An overwhelming majority of students would oppose the privatisation of Trinity College, Dublin, according to a new survey conducted last week by Trinity News.
Just under 81% of the 500 TCD students that were polled by this paper on Thursday and Friday indicated that they would not support the privatisation agenda that has been pushed this academic year by Provost Patrick Prendergast. Only 12.2% of respondents, 61 out of 500 students, said that they would support possible privatisation, with just over 6% of respondents stating that they had no opinion on the matter.
The findings come in the wake of remarks made by the provost at the Trinity Global Graduate Forum on 8th November.
In a speech to alumni on the future of Trinity College, Prendergast indicated that he would consider privatisation as an option for the university. Its current public nature, he said, meant College is “subject to the same restrictions and controls as other public bodies.”
In particular, Prendergast expressed concern that “different pieces of legislation” may “tie our hand and limit our independence” in relation to “decisions on hiring, promotion, remuneration, research funding, and tuition fees.” He said, “We can’t, for instance, decide to woo a top academic to Trinity with a competitive salary, because, for this, we need to get Ministerial permission.”
The provost also suggested that he would view the ability to enforce compulsory redundancy on staff as a benefit of future privatisation. College “staff are now public servants, and redundancy can only be voluntary,” he said.
The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) has responded to Prendergast’s remarks with a strong condemnation of the drive to privatisation.
In a statement to Trinity News, IFUT General Secretary, Mike Jennings, said that the union is “totally opposed” to any privatisation push as it “would mean a possible quadrupling of students fees.” He stated that privatisation would be a “betrayal of the generations of former students and staff of Trinity College, Dublin, who over its extremely long and illustrious history have built the college to be the nationally prized institution it is today.” Turning the university into “some sort of profit-generating machine”, he said, would be an “unconscionable” measure.
IFUT also noted that the provost “seems to be very agitated by his inability to make staff redundant.” The union’s position, Jennings responded, is “that we have conceded substantial reductions in pay in return for job security and insist on both sides of that bargain been kept.”
IFUT last clashed with College in November of the previous academic year, when it threatened to withdraw its co-operation with the terms of the Croke Park Agreement over College’s refusal to reinstate three workers who were made compulsorily redundant. The move came two months after the Department of Education ordered that College immediately implement the Labour Court ruling that three staff members, one library worker and two lecturers, be reinstated.
Tom Lenihan, President of Trinity College Students’ Union (TCDSU), has joined IFUT in expressing concern over Prendergast’s comments.
Privatisation, he told Trinity News on Saturday night, “would require huge private donations, the likes of which we are not attaining at the moment. If this move is inspired by a presumed need to climb higher in subjective rankings then we need a radical shift of thinking as to what a university should be.”
Just a day before the Global Graduate forum, Prendergast had raised the issue of privatisation at a debate held by the University Philosophical Society (Phil) and College Historical Society (Hist).
Trinity News understands that the two debating societies were approached by organisers of the Global Graduate Forum who were keen to oversee a discussion on the issue. Prendergast, who chaired the debate, told the audience gathered that night that the question of privatisation is a “key issue” for the future of third-level education. He drew attention to the mixture of private and public universities in the U.S. and pointed out that conglomerates such as Samsung even own and operate universities in South Korea.
The provost was joined by student speakers from the Hist who proposed the debate’s motion in favour of privatisation. A number of speakers argued that the world’s best universities are the one that are funded through privatisation. One speaker claimed that the greater autonomy and funding provided by privatisation would allow College to increase third-level access for less well-off students, by broadening schemes such as the Trinity Access Programmes. Students speaking on behalf of the Phil opposed the motion and contended that a profit-seeking company would have little interest in advancing social justice. A number of speakers also drew attention to the level of student debt in areas with private universities and argued that debt would restrict the ability of students to fully partake in college and society life. The motion was defeated as a majority of audience members voted against it.
A student in the audience told Trinity News that she later questioned the provost on the issue of student fees and was told that high fees would not necessarily be a consequence of privatisation.
However, Prendergast has strongly suggested in the past that he would support the reintroduction of third-level fees. During an appearance on the RTÉ show, “Aoibhinn & Company”, in July, the provost stated that the issue needed to be examined. He also said that the reintroduction of full fees could be facilitated by a student loan scheme.
Joe O’Connor, USI President, responded at the time by describing Prendergast’s remarks as “most unwelcome at a time where many families are struggling to meet the already burdensome cost of college.” The reintroduction of student fees, he said, “would represent a shift towards an elitist system of delivering higher education.” Tom Lenihan joined USI figures in condemning Prendergast’s remarks as “inappropriate”.
The survey carried out by Trinity News last week also asked students about their opinion on the issue of student fees. The poll indicated that just over 76% of students, 380 out of the 500 students polled, would oppose any increase in third-level fees. However, according to the provost, “the interests of all stakeholders” may not be well served by current legal frameworks. “It’s time to think about change,” he told alumni at the Global Graduate Forum. “Many universities around the world serve the public good as private institutions; others are public-private combinations, or receive public funds as a subsidy, while being essentially private. There are many different models, and the status of a university can change, as Trinity’s has done.”
Repeated requests by this paper to interview Patrick Prendergast were denied last week.