The Trinity Education Project, a university-wide, radical reimagining of how Trinity students are taught, prepared and assessed, is moving into a new stage of action and consultation this week.
Trinity advertises itself as Ireland’s premier academic institution and as a university with an international reputation for excellence. Yet, as Trinity’s recent fall in both the QS and Times Higher Education world rankings has proved, this position is not immutable.
The major challenge for Trinity in the next decade is not just to consolidate its academic reputation, but to improve it in the face of a funding crisis that may or may not be solved by the publication of the government working group on higher education funding’s report in December.
The vehicle for achieving this is the Trinity Education Project, described by the Vice-Provost, Prof Linda Hogan, in an email statement to The University Times, as having the “potential to enhance and improve the educational experience in Trinity”. Yet this project, which promises to change some of the most fundamental learning structures in Trinity, is something most students will never have heard of. While this is unsurprising given the nature of the project thus far, widespread consultation is set to begin in the upcoming weeks, before the project’s final presentation to University Council in November 2017.
The project began as a review of the undergraduate curriculum during the 2012/13 academic year, which included consultation with student representatives, alumni and graduate recruiting companies. Over six months, this review began to look at how Trinity’s education system could evolve, comparing it to other universities around the world. As part of this process, the then-Senior Lecturer, Patrick Geoghegan, visited all 24 schools across the College to discuss practices, ideas and concerns. From this initial consultation, the steering committee of the Trinity Education Project was formed in Autumn 2014.
The project is divided into seven distinct strands, all addressing key areas that the Trinity Education Project hopes to reform. While one group has been reviewing the curriculum and architecture of Trinity’s schools and faculties – a process due for completion this month – other strands have responsibility for reviewing how Trinity operates in a number of areas, including learning spaces, assessment, technology and enhanced learning, internships and studying abroad. The findings of these strands have the potential to alter even the most fundamental structures of studying in Trinity, and could make changes such as introducing Christmas exams, allowing students to combine arts and science or fundamentally changing how students interact with employers during their time in higher education.
The Vice-Provost described the project as revolving around “curriculum renewal”, and this idea of “renewal” is one that is central to the aims of the project. In the College’s 2014–19 Strategic Plan, the Trinity Education Project is described as being focused on “embedding the 21st-century learning skills in the curriculum, with renewed attention to: critical thinking; global development; engagement with employers; and integrating extracurricular and co-curricular learning opportunities for all students”.
Indeed, the structures within Trinity are ones that are desperately in need of renewal. Speaking to The University Times via email, Sarah Smyth, the Course Director for Trinity’s two-subject moderatorship (TSM) programme, which currently allows student to combine two subjects, mostly in the arts, from their first year in College, emphasised how Trinity cannot sustain its position as a modern university within the existing structures: “The 1970s foundations need reimagining so that they are fit for future generations. Along with a renewed vision for the TCD graduate we need a solid, far more simple and straightforward structure which is college-wide, intelligible to all, equitable and facilitative”. For Smyth, this transition is necessary if College is to survive the “next seismic shift”.
This recognition of the need to modernise has already resulted in some tangible changes to the Trinity education system. The launch of Trinity’s pioneering admissions feasibility study in 2014, which explores alternatives to the oft-criticised CAO system, opened 25 places in Trinity courses each year to students based on three separate criteria – their Leaving Cert points, their relative performance in their school and a personal statement. While the study is currently limited to three courses, with ten places available in history, ten places in law and five places in ancient and medieval history, the ambition inherent in the study captures how potentially dramatic the changes initiated by the Trinity Education Project could be.
One of the most interesting aspects of this attempt to modernise the Trinity education is the integration of business and graduate employers into the process. On November 9th, the project’s steering group, led by the Provost and Vice-Provost, will meet the top employers of Trinity graduates to discuss the kinds of attributes Trinity students should have, and how they can be embedded into what students study in Trinity. Indeed, the strategic plan stresses the importance of engagement with employers “to ensure that curricula address contemporary work practices”.
Speaking to The University Times, Molly Kenny, the Education Officer of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), emphasised that the main objective of the project is to create a “breadth and depth of education” for Trinity students. While insisting that the project was still in the formulation stage, she was adamant that “it will massively change how education is taught in Trinity. We’re looking at things at the moment like the structure of the college year, like semesterisation, like modularisation”.
One of the core aims of the project is to produce a high standard of education across all schools and faculties, and ultimately one that will be will reflected in the success of Trinity graduates. For Kenny, the hope is that it “will also allow students in different schools to have a standardised level of education”.
There are, of course, difficulties inherent within such wholesale transformation of the sort imagined by the project, with financial constraints being an obvious barrier to such change. However, College is not letting this narrow the scope of the project, and is instead focusing on developing their plan without the burden of a budget to comply with. Indeed, while some might question the sense of embarking on a project of this ambition during a time when funding of third-level institutions is more than precarious, it must be noted that in the coming months, the funding situation may change dramatically depending on the recommendations made in the government working group’s report.
