This article was originally published in the April 12th 2022 issue of Trinity News, the final issue under my editorship. I hope you’ll forgive the uncharacteristic sentimentality.
With the conclusion of my term as editor approaching, I’m preparing to say goodbye to Trinity for good. That’s no small thing; I’ve been here longer than almost anyone who isn’t now actually teaching classes. I remember the buildings that used to be where the Business School is now. My student number begins with 15.
As I suffer from the kind of cloying nostalgia that comes with every major life transition, am I sorry to be leaving? Well, no, not really. The truth is, as much as I’ve loved (most of) my time here, Trinity is broken. It’s been that way for a long time.
This manifests in lots of ways. College’s unwillingness or inability to support its students is so profound and total that it’s literally killing people. It was noted at the last Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Council meeting on April 5 that there has been one suicide a year in the School of Medicine alone for the last four years running.
As has also been noted by TCDSU of late, College’s response to the tragic death of another medical student in February was to pass the buck to the union’s education and welfare officers. All 18,400 Trinity students were advised to lean on two people who, for the Trojan work they do in supporting their peers, are also just students and don’t have any professional training in trauma counselling. This is Trinity’s idea of fulfilling its duty of care to its students. Meanwhile, the actual Counselling Service’s waiting lists just keep growing, and the broader question of why students from every Trinity faculty are so desperately in need of counselling remains unanswered.
The relationship between College and its students isn’t just characterised by neglect, though, there’s also actual hostility; I’m old enough to remember Take Back Trinity, when it was necessary for student activists to occupy the Dining Hall to stop the university introducing huge, regressive repeat exam fees. This piece of recent history was on my mind of late, when the College Board had to be talked out of jacking up fees for international and postgraduate students next year. I would be surprised if they don’t try again once the agreed year of grace has passed. It’s also worth remembering that in 2019, Trinity used students as bargaining chips in funding negotiations with the government by threatening to cut its undergraduate admissions by more than a fifth.
Postgrads should never be forgotten, of course. The way College treats postgrad workers is nothing short of abusive. If it weren’t for the handy blurring of lines between employee and student, the conditions under which many casual teaching staff are obliged to work would be outright illegal and College would very quickly find itself in front of the Labour Court. Even if these practices are technically legal (which sometimes they’re not), it’s just an absolutely abhorrent way to treat people. Trinity burns the welfare and dignity of graduate students to save cash.
Other, basic parts of the student experience betray how deep the malaise goes. Whether it’s the tooth-pulling exercise of trying to get Trinity to hand over class timetables each year (which has been a fiasco as long as anyone can remember), the Kafkaesque nightmare of even the smallest interaction with Academic Registry, or the inevitable administrative car crash of exams every single semester, it’s evident College is barely functional. Every part of it is so underfunded and over-bureaucratised it’s a wonder the light switches work.
These aren’t individual, disconnected policy problems. It’s all part of the same issue. College is in the throes of a decades-long identity crisis and a struggle to secure its own future. Years of abject neglect by government have left universities across Ireland strapped for cash, and Trinity’s solution has been to lean hard on international students and tourism as sources of revenue, while imposing a kind of austerity on almost everything related to being an actual university. Meanwhile, as a four-century old institution, Trinity retains many administrative anachronisms and a deep institutional conservatism around its core functions and structures.
The result is a paradox; Trinity badly wants to attract sightseers and students from across the world who can be charged staggering fees, but both of these things are dependent on its reputation as a respected institution of learning. But its single-minded pursuit of a positive public image at the expense of basic functionality and student experience makes that reputation increasingly difficult to maintain. Thus, cracks keep appearing in the facade and College keeps slipping down institutional rankings; the harder it pursues its goals, the more unachievable they become. Trinity is like a stressed-out snake eating its own tail. The centre cannot hold.
I don’t point any of this to lay blame at any one person’s feet, or because I have a proposed solution. It’s possible there never were good choices for Trinity to make given the situation it’s been put in by years of neoliberal consensus in Irish politics. College’s strategy is undoubtedly making things much worse of course, and it’s clearly wrong for the university to throw students under the bus to save its own skin, but it would also probably be very hard for it to reverse direction now.
I think the rot goes all the way through. I don’t know how it could be fixed now without a genuinely seismic upending of how third-level education is run in this country, if not the entire political and economic system. People are right to keep fighting for change in College, but I worry that the root causes of these issues are bigger than all of us, and that we may be doomed to play activist whack-a-mole forever. It’s not just that College doesn’t give a shit about us, it’s that College is structurally incapable of giving a shit.
If you’ll permit me some uncharacteristic earnestness: I’ll treasure the memories of my time in Trinity for the rest of my life. Coming here and getting through my degree was the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done, which is one of the reasons it took me so long. I’m walking away with friends and experiences that will define me for years or decades to come, and I just wouldn’t be who I am now without this place.
But I have the feeling about Trinity that I do about Ireland, these days: it never loved me back, and it never will, no matter how much I want it to.
I’ve had to find a way to accept that, while also accepting that I, and all of us, deserve more. In the words of Matt Damon’s eponymous character in Good Will Hunting: I’m holding out for something better.