Students are not at the centre of TEP

The Christmas assessments were cripplingly stressful

Trinity is renowned as Ireland’s most prestigious university. Boasting alumni such as Oscar Wilde, Edmund Burke, Bram Stoker, and other members of the Irish liberal literati, College often exists in the public imagination as something to be revered: a bastion of academic excellence and opportunity. Consistently ranked top in Irish league tables, Trinity unsurprisingly attracts a large cohort of eager Freshers each September. It is something of a joke among students that, after a mere term, the administrative burdens attached to studying in Trinity allow one to see its reputation as essentially superficial.

By the end of first year, everyone will know of a person who forgot to pay their fees on time and, consequently, was taken off-books. Similarly, stories about the students who attempt to make a straightforward course transfer and are then left in limbo for five weeks become commonplace. Anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with Academic Registry will testify to the fact that a high degree of mental resilience is necessary in order to overcome the complexities associated with resolving minor administrative problems.

Unlike other Irish universities, where organisational issues are dealt with efficiency and without fuss, the bureaucracy of Trinity ensures that molehills are made into insurmountable mountains. Students are thus left at the mercy of a system which comes with no guidebook or warning sign, yet simultaneously expects those who avail of it to act self-sufficiently and with an independence of mind that is completely alien to school-leavers.

The Trinity Education Project (TEP), officially launched in September 2018, represents an attempt to redefine education in the context of a rapidly changing twenty-first century. A quick glance at the website sums up TEP’s aims, with buzz phrases such as “curriculum principles”, “graduate attributes”, and “programme architecture” apparently offering an adequate explanation as to how and why the project will transform the Trinity educational experience.

“The synthesising of knowledge…has been ousted in favour of a method that prioritises convenience over consolidation.”

Prior to its implementation, both students and staff cited concerns about TEP’s feasibility. The prospect of Christmas exams in particular was pinpointed as a potential stressor. College sought to alleviate fears by emphasising that the abolition of a 400-year old examination system, whereby a single set of exams in May was preceded by three weeks of study in April, would result in greater continuous assessment across disciplines and consequently ensure a more holistic programme of learning.

A vigorous proponent of TEP the Vice Provost, Professor Chris Morash, lambasted the end-of-year exam system as one that “doesn’t help learning” due to its failure to provide students with feedback on “what they did right or wrong”. Based on the rationale of easing pressure around exam time, Trinity thus broke with tradition in 2018 and, in an arguably radical move for a university whose reputation revolves so much around the past, completely restructured the academic year. No longer the odd one out in the third level landscape, College henceforth assimilated into a system followed by the majority of Irish universities – a twelve week semester, concluding in a Revision Week and followed by a single Assessment Week.

On paper, TEP initially appeared workable. Six weeks of lectures, a Reading Week, another six weeks of lectures, a Revision Week, an Assessment Week, thereafter, the Christmas or summer break – lengthened by the new system – and an academic year that happily concludes in April. However, Trinity is a university that seeks to balance a precariously prestigious reputation with the fact that its only administrative absolute is uncertainty. In the wake of College’s first set of Christmas exams, students and staff should have no doubt over how Trinity fared: abysmally. The implementation of TEP has proved predictably disorientating for students, with the sense of anger and exhaustion emanating from the RDS throughout Assessment Week acting as testament to its inherent failure.

The trials of this past Michaelmas term have succeeded in grinding any such argument underfoot.”

Teachers and parents tend to emphasise, continuously, the exceptional nature of the strain felt while preparing for the Leaving Cert. However, sixth year struggles do not come close to the pressure experienced by many in Trinity over the past term. Any Trinity student is accustomed to working hard and could be said to “suit” academic style learning if they have chosen something they love. Despite the fact that prior academic achievements affirm a student’s abilities to work hard, TEP has so far highlighted that, no matter how much one slaves at a subject, it is practically impossible to perform well in a system that is administratively flawed from its conception.

Take the arts as an example: literature, philosophy, history, languages, and social science often present to students concepts which are initially abstract but, after a great deal of reading and research, reveal themselves as comprehensible and insightful. Unlike the former system, whereby students would have weeks to write essays, followed by months to read for exams, the new academic year structure does not allow for the same degree of research to be channelled into essay and exam preparation.

The synthesising of knowledge, so fundamental to enjoying and understanding arts subjects, has been ousted in favour of a method that prioritises convenience over consolidation. How is it possible to write an elegantly argued and well-researched essay in the same week as multiple exams? Similarly, how are students expected to revise exam material while preparing multiple essays in the week prior to the exams taking place?

Theoretically speaking, TEP’s Revision Week could serve as a period in which students have time to edit essays and slot in revision. A week is a mere week, however, and this year’s Revision Week only succeeded in draining students as many attempted to cram a semester’s worth of modules into seven short days. Although the educational experts at the heart of TEP will argue that a system of consistent study throughout each semester, rather than a rushed revision period in April, is conducive to a holistic programme of learning, the trials of this past Michaelmas term have succeeded in grinding any such argument underfoot. Unlike Morash’s idyllic vision of continuous assessment leading to a 16% decrease in exams and thus allowing students time to engage more robustly with their course of study, the weeks prior to the Christmas examination period were spent in a frenzied rush of essay or lab-report writing, leaving little additional time for revision.

“He…thus foregrounded the Students’ Union’s head-in-the-sand style approach to TEP.”

In the midst of the stress and strain, one has to wonder where the rage that fuelled March’s “Take Back Trinity” campaign has disappeared to? Structurally, it is clear that TEP fell far from achieving its aims. During the December exams, several students sat three papers over a twenty-four hour period whilst exam and essay deadlines concurrently converged. Perhaps the pinnacle of TEP’s poor implementation was a two hour delay on the Thursday of exam week, during which 1,500 students were stuck in the RDS until nearly 9pm as a result of a minor administrative error.

When interviewed during his 2018 presidential campaign, SU President Shane De Rís emphasised his commitment to placing students at the centre of TEP’s implementation. Simultaneously, however, he quipped that “nothing is ever going to pass easily” and thus foregrounded the Students’ Union’s head-in-the-sand style approach to TEP – linger in the background, put in place short-term measures to reduce students’ stress levels and remain unsure of how to adequately address the glaring faults within a fragile system. Although the Students’ Union were present at the RDS each day and, in the wake of mounting pressure, have announced plans for a TEP Open Forum next week, the question remains of why there was no outcry from our representative President in the months prior to the exams?

Moving forward, it is crucial to ask ourselves how best we, as students, can mobilise to initiate some sort of change. By raising a challenge to the inefficiencies of TEP’s implementation, we have the power to also take on the might of Trinity’s bureaucracy and, in doing so, may catalyse an effective administrative amelioration. Although higher education revolves around students, College has consistently prioritised the maintenance of its “prestigious” reputation over a focused and student-centred investment in the educational experience.

The tribulations of this past term testify to the fact that TEP is just another façade, an attempt to fix something that was never broken and, in the process of doing so, don the guise of “modernisation”. Rather than looking back in frustration, both staff and students should channel the anger provoked by this new system into a resounding plea for genuine reform.