In searching for an illustrative analogy with which to provide some context to this article, I am disappointed in myself to find nothing higher-brow springing to mind than a particularly compelling scene from Interstellar, which I saw recently. We’ll go with it. Despite critically inadequate government funding of the higher education sector on which hopes of economic recovery are staked, Trinity at present is embarking upon an ambitious five-year agenda, with commitments ranging from a profound shift in the student profile towards international and online students to four new buildings. This state of affairs reminds me, a little ominously, of the gripping moment where the crew of the Endurance attempt to harness the crushing gravity of the nearby Gargantua by manually steering their spacecraft around rather than into the black hole, somehow keeping their mission and the hopes of all mankind alive in a feat of impressive joystick control and tremendous overacting.
Thankfully, our beloved provost, Patrick Prendergast, is not burdened with quite as much pressure. Nonetheless, the stakes have never been higher, and Trinity is under intense strain. The facts speak for themselves: the staff-student ratio in Irish universities has slid from 1:15 to 1:19 in the last eight years. The average for top-200 universities is 1:11.7. Overall state funding of third-level institutions has fallen by a drastic 32% in the last six years and a recent HEA study found that 40% of the sector’s infrastructure is unfit for purpose. As Winston Churchill reminds us, now that we have, quite clearly, run out of money, it is time to start thinking, and college authorities have put a great deal of effort into exploring innovative new sources of revenue.
Unfortunately, what I have learned so far this year has confirmed that an increasingly convenient source of such revenue is: you.
You are about the be charged a lot of money
As SU president, I sit on a disheartening number of College committees. The two most important committees are the university Board and the Finance Committee, which reports to the Board. The last Finance Committee in the term of my predecessor, Tom Lenihan, took place on the morning of the 12th of June 2014. While you were perhaps setting off on a J1, Tom was checking his e-mails. At 18.56 on the 11th of June, 2014, Tom along with the other members of Finance Committee received a message stating that a late addition had been made to the next day’s agenda. This late addition consisted of a one-page memo from the Academic Services Division that expressed the “intensified need” to “examine all costs and potential for raising revenue,” helpfully providing these six suggestions:
– An increase in the commencement fee from €114 to €135, which would “generate additional income of €84,000” annually.
– A €75 fee for diploma and certificate awards ceremonies, which would “generate €112,500 annually.”
– An increased postgraduate application fee which “would generate an additional €105,000.”
– An increase in the price of a new student card from €6 to €20.
– To set the price of degree and diploma parchments at €100.
– To introduce a “flat fee of €250 for students sitting supplemental exams, regardless of how many papers are re-taken … giving a projected income of €419,750 [based on last year’s figures].”
Crudely adding up the numbers on the page yields an approximate figure of €800,000 per year, from your pockets. Now, it’s worth noting that the consultation on this issue amounted to a generous 15 hours. The memo does not define any destination for the monies raised, let alone confirm that it will actually go directly to what is being levied. No consultation, no means-testing and indeed no end-result in sight apart from attempting to plug a financial void the size of Gargantua.
Tom and his student colleagues dissented at Finance Committee, then Board the following week, while contacting USI and any media outlets that would listen. Once the word got out, a deluge of emails from outraged students succeeded in deferring negotiations to this year. After a series of meetings and negotiations with high-level Trinity staff, led by the vice-provost, Prof. Linda Hogan, my SU and GSU colleagues and I have the impression that the issue is coming to a head once more. We need to open the conversation.
What do you think?
Nine reasons I disagree
Unsurprisingly, I have a few objections to this whole affair. I’ll keep it to nine:
1. There is a major disparity emerging between College’s officially stated and actual revenue-generating practices.
College’s Strategic Plan and accompanying documents attempt to articulate precisely where our money is going to come from: non-EU students, online courses, commercialisation, research income and philanthropy. Each of these strategies has been agreed upon at a high-level. However, charging students for arbitrary facets of their educational experience as soon as these strategies fail to plug the gaps, quite simply, is not one of them.
