Trinity has made dramatic cutbacks to plans for its flagship Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies (E3) Institute, The University Times has learned, after a sharp decline in projected student income over the coming decades.
Confidential documents presented to Trinity’s College Board in November, obtained by The University Times, show major changes to the institute’s business plan, with projected costs down more than €55 million over a 30-year period.
The figures show a number of miscalculations in the previous business plan, approved by the College Board in February 2018, with an €85 million drop in expected student income – down from €659 million to €573 million.
They suggest Trinity significantly misjudged many aspects of a project that in 2018 received the largest philanthropic donation in the history of the state – a €25 million contribution from donor Martin Naughton.
E3 still has a “strong” business plan despite the trimmed-down budget, Paul Coote, the project appraisal manager for Trinity’s Financial Services Division, told Board in November.
But a presentation explaining the changes to the business plan, delivered to Board by E3 project sponsor Prof Sylvia Draper, flagged a number of reasons for the changes – including the lack of a full marketing team for the project, the complexities of implementing it across multiple schools and the challenges caused by the implementation of the Trinity Education Project (TEP).
The explanations offered suggest that Trinity overestimated its ability to recruit non-EU students, as well as failing to accurately predict many of the difficulties that would arise over the course of its implementation.
And they cite the implementation of the TEP as a factor that has complicated the plan.
The lack of a full marketing team, according to the presentation, “stretched” the College’s previous targets for attracting non-EU students and caused a reduction in the number of full-time students that will enrol in E3’s courses.
In 2020/21, for instance, the revised assessment shows only 269 full-time equivalent students will be enrolled in E3 courses – down from 700 in last year’s plan.
In an email statement to The University Times, media relations officer Thomas Deane wrote that E3 is a “visionary project at a scale which is unprecedented in Ireland”.
Deane, who did not offer specific explanations for the cutbacks, added: “The project is underpinned by a 30-year Business Case, which is reviewed on an on-going basis by the Finance Committee, Executive Officer’s Group and College Board.”
“The revision essentially marked a re-setting of the Business Case in the context of current realities and timelines”, he said.
Significantly, the revised business plan flags the “immediate need for a concerted academic recruitment campaign”, recommending the creation of 11 new Ussher assistant professorships across the three schools in a proposal that appears to suggest Trinity overestimated the speed with which it could recruit staff to cater for increased student numbers.
It also highlights “the changes and resource constraints arising from the implementation of TEP” across undergraduate programmes in the faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science – ”a steep but enabling learning curve”.
TEP’s introduction in recent years has come with a number of teething problems, including the way departments and schools are supposed to engage with each other. Many students and schools have struggled to adapt to its requirements.
A summary of the business plan presented at Board offers as another explanation a “re-assessment of student demand, particularly in Engineering and Natural sciences”.
The E3 Institute is set to open in 2022, after receiving go-ahead from Dublin City Council last November. Named after Naughton, it will be located on the east end of campus, between Westland Row and College Park.
In November, Coote gave an overview of E3’s 10-year projected income and expenditure, as well as an outline of the risks associated with its development.
As part of the changes, Board also approved a new governance structure for E3, which will see the establishment of a steering committee and four groups focused on education, business development, the research institute and public affairs. Details of the new structure were contained in a 23-page document laying out the terms of reference, a copy of which was obtained by The University Times.
The steering committee, which will be chaired by Provost Patrick Prendergast, will be responsible for making “strategic decisions on items raised by the project, to support delivery of the project’s overall objectives and purpose”, according to the documents. It will report to Board and the Finance Committee twice a year.
The group in charge of business development is chaired by Draper, and will “ensure the business case for E3 remains fit for purpose”. It is also responsible for making sure that “associated marketing, recruitment, staffing and philanthropic plans are successfully supporting the E3 business case”, and it will report to the steering committee at every meeting.
E3 is targeting almost €40 million in philanthropic donations over the next 30 years – a figure that remains unchanged in the revised business plan. It includes a €50 million loan and government investment of €15 million, according to the documents.
In November, when the project got the go-ahead from the council, Provost Patrick Prendergast said in a press statement that the “central theme of E3 is ‘balanced solutions for a better world’. E3 will be a crucial component in our transition to a ‘smarter’ economy, developing technological solutions that are more sustainable and more equitable in the use of the earth’s limited natural resources”.
“I am delighted to name this flagship development the ‘Martin Naughton E3 Learning Foundry’, after one of Ireland’s leading businessmen, and an engineer who has endorsed its vision from the start”, he said.
Naughton said: “E3 will integrate engineering, technology and scientific expertise at scale in addressing some of the major challenges facing Ireland and the world. Throughout my life in business, I have been fortunate to have been able to play my part in effecting positive societal change.”
“E3 represents a real step change in education which will benefit future generations for years to come”, he said.
The 7,256 square metre development will be shared by the schools of engineering, natural sciences and computer science and statistics, and will