The concept of meritocracy, defined as the acquisition or maintenance of power on the grounds of ability alone, regardless of resources or social position, has long been debunked by academics and social scientists, who recognise that a complex web of identities, embedded in a specific social context, shape the abilities and life course of an individual. In spite of this, Trinity’s foundation scholarship examinations, considered one of the most “competitive” and “valuable” scholarships in Europe, continue to operate on the flawed basis of objective merit.
For anyone lucky enough to be unfamiliar with schols mania, averaging a first in the annual foundation scholarship examinations, along with grades 70 or above on a majority of papers and a minimum score of 65 in each exam, allows elected scholars to enjoy exemption from registration fees for up to 5 years, free term-time campus accommodation (or payment of over €2,000 per annum), four three-course meals and one lunch per week, an annual wage of €254, Seanad voting rights on behalf of Trinity, and the title of “scholar”.
Despite the fact that schols as an institution was founded in 1592, a time when only classical subjects were examined and both women and Catholics were prohibited from attending Trinity, and its limited benefits to the wider student community, a 2006 schols review board failed to question whether the structure and significance of scholarship is compatible with 21st century conceptions of equality and diversity, describing it as “one of the most highly valued traditions of the College”.
It is, of course, important to address inequities faced by students of certain courses and schools sitting schols exams, with disparities in the number of exams set for each course, “special tuition” made available to only a limited number of students, varying levels of difficulty between courses, and the expectation that some students study material not yet covered in class. All of these were highlighted during the reform process of 2006-2008.
However, an examination of comments and recommendations made by the Working Group on Scholarship reveals the privileged, upper middle-class standpoint from which schols has been shaped and reformed. The five “major inequities” pertaining to scholarship identified by the group made no reference to financial resources or lack thereof, familial responsibilities, work commitments, or challenges faced by what Trinity terms “non-traditional” students, such as TAP, international, minority, and disabled students, students with caring and parental responsibilities, and those studying part-time.
In addition to this, the group attributed the low number of scholars among high-achieving final year students solely to their decision not to take on additional coursework in pursuit of schols lest annual examination results be negatively affected, neglecting completely a host of institutional barriers preventing suitable, academically-minded students from attempting or attaining Scholarship.
The overwhelming privilege shaping schols discourse is sadly not limited to the academics of which such working groups are comprised. Student articles regularly detail the time, effort, and strain, both physical and psychological, associated with “going for” schols, yet often conclude that it’s worth it, as “[i]t doesn’t cost anything” and is “completely free”, neglecting the financial implications for those forced to cut back on part-time work, or the inability of many to reconcile work and study demands, in light of personal or familial circumstances.
Countless students rely on part-time work throughout the academic year to sustain the cost of rent, transport, and goods in Dublin week-to-week, with many enduring excessive hours and intense periods of work and study in the interest of securing a full-time summer job. In spite of this, popular rhetoric sees determination, hard (academic) work, and an amount of luck as the only hurdles to be faced in achieving scholarship.
Combined with individualisation – the idea that it is up the student to be motivated enough, determined enough and dedicated enough to come through the other side – defences of schols can too often be read as an idealised American dream narrative, neglecting structural barriers to achievement and College’s responsibility to make quality education accessible to as many potential students as possible.
Counter to the assurances made by Colm Kearney, chair of the 2006 working group on scholarship and then senior lecturer, that the “value or number” of scholars would not be affected by reforms, the amount of students conferred as scholars has dramatically reduced in recent years, from 104 in 2012 to only 55 last year. With the faculty of arts, humanities and social science commenting in 2014 that new schols regulations were “the only way to reduce the overall numbers” of successful students, attempts to restrict the scholarship are clearly deliberate.
Indeed, a strong case for the drastic restructuring or even abolition of schols could be made on the basis of its unsustainability. The aforementioned working group estimated the cost of preparation, administration and examination of potential scholars to have been €500,000 in 2006, with the associated benefits for successful candidates costing an average €1.5 million annually.
