Trinity is letting down its international students

The international student experience in Trinity is characterised by confusion, broken promises, and profit-based exploitation

In March, when Trinity announced the requirement for its students to vacate accommodation on campus, Trinity Hall, Binary Hub, and Kavanagh Court, anger and frustration was expressed across all reaches of the student body. For international students, these feelings of anxiety were exacerbated. “We had to worry about booking flights and packing up everything by ourselves,” an international student living in Kavanagh Court recalls. As one can imagine, single-handedly packing up all belongings, communicating with families across different time-zones, and booking an international flight within 48 hours caused significant financial and emotional strain for many international students, with college offering no emergency funding, extensions, or clear instructions.

The inconsideration given to international students during the Covid-19 crisis is representative of a broader problem within college, namely, their treatment of non-EU students as “cash cows”, or nothing more than sources of profit. While Irish and EU undergraduates pay a tuition of €3,000, non-EU undergraduate tuition ranges from €17,768 to €25,436. In the 2017-18 academic year, non-EU students comprised 16% of Trinity’s student population, yet 33% of its tuition income. This was a 6.5%, or €23m, increase from the previous year, which Trinity touts in its financial statement as its “continued success in attracting students and in diversifying its non-Exchequer income base.” The new global relations strategy, launched in February 2019, was not subtle in its aim to “drive further income growth in the future.”

“After the event, they were treated to dinner at the recruiter’s hotel, a “super fancy” hotel where the Princess of Thailand was hosted on her visit to the city.”

The problem is not international marketing itself, but rather the disparity between what international students are promised and what they receive. One fourth-year American student reported going to a Trinity recruitment event in high school. “Now that I think of it, they definitely thought I was wealthy,” they recall, since the event was held at the most expensive private school in their area. After the event, they were put in contact with the recruiter and treated to dinner at the recruiter’s hotel, a “super fancy” hotel where the Princess of Thailand was hosted on her visit to the same city. 

The student does not remember much from that conversation, except that the recruiter strongly pushed the “Smart-Start Programme,” saying that if the student did not do it, they would “regret it and feel out of place.” The program takes place for American students one week before term begins and costs €400. Before committing to Trinity, the student was kept in constant email communication with the recruiter, and all their questions were answered promptly and helpfully. After the student committed to study at Trinity, they sent several other emails to the recruiter about scholarships, none of which got a response. Instead, the student received a series of automatic “out of office” emails, which many students will know is a recurring theme across college.

Another second-year American student had a similar experience. They remember Trinity always having a booth at their school’s college fairs. “They really advertised their presence as a great place for American students and international students in general,” the student recalls. Both students were drawn to Trinity because of its enticing marketing, and both were kept in active communication over email and phone before coming to college. “They sent us a lot of emails to keep us updated, but after we came, there was no contact from them.”

The second-year student is also part of the Dual BA Programme with Columbia University in the City of New York, one of the most ambitious international projects that College has undertaken. The first cohort started in the fall of 2018 and includes roughly 40 students across the courses of English, History, European Studies, and Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures. The student describes the same pattern of rosy marketing versus stark reality. 

Prior to the start of the programme, students studying English were told they would complete a summer archival research project in Trinity after their second year. Throughout the students’ first year, they were never updated with the details or status of the project, yet the student recalls that they “were all under the impression that it was going to happen.” In November of their second year, the project was abruptly cancelled. The student had already signed a lease for summer accommodation in Dublin. “I was left with no time to plan for much else or figure out what to do with the rent,” the student says. “They also didn’t help us deal with that.”

“They were promised a sample in writing of internships and areas that would be approved, but it never came.”

Similar frustrations exist in the Middle Eastern, European Languages and Culture (MEELC) and European Studies branches of the programme. Originally, these students were required to complete an extra 60 ECTS for their Trinity degree, which included a mandatory internship and language programme over the summer. Finding these mandatory internships and programmes was entirely up to the students and required approval from the department coordinators. They were promised a sample in writing of internships and areas that would be approved, but it never came. 

As one student puts it, whether or not their internships will be approved seems “completely arbitrary.” On the other hand, language programmes that fit their requirements would cost a significant amount of money. “How are we supposed to come up with ten thousand extra dollars to study at a third university in a third country?” another student asks. When the European Studies students brought up this concern with their coordinator, they were simply told that they shouldn’t complain. “Your parents are paying for you to go on a long holiday,” they were told.

After these issues were raised by students, Trinity lowered the requirements so that students could choose between an internship and a language programme. On top of this, however, they are still expected to complete an extra module during their third year at Columbia and a capstone project during their fourth year. While fourth-year Trinity students take 5 ECTs working on this same capstone project, dual-degree students are required to complete a full Trinity final-year project on top of their Columbia course load. “It is very inconsiderate and they seem to be trying to make our life harder,” says one student. 

“It’s more expedient to reach across the Atlantic than go across the hall…”

“We just don’t know what’s happening,” another student describes. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we got to fourth year and they just said, ‘We don’t have your degree, sorry.’”  Although students started the programme with the expectation of having to make adjustments to the programme as it progressed, these adjustments change constantly, often leaving students in the dark. “There is no transparency or clarity about decision-making – just a lot of confusion,” another student says. Lack of communication greatly hinders students from understanding exactly what they are required to do. Several students point out that more often than not, Columbia administration is more helpful in resolving issues at Trinity. “It’s more expedient to reach across the Atlantic than go across the hall,” one of them observes.

Even with all the unresolved issues of the first four courses, the dual BA programme is adding five more, including science courses like neuroscience and geoscience. “I think it’s too much too soon,” one student opines. When asked if they would recommend the programme to a prospective student, they responded, “Maybe in ten years.” One student points out that several departments are trying their best, but are underfunded. For example, the history department, according to another, is “consistently responsible.” Likewise, some language departments are well-run, take criticism well, and say, “What can we do together to try and fix it?” 

By contrast, a fourth-year international student, who was promised that they would become fluent in their language of study, observes that “most students in the French department, unless they went on Erasmus, have gotten worse at French since they started.” Rather than listening to the issues students face, the department says, ‘No, that’s just the way it is.”

“Trinity uses its historical reputation as a bulwark against change, expecting it to continue attracting students from both Ireland and abroad.”

“No, that’s just the way it is” is an all-too common response for international and Irish students alike. Trinity uses its historical reputation as a bulwark against change, expecting it to continue attracting students from both Ireland and abroad. This is clearly not working: the university’s ranking fell 44 places to 164th in the world last year, and student satisfaction is low compared to other institutions. 

With both its global ranking and student satisfaction embarrassingly low, something needs to change in Trinity – something deeper than treating prospective students to “super fancy” dinners. Financial resources funneled into recruitment and advertising can only go so far; ultimately, it is investing in students on the ground, listening to their needs, and fostering an environment of genuine care that will not only result in greater student and staff performance, but will lead to higher rankings and thus, organically attract more students from abroad.

“Trinity is a brand, not a university,” describes a third-year student from County Meath. It only takes pushing through tourists in front entrance and ducking under a multitude of selfie sticks to realise that. Yes, universities are businesses and they need to make money. But Trinity’s approach of funneling their resources into surface-level marketing while ignoring the needs of current students is unsustainable in the long-term. More than just businesses, at their most fundamental level, universities are spaces for learning, exploring, and connecting. If Trinity truly wanted to become a better brand, it should first become a better university.