Trinity College Dublin (Inc.)

Louis Strange

Staff Writer

The previous front pages of Trinity News have made for interesting reading. In November, TN reported that 81% of 500 College students polled would not support the privatisation of Trinity. A month later, the December issue led with news of looming cuts to Arts and Humanities departments in College, with funding being sought from private investment to make up the shortfall.

This ostensible tendency towards privatisation has been coupled with worrying noises coming from the upper echelons of College, in particular from the Provost, Patrick Prendergast. At a time when everyone involved with Trinity should be doing as much as possible to put pressure on the government, suggesting that College should look to private investment for its funding provides the Department of Education with excuses for further cuts. Prendergast’s comments in an interview with the Irish Times in late November give reason for serious concerns as to how College is viewed by those in charge. Whilst it should be noted that in the article (“Running university is serious business for Trinity’s provost”, 29th November) the Provost himself makes no explicit reference to College as a “business”, it is what can be read between the lines which should set alarm-bells ringing, in statements such as ‘[t]he strategy on innovation and entrepreneurship aims to support the creation of more than 160 start-up companies over the next three years.” College is not a business and should not be viewed as such.

The issues of privatisation and viewing College as a business are not necessarily one and the same, it must be said, yet both would have similar implications for the future of the College. So we have to ask ourselves: what is Trinity’s purpose? At the risk of getting too philosophical, these issues raise fundamental questions; questions that are not limited just to Trinity, but go right to the heart of what we think education in general should be “about”. Treating Trinity as a business implies a certain view of education: that it is primarily about making money (which means making money out of students). But that is not what education should be “about”. You do not provide education because there is money to be made out of it; you provide education and the money only comes into the equation as a means to an end, not the end itself. To treat Trinity as a business gets the relationship between College and students entirely the wrong way round.

“To think that privatisation would not be accompanied by a sharp rise in fees for students would be naïve, and such a rise would change Trinity’s demographic. The result would be a more elitist institution, defined not by high academic standards, but by socioeconomic exclusion.”

It might be in the Provost’s interests to steer Trinity towards the American educational model – after all, it would probably make it a lot easier to run the College if there were a lot more money to play with – but it would not be in the students’ interests. To think that privatisation would not be accompanied by a sharp rise in fees for students would be naïve, and such a rise would change Trinity’s demographic. The result would be a more elitist institution, defined not by high academic standards, but by socioeconomic exclusion.

But think of the impact of higher fees not only on who could come to college, but also why: privatisation would give rise to a cultural shift whereby students would be put off from doing Arts courses (already much maligned) and instead be herded towards those which are more likely to get you the large salary that you would need in order to justify (or pay back) those fees. It becomes a vicious circle: you pay high fees, you go to college with the sole aim of getting a job; you get out into the real world to get that job to pay back the high fees. Introducing a student loan system, a solution which the Provost suggested in November, simply defers the problem of paying back crippling debts and exacerbates this cultural shift. Education becomes more about getting in, getting out with a 2:1 and getting a job rather than actually engaging with education for its own sake, or recognising its intrinsic value on an individual and collective level. Trinity is not a business and it is not a factory; its purpose should not be to produce a generation of entrepreneurs all desperately trying to sell things to one another.

But if Trinity’s value is to be defined by its capacity to create revenue, the areas of the College which bring in most money (inevitably the departments which attract the attentions of big business) will take precedence over others. This is already happening, with the axe poised over Arts and Humanities departments, whose value cannot be reduced to numbers on a balance sheet. This amounts to a betrayal of Trinity’s academic tradition. When people think of Trinity, they think of the lyrical greatness of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. Do we want to abandon that heritage and re-brand Trinity as “that place where that guy who owns Ryanair went”? Given the importance which the Provost seems to place on branding – reflecting in the Irish Times piece that “Nobody says Harvard University, they just say Harvard. Maybe Trinity should be the same.” – it would be an odd move for Trinity to sell its soul (or, in business terms, its unique selling point).

According to the Provost, “Trinity wants to do for Dublin what Stanford has done for Silicon Valley, what MIT has done for Boston, what Imperial has done for London.” This may be what he wants Trinity to do, but following the elitist trajectory of the American and English systems, reducing the College to a business, is not what everyone wants. Trinity’s duty is, first and foremost, to its students – that is what Trinity wants to do.