trinity, the steepest decline in the country; nearly double the 4.5% national decrease, and significantly exceeding UCD’s 1.3% drop. New students are exceedingly less eager to come to Trinity than anywhere else in Ireland, and the College no longer has the draw it used to boast.

Trinity’s reputation has suffered somewhat in recent years, with publicised debacles like the resistance against fee increases and implementations in March of this year. While the central location of the campus may have been an attractive draw for students in the past, now it just means even more extortionate rent prices and vastly increased costs of living in the city centre. The amenities Trinity once boasted have been overshadowed by the massive disadvantages of city life in Dublin, and the College is suffering as a result.

Accommodation is incredibly difficult to come by for Trinity students, and even the available options are often either poorly allocated or exceedingly overpriced. Trinity Hall provides residence to only around 1,000 of 17,000 Trinity students, and the on-campus offerings are even more scarce. Those lucky enough to gain a place in Halls are left in an overpriced room about 50 minutes’ walk from their lectures. More recently, the college has partnered with “premium” student accommodation services like Uninest, with rates as “reasonable” as €1,000 per month for their cheapest offerings. Even those who paid the €249 a week in Kavanagh Court were not protected from a series of issues with the property.

The Dublin property crisis is dire, and while the College cannot bear the entire brunt of the situation, Trinity has done very little to assist its students in procuring quality affordable housing. Attempts to provide more beds are long overdue and sorely lacking, leading to more and more dismissing of the College from potential students. This problem is rivalled by the prospect of 3,000 beds offered on UCD’s campus.

Academically, Trinity can still claim some semblance of prestige, but the reasons for choosing the College go far beyond just your lecturers’ publications and reputations. The facilities in which these esteemed lecturers deliver their research, and the manner in which they do so, can leave much to be desired in Trinity, with disorganised modules, inadequate teaching spaces, and a distinct lack of designated student spaces throughout the campus.

In my brief time on exchange so far, I have been continually shocked at the extensive resources and infrastructure provided by my new university, as well as the sheer quantity and extremely high quality of the lecture halls, classrooms, study spaces and student bars on campus, not to mention how much more convenient and affordable accommodation is. Any misgivings about moving abroad are dwarfed by the realisation of how much better the student experience can be in a similarly-sized, historically “elite” university in the heart of another of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

Student life at Trinity can be wonderful, and I cannot say I have hated my time in attendance so far, but it is easy to see how the College has fallen in the eyes of the public. Unless strides are taken to bring Trinity up to modern international university standards, it may never reclaim its reputation as a university people truly want to attend.

Eoin O'Donnell

Eoin O'Donnell is a current Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister History student, and a former Deputy Investigations Editor.