One strand of the project that is particularly relevant to students deals with assessment. Under this consultation, there is the potential for radical reforms of how, and when, students’ work is assessed. Alternative methods of assessment, aside from traditional essays and exams, are likely to be extended into the more traditional courses following the project. The Senior Lecturer’s Report 2013/14 notes that students will gain “opportunities to develop analytical, presentation and other transferable skills, and engage in both independent and group projects during their undergraduate years.” Speaking to The University Times, Geoghegan gave the examplelof group projects that have been introduced in the Department of History, in which “some are working on a walking tour and book;et, others a radio documentary, others a virtual exhibition”. According to Geoghegan, this new innovation was born from discussions surrounding the Trinity Education: “this is about empowering and enabling colleagues to be innovative in the curriculum and in terms of assessment.”
There is also the possibility of the introduction of Christmas exams in like with institutions like UCD. TCDSU’s mandate to advocate in favour of semesterised exams has been noted throughout the project. Geoghegan spoke out against Christmas exams in the past, saying that students should not feel under constant pressure to prepare for exams. Whatever forms of assessment are ultimately advocated by the project, traditional forms are sure to be broken up with more innovative and varied approaches.
A strand that will be crucial to the development of students will be the one charged with improving the “learning spaces” in College. While a sceptic would argue that this is hardly the most pressing issue in Trinity today, one only needs to wander through Trinity at exam time to realise that the lack of spaces available to study is one of the most visible problems facing students in the College. As the college Quality Committee meeting emphasised in April, Trinity consistently falls below the international standards for learning spaces, technology and the library. This will be an area that the Trinity Education Project will have to focus on if it is to have any hope of improving student confidence in College’s delivery of basic services.
The recently launched library strategy, which outlined the ways in which Trinity’s library can modernise and redevelop for the 21st century, cannot be separated from the goals of the Trinity Education Project. As any student will assert, the library is central to their college experience. If the project promises a reimagined curriculum and a revamped research-led degree structure, it is likely that its aims will have to correspond with the aims of the library.
In 2013, a new College policy was introduced that set a target for all courses to have a mandatory dissertation by the current academic year. This policy was informed by consultation as part of consultation on the Trinity Education by Geoghegan, who, in speaking to The University Times at the time, stated: “Students must prepare for the challenges of the 21st century”. Indeed, Kenny indicated that further research-based projects could be introduced to the curriculum: “A lot of students get their degree having only done a dissertation in final year and that’s it. You don’t learn research skills throughout your degree… it is something that, if students do want to go on, they don’t have those skills.” She further added: “We’re looking at embedding research in the younger years for students”.
One of the most radical changes the project has the potential to make is with regards to interdisciplinary studies. While currently in Trinity options for studying more than one subject are limited to the TSM programme and a handful of other courses, the Trinity Education Project will explore the possibility of moving beyond the traditional divisions in terms of subject and even faculty. While Smyth said “I cannot comment on what this will do to TSM”, she said that she had an open mind in that respect. She went on: “I am committed to the continued offering of something like TSM, namely the possibility for students to select and specialise in two subjects from related or from quite distinct fields of enquiry; I am committed to students being able to continue on subjects which they took in school and to their being able to take up and explore new subjects”.
Speaking to The University Times, former Dean of Students Amanda Piesse made it clear that consultation with students should not be neglected, “because this is your [students] university, your degree, and I think that Trinity at the moment, offers something really, actually, unique”. As part of the consultation process, which the Vice-Provost confirmed would be opening sometime in the next few weeks, with dates expected to be finalised this week, she said, students will be asked to examine what it is about Trinity College Dublin that makes it unique, and what made them decide to study here in the first place.
Indeed, Piesse, who currently serves as Head of Discipline in the School of English, emphasised the importance of Trinity retaining that which makes it distinctive in an Irish and international context: “what makes us distinctive is that we also offer the possibility of specialising right from the very beginning, and some students know that that’s what they want to do and I think it would be a shame to lose that really.” She continued: “But it would be good to know what the student who are in the process of doing that actually think. Why did Trinity students choose Trinity? Was it precisely because we have that four-year programme?”
Ultimately, Trinity is attempting to find effective ways to prepare its students and graduates for a constantly changing world and the uncertain future of employment. In a document submitted to University Council in June 2015, the Senior Lecturer, Dr Gillian Martin, offers a potential characterisation of the Trinity graduate in ten years: “Their learning in Trinity was transformative and changed the way they saw themselves and the world. Now they are confident to operate in it. They have the integrity and inner capacity to cope with and transcend its uncertainty and complexity. They now not only know how to learn, but embraces lifelong learning and will continually learn, share their learning, and relearn throughout their life.”
The challenge still facing Trinity College Dublin is figuring how to embed this into the way Trinity’s students learn on a day-to-day basis.