2. These charges and the ethos they represent set a deeply worrying precedent.
In a presentation to SU Council on this topic before Christmas, I provided a helpful diagram of soil creep I sourced from a Junior Cert Geography grinds website. Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the launch of Trinity’s Strategic Plan earlier this year, with much fanfare. Three short months later, I am concerned at how very early in the lifetime of this plan these measures have occurred. An alarming and as-yet unacknowledged trend is emerging whereby levying students is becoming an acceptable and convenient recourse when financial pressure begins to tell. Thus, I am concerned not only for current students, but for generations of students to come who – like soil creep – realise too late that a new status quo has developed, one that puts a price-tag on much of what we take for granted in College and leaves students in a very different position to where we thought we were.
3. The comparisons drawn with other higher education institutions are highly selective.
Throughout our discussions with college representatives, numerous comparisons have been drawn between Trinity’s current practice and that of other institutions: UCD charges €230 for repeat exams, for example, while NUI Maynooth charges you €20 if you lose your student card. These comparisons are inconsequential for two reasons. Firstly, other universities who charge, for example, for repeat exams unanimously have different and more modernised examination structures incomparable to our own: sitting fifteen exams in two weeks at the end of second-year science is incontrovertibly a contributor to failure of exams that a student in UCD does not face.
Secondly and more importantly, Trinity throughout its history has sought to exceed and to indeed set educational standards in this country. Justifying an egregious practice solely on the basis of it happening elsewhere is incompatible with this ethos of excellence. If UCD jumps off a bridge, should we jump too? It’s also worth noting that we are the only Irish university with a commencement fee.
4. While the revenue to be garnered from these measures is immense, comparable sources of income to the college have been preceded by extensive discussion, approved formally at Board level and accompanied by an extensively researched strategy.
Each of the revenue-generating strategies I outlined above has been debated and agreed upon at a high level. In other words, if you don’t like tourists walking around your campus, you can lump it, because we already agreed that Trinity needs to commercialise and that’s that. For context, the College commercialisation director outlined in detailed to Finance Committee in November just how a €3.7m growth in commercial revenue will be achieved in the next five years. This Commercialisation Strategy will be kept under close scrutiny to ensure that its all-important KPIs, key performance indicators, are being met. In contrast, in June a proposal to scoop €800,000 a year from your pockets managed to fit neatly into a one-page memo.
5. The measures – most notably the supplemental exam fee – accounts for no means-testing whatsoever.
The very first page of the full text of Trinity’s Strategic Plan declares that through our “access and admissions policies, Trinity seeks … to create a diverse and cosmopolitan community,” explicitly committing both to increase the proportion of students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and to improve the retention rates of these students. Taking again a supplemental exam fee for example, charging students “a flat fee … regardless of how many papers are re-taken” constitutes a glaring and deplorable divergence from these commitments.
6. At present, Academic Registry is in urgent need of reform, but this stabilisation must follow and not precede charging students more for our interactions with it.
Be it timetabling, difficulties with SITS or simply obtaining grade transcripts, Academic Registry is among the commonest cause of complaints from students to TCDSU. It has been acknowledged that this is an area where reform is needed in Trinity, but charging students more for our interactions with it before any reform has actually occurred is distinctly unfair.
7. Student representatives have been frequently told that this is the first time students have been targeted, which is false.
In numerous meetings, student representatives have been assured that the student experience has been preserved right throughout the financial crisis and that this is the first time we will have been tapped as a resource, so to speak. However, the student experience has, by definition, been impacted upon by every one of the innumerable cuts to Trinity’s academic and pastoral services. The student experience has not been the last to be affected, indeed definitionally the opposite is the case: from cuts to the counselling service to spiralling rents, our experience in university is the sum total of our interactions with every facet of it and thus has been impacted upon in literally countless ways by the financial constraints on every aspect of the sector. This is not the first time College has asked us to cough up; it’s just the first time we’ve been asked so bluntly.
