One month into the academic year, Eva Short sat down with SU president, Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne, to talk student politics and the future of Irish higher education.
Q. What was your opinion of the provost’s question and answer session [last Monday]?
A. By virtue of the fact that it happened, it went well. Insofar as it hadn’t happened in a long time. It hadn’t happened [since] very immediately after the provost’s election. Simply by happening, it addressed the need for lines of communication to be opened, to be reopened. Certainly it was progress. [There was] a balance to strike between diplomacy towards someone we’re hoping to keep on side – someone to whom we’re hoping to make the case that we’re worth engaging with, that it’s productive to engage with us – and also saying what needed to be said and airing grievances, and not showing too much restraint.
I think that balance was struck reasonably well. The provost has committed to attending our first SU council meeting on 21st October, and that was a commitment he made ages ago. I’m looking forward to following him up on that because definitely there are a few questions that I’d like to shoehorn in.
Q. People note that the provost is extremely distant. Was that successfully quashed?
A. No. As a former academic, and now as something more resembling a statesperson or politician, he’s certainly improved his ability to deflect, if you like; to maintain a sense of distance, to say something both non-committal and satisfactory at the same time.
Q. What do you think of College’s new Strategic Plan [launching next week]?
A. I think it looks great. It actually does, in fairness. It looks better than the last one. It has much smarter goals: specific, measurable and tangible. This forthcoming strategic plan is, I would say, much more tangible and therefore much more measurable than the last. For example, the last one was full of phrases such as “We will be world leaders in…” and “We will continue a strong tradition of…” With the forthcoming plan if all of the goals are achieved, we’re all happy days. But if only some are achieved, my immediate concern is which goals will be discarded. As with most to-do lists, this may well prove to be us biting off more than we can chew. I wonder what will be discarded. For example, there is a commitment to achieve a surplus of at least 2% financially for the whole institution by the end of the plan. I would be quite confident that Trinity will achieve that goal. It’s by what means that goal will be achieved that one would be concerned about.
As a [plan], it’s actually quite refreshing. It’s quite measurable, and I think the last one fell by the wayside a little bit. There wasn’t a midterm review of “How are we getting on?” A lot of goals didn’t happen. It’s funny that the cycle of provosts doesn’t match up with the cycle of strategic planning. But overall, I think it looks good.
Q. Is there the same emphasis on globalisation in this plan?
A. Oh yeah. Student numbers from outside the EU are currently 7.8% and that’s committed to increase to 18%, which is a huge demographic change.
Q. Are these demographic shifts going to help students?
A. You don’t [know whether it’ll help the student population] as yet. For example, a massive demographic shift with a whole new cohort of students with a whole new set of needs, need not only to be attracted here, enticed by our prospectus for example, but retained here and allowed to flourish here. If students have to undertake 15 minute walk to find the person to give them their timetable, or if they have to live in hostels, that’s not something they’re going to tell their mates about or brag to their mates about.
Q. Do you see eye-to-eye with the provost in terms of commercialisation and globalisation?
A. It’s simplistic to say that we are opposed to commercialisation. It’s more relevant to say that we are opposed to those aspects of commercialisation which negatively affect our educational experience. I see no inherent issue with having more students here from outside the EU, particularly if it means that the financial vacuum that we currently find ourselves in will be filled, and not filled by, for example, cutting student services.
But it’s more the offshoots of that goal that I’d be concerned about. For example, very simplistically, currently a very finite pie contains a very large slice named ‘Global Relations’.
There’s a lot of money and emphasis going into the act of encouraging students to come here. I would worry that this emphasis has taken away from the focus on the students who are currently here. As I said, I wouldn’t see eye-to-eye with the goal itself. The goal itself is actually not that relevant. If it affects the student experience, then it’s relevant. Commercialisation is a means to an end, and certainly not an end in itself. The end is always the student.
Q. You, yourself, in your manifesto, specified that you wanted to release your own strategic plan. How’s it coming along?
A. It’s getting going. I said, not on the manifesto but I did say in conversations with people, that I hoped to get the plan done and ratified by Christmas. That was probably motivated more by a sense of impatience and decisiveness than anything else because that won’t happen. It probably almost certainly will be launched at the end of the academic year, because realistically – I was literally hoping to arrive in my office in July and write it and then just bang it out -but realistically that was hugely short sighted, because it’ll take a year of problems and flaws to accumulate before as I say they can be collectively and comprehensively addressed.
Q. Do you think that students are engaged?
A. No, they’re probably not that engaged. They probably don’t care about it as much as I do, but then again that’s why I ran because I actually think this stuff is cool. Whether they’re engaged or interested is one thing, but – to boast – I was voted in. And I spoke about this stuff a lot, so anyone who voted for me and had an iota of homework done would know that this is something I planned to do and something they reacted very positively. Whether it’s something they’re interested in, well no they certainly won’t be, whether it’s something that I think the average student approves of and thinks could benefit us in a long term, meaningful way, well I think that’s been proven.
Q. What do you think about student apathy?
A. [At the USI rally for education last week,] I quoted George Carlin in saying “a cynic is but a disappointed idealist”. I think that people get apathetic with the SU because they think it’s crap and that it’s not doing something it should be doing. And I suppose the way to address disengagement is to give people something to engage with.
I said a line – maybe it was in my manifesto, but if not, certainly in addresses – that I don’t just think the SU could do what it does better, I think it could do more. I think if we actually grew as a organisation rather than doing the same things again and again, that’d give students something to engage with. But at the same time you have to give people something to engage with.
Q. What did you think of the USI’s rally?
A. I think it went very well. Great buzz, great atmosphere. I think it went well because with the same sex march for marriage a couple weeks ago, you just had to tell people when and where and they were there. There was no sales pitch needed. Whereas with this, this is something that hadn’t happened robustly in some time, in most people’s college lifetimes. This was something that when it had been previously attempted was not very successful. It had a history of being anything from futile to uncool and as such it was certainly not something that sold itself.
Q. Why was it successful?
A. We didn’t do anything particularly special but perhaps we did a lot of spadework basically. That probably wasn’t done at other institutions. We did class addresses, we spammed 400 individual class reps, we did an extraordinary meeting with part-time officers. We got all hands on deck on the actual morning. I think [protests] affect change in that they engage students and get people actually caring about it and actually thinking about it. If that trickles down into people caring enough to contact local TDs, etc, well great. But step one is getting this on the radar.
Photo: Vitalia Bikmanetova