Trinity is not a business, so why does the College Board treat it like one?

The College Board in Trinity has been opaque in nature from the beginning. Sure, the minutes for each meeting are available online. The goals outlined in the 2020-2025 Strategic Plan are there to view. However, unless you are willing to sift through all of these documents in order to ascertain how the Board is run, and to find out its goals, it can remain quite distant to your day-to-day life. 

It is only in the college-wide emails or official Trinity press releases that you can catch a glimpse of the decision-making machine that runs the College. So, when it was announced on September 21 that the Board was undergoing a restructuring, bringing in 6 new members, 2 new staff and 2 new student members, I was curious to see what the impact of these changes would be.

In essence, the change in board structure can be seen as an attempt by the College to maintain its autonomy and increase the number of staff and student representatives, which ought to be a good thing. However, the Board has historically always had four student representatives.  So this move actually intends to undo the results of the Higher Education Authority Act 2022 (HEA Act), which forced the Board to reduce its number of student and staff representatives, and increase the number of external members from two to nine. 

Government influence looms large within Trinity’s internal structure, and under these conditions it will continue to do so, if not get more pronounced. The Board is now less representative of the college corpusand while it is important to consider who the new student members should be, it’s equally important that we question government involvement in the first place. Why is the Government attempting to make such a forceful move into third level bureaucracy?

The HEA Act 2022 was seen by many as an attempt by the Department of Education to leverage their control over the running of colleges. Specifically in Trinity’s case, the Board had to allow for an increased amount of ‘external’ seats to be allocated by the Department. These replaced student- as well as staff-representative positions. The Act also forced the Board to shrink representation more generally to comply with the requirement to decrease the overall board size. On top of this, the Chairperson of the Board, historically the Provost, was replaced by an external member, further constricting the Board’s autonomy.  

The Department of Education’s explicit reasoning for the allocation of more Board members seems, at face value, to be centered around governance and funding. Regrettably, this not only reinforces the idea that academic courses are supposed to be economic tools, but also risks allowing research to be funded based on economic value rather than intrinsic merit. This makes sense if you’re trying to run a business, where research and development are supposed to increase revenue, but for an academic institution such as Trinity, this is ridiculous when you consider that the vast amount of research is not qualified by its ability to provide profitable results. 

Many famous cases, such as the invention of penicillin and insulin, provide immense value to economies everywhere, even though they were discovered accidentally. While the Department of Education argues that it is seeking to make governance better for the College, you might question if the motivation for running a college more like a business somewhat sacrifices intellectual inquiry, discourse, and the pursuit of knowledge.

The Government alleged that Trinity was engaging in bad governance by allowing the Provost to maintain the Chairperson position, so instead we now have as Chairperson of the College Board someone who has spent the majority of their career working for private firms. The Board must, by necessity, be run by competent and organized persons in order to manage such a large institution. However, when such organization and drive for efficiency start becoming more important than the very purpose of the university itself, something is lost.

The reshaping of Trinity’s governance through public sector reforms is a valid threat to our college.The HEA Act 2022 enabled the Minister for Further Education, Simon Harris, to appoint three members to the Board. It seems deeply contradictory for Mr. Harris to suggest that the Act will allow for healthier discourse about college governance, while proceeding to allocate three positions to lawyers to further undermine other members. 

While the number and identities of people on the College Board may not seem important, in some sense this is a narrative we’ve been told to accept. What would happen if the Students Union fell out with the Government, and the Department of Education decided to no longer recognize them? Or if an austerity government began to see third level institutions as an economic tool? Considering their influence on the Board, it seems within the realm of possibility.  

It feels like this unfinished entanglement process makes us further complacent in the commercialisation of academia. In the clash between the expenditure-orientated and profit-maximizing tendencies of the Government versus the more education-based needs of the College, a healthy Board should mostly be focused on authentically representing the needs of the faculty and students, rather than the ideals of government power. This is not to say that Trinity should be left to its own devices. I think we can all appreciate that some level of financial oversight should be expected, but this seems miles away from the current designs of the government.

In a few weeks, students will vote for the appointment of new student representatives. The Board structure pre-HEA Act 2022 was that this position would be filled by another member of the Student Union, which seems to be a reasonable suggestion. Any students who are vocal and passionate about the educational and welfare needs of other students will naturally increase the likelihood of students’ needs being addressed. At any rate, we should want the College Board to represent a wide range of people who are members of the College. Rather than lawyers and those purely with an economic pursuit in mind, we need people committed to pushing for Trinity to have as good an environment as possible. As long as ‘good’ is not defined as profit-maximizing and qualification-oriented, the new student member will be a positive addition.