Editorial: Trinity knowingly misled students this term and must make amends

There can be reasonable debate about the appropriate amount of in-person class right now, but College consciously deceived students

Trinity has not bathed itself in glory since classes returned on September 13. The issue of this newspaper published on September 7 featured an editorial decrying the administrative incompetence displayed by College year after year, amplified in particular by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, things have only gotten worse, significantly so.

Students in almost every corner of Trinity arrived for the beginning of term to find that they would have significantly less in-person teaching than they had been led to expect. Large numbers have no in-person lectures whatsoever, and at time of writing some have no in-person classes of any kind, as tutorials and seminars have yet to be scheduled in some courses.

Many of those who resat or deferred exams were unable to enroll in modules until the end of the first day of term, meaning they were effectively denied any choice of what classes they’d be taking this year.

As was acknowledged in that previous editorial, no one would make the argument that a global pandemic is an easy thing to navigate. It was always going to present administrative challenges, and there was likely always going to be some chaos surrounding the return to campus after what was, for most of us, an 18-month absence.

Additionally, of course, the pandemic is not over in Ireland. Infections continue to happen, the virus continues to pose a severe risk to life and health, and this must be taken seriously. It is possible that the right approach to the first part of this term is indeed a restrictive one, that there are still sacrifices that must be made in the form of enduring Zoom lectures and missing our social lives. It is not the place of this newspaper to make a determination on the specifics of the public health situation. We are not experts.

That is, however, not the point. The chief wrong being done here is not that classes are taking place online. The point is that College lied to students, and did so knowingly.

Trinity was dishonest in two ways. The first and lesser of the two was to promise things it was not in a position to promise. This is a process students became intimately familiar with last year. Then, College made several separate commitments that it would return to on-site teaching at some future date, only for the situation to deteriorate and force the scuppering of the plans. Trinity was, in effect, saying it had the power to predict what it did not.

This year, it came in the form of Trinity concurring with Simon Harris’ claims that teaching would “overwhelmingly be on-site” this term. The provost specifically echoed Harris when she gave the impression that only “large lectures” would be held online, even while admitting that College hadn’t really formalised its plans yet, and was awaiting guidance from government and public health experts. Again, Trinity made promises it probably genuinely did want to follow through on, but wasn’t in a position to be sure it could, and ultimately did not. College should have been honest about the level of uncertainty that remained.

The second and more egregious form of dishonesty was simpler; Trinity told us things that it knew were untrue. College very specifically said in late August that all classes with fewer than 50 attendees would be held in-person this term, at the same time as it was allocating teaching spaces which made this impossible for schools within the university to deliver. It made promises that it knew, without a doubt, would not come true. Students were simply lied to.

Students were also, as an aside, lied to when they were given the impression that deferring examinations because of the circumstances of the pandemic would not cause them to be penalised in any way. As junior sophister English students rightly pointed out in their letter of complaint last week, this wasn’t the case; some people who deferred their exams ended up being denied any choice of modules, even in their degree-contributing years. Trinity promised students wouldn’t be negatively affected by deferral, it was within its power to ensure this happened, but it didn’t do so. Again, College lied to students, dumped them in a bad situation, and left them to pick up the pieces themselves.

Why did all this happen? That’s hard to say. Only those who made these decisions can answer that. It seems likely that Trinity was fearful of the backlash it would face if it admitted the extent to which students would be limited to online classes, or how unprepared it was to actually offer mitigating measures around assessments.

Instead of facing this and attempting to lead a mature discussion about what the safe level of in-person teaching really would be on our campus come September, College told students what it thought they wanted to hear, and then gave its faculties and schools an impossible set of instructions and hoped no one would notice when it all bubbled to the surface.

Well, people did notice. And they seem pretty angry. That anger is understandable. The dishonesty is not just wrong in principle, but has real consequences; students are paying exorbitant rent to live on or near campus and now being told they have no or almost no in-person classes. Others committed to commuting on the basis that they would be “overwhelmingly” on-campus, and are now wondering if a 90-minute journey is really worth it on a day when they only have an hour or two of class.

Some students have even been heard speculating if this wasn’t an entirely cynical move on Trinity’s part, meant to delay the fallout from the back-to-campus plan until after tuition and accommodation cheques from students had already cleared. Again, only College authorities can say if there’s even a kernel of truth to that, but students can be forgiven for wondering.

Whatever the cause, Trinity must make amends. Exactly what form this should take depends on what students want and what is responsible from a public health perspective. Maybe it should include more in-person teaching; maybe there should be an apology and a real, tangible plan for more accountability in the future; maybe students should be given partial tuition refunds.

The details should be worked out through a consultative process, where students as a whole get to decide how College can be accountable to them, rather than this happening behind closed doors, at inscrutable committee meetings.

After years of increasing commercialisation, rent hikes, and lack of the most basic services, students’ trust in and opinion of Trinity is quite possibly at an all-time low. College should take this opportunity to own up to its wrongdoing and begin to engage with its community in a respectful, non-patronising manner. Otherwise, students will eventually run out of patience.