8. Our outdated examination structure is actually conducive to students failing exams.
Several years ago, a now-nearly-forgotten TCDSU referendum was passed by 94% in favour of semesterised exams. TCD’s Strategic Plan, meanwhile, commits to “introducing flexibility in our programme patterns”. More relevant to the proposed introduction of a supplemental exam fee, the institutions which ostensibly provide us with benchmarks have uniformly less punishing examination structures: the but-UCD-does-it argument is weakened by the fact that no UCD student is required to sit 15 exams in two weeks to represent their entire year’s progress. If meaningful progress was made on this issue that made passing your exams solely about your academic ability and less about your physical fitness, fewer students would fail and those that did could feel less hard done by. But the lopsided current examination system, for which we are to be charged a great deal more for failing to navigate successfully, is conducive to that failure.
9. This is the entirely incorrect way to deal with the issue of high failure rates.
This is effectively another way of articulating the above point, but quite a lot of people fail exams in Trinity. I don’t have figures comparing us to other institutions to hand, but if you know anybody who does science you’ll know that quite a lot of people fail exams in Trinity. Our failure rates can be interpreted in two ways: as a symptom of the underlying issue of Trinity’s outdated examination structures or as a source of handy revenue. In this instance, the powers-that-be have very much opted for the latter.
Unfortunately, I admit that, in life, a problem is a lot easier to present than a solution. If I had nine perfect alternatives to match my nine gripes about this issue, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to write this article. Like Matthew McConaughey and the crew of the Endurance, our university and its crew are under unbelievable pressure. We’re constrained in every direction: by government-imposed pay agreements, by chronic underfunding and by costly past mistakes (not to mention by our lofty new set of goals for the next five years). However, despite this pressure and despite the direction taken by other institutions, Rudyard Kipling’s famous advice reminds us to keep our head and to remember that this institution exists for and is defined by its students. It is not simply specific alternatives that are needed to combat these decisions, but a refocusing of the perspective from which they are made.
Of course, it is the provost’s job to see the big picture, to steer the ship. Many of the initiatives in the Strategic Plan will take longer than your own lifetime in Trinity to come to fruition. Indeed, earlier this year, the provost wrote that “we must guard against putting the short-term ahead of the long-term”. However, crucially, the reverse is equally true. While I deeply appreciate the need for a long-term vision, I am worried that the means currently being taken to achieve that vision are so damaging in the here and now that they risk sacrificing a generation of students entirely: our results, our development as individuals and our future prospects as ostensible recipients of a supposed “Trinity education.” Ireland’s unpleasant experiment with austerity teaches us that deferred stability must always be balanced with present responsibilities: indeed, the very first sentence of the Strategic Plan itself is rooted firmly in the present tense as it declares that the “Trinity community is ultimately defined by those who are enrolled as students”. We redefine this community at our peril.
I’ll provide, briefly, an example. Money, at present, is being poured into the Trinity Business and Innovation Hub (the €70m new business school). From LaunchBox to proposed mandatory modules in every course in “creativity, opportunity recognition and risk-taking”, it goes without saying that innovation and entrepreneurship are the order of the day at present in Trinity. However, students already innovate in Trinity. We always have: whether it’s the glittering array of speakers at Paddy Cosgrave’s bizarrely massive Web Summit this year or the antics of the Collapsing Horse company led by Aaron Heffernan, Jack Gleeson and crew, the vast majority of renowned innovation from Trinity graduates in recent years has come from our societies, from our side projects, from ourselves. Cutting back on the student experience in order to improve it is self-defeating.
There is an (admittedly cheesy) saying that, in times of famine, the one thing we must not eat is our seeds. Rather than cutting back and back in hope of perpetually deferred benefit, it is now those seeds must be sown: students flourish if and only if active investment is made in the facets of our education that most effectively enable us to do so. Now is the time to build our campaign.