There are a number of ways in which foundation scholarship examinations could be restructured in the interest of equity and cost-efficiency. As suggested by the working group, schols could be awarded on the basis of annual examination results, saving the cost and pressure of stand-alone exams.
Considering that a key argument in favour of schols is the retention of students for postgraduate study in Trinity, it would seem prudent to award schols on the basis of annual examination results in Sophister years, as 18 months’ worth of university attendance hardly seems enough to evaluate a student’s aptitude for academia.
Scholars’ annual wage could, too, be removed, as previously suggested by former Senior Lecturer Patrick Geoghegan. In my own view, considering the dearth of places to sit, let alone cook, for the vast majority of Trinity students, offering free meals to those already availing of on-campus accommodation is frankly bizarre. Moreover, anyone in a position to pass up free campus accommodation does not need financial compensation, and Dublin natives do not require additional accommodation, particularly while the nation is in the midst of a housing crisis.
While reform is possible, I would argue that, for Trinity to fully realise its policies of equality and diversity, schols as an institution must be disbanded. In 2014, Dee Courtney rightly argued that schols exists as a “freebie for the privileged”, with much needed resources directed away from programmes such as TAP.
Yet, going beyond this, even if hugely underfunded areas such as TAP, the student counselling service, and college health were allocated sufficient resources, the elitist mentality underlying schols, which aims to construct an academic inner circle, is by definition incompatible with other initiatives which strive towards a reduction in relative inequality.
In responding to recommendations by the 2006 working group, scholars past and present spoke overwhelmingly in favour of the existing system, highlighting the importance of “self-selection” and “extra effort” for schols, and the need for “motivated study and commitment to hard work” as a “test of academic commitment and determination, as well as intellectual prowess” with the scholarship therefore “‘earned’ and not awarded ‘by default’”.
By accepting the narrative that hard work and determination produces “worthy” scholars, we ignore the multitude of factors that pave the way for some students and create obstacles for others, and legitimise the flawed concept of objective merit. Indeed, for there to be “worthy” students, there must also be those deemed “unworthy”.
During my time working as student fundraiser with Trinity Development and Alumni, we were encouraged to discuss TAP with potential donors, armed with a range of facts proving the cause was worthwhile: TAP students have a higher retention rate than CAO applicants; regardless of CAO points, some DEIS (disadvantaged) schools do not have the resources necessary to offer subjects required for acceptance into courses such as Medicine, which can be compensated by a TAP foundation year; TAP boasts a number of notable alumni, including former SU President Lynn Ruane and Cllr. Gary Gannon, and so on.
The constant need to defend the value of initiatives such as TAP stems from the view that such programmes are simply a good deed on Trinity’s behalf, rather than a necessary effort by a powerful institution to rebalance a society shaped by and for those who reap the benefits of Trinity’s elitism. As such, accepting the notion of objective merit on which Scholarship is grounded devalues the efforts of other initiatives designed to promote and support further education for people from underrepresented groups.
It allows for a widening of the socioeconomic and educational gap between those who have the most, and those who need the most, meaning any gains made by programmes such as TAP are limited to a process of catching up with the best off, the end goal of equality in sight but never quite in reach. In truth, schols, like privilege, is about far more than money.
It’s having the time and resources to engage in CV-building pursuits. It’s an endless supply of insider knowledge. It’s networking with people useful in later life. It’s an additional means of political representation in the Seanad vote. It’s unchecked privilege facilitating a widening of socioeconomic inequality, creating a Trinity bubble within which a scholar is faced with a fraction of the challenges of the average student.
Truly supporting equality is not shouting about fees, housing rights, direct provision, or repeal, while unquestioningly accepting the factors that allow for the maintenance of your status in society. Doing so reduces any attempt at progress to lip service, fighting for “their” rights on “our” terms, and, as such, perpetuating inequality.
While expecting individual students to opt out of schols would be ridiculous, encouraging College-wide reflection on what we really stand for, how it is best achieved, and what we are willing to sacrifice in reaching true equity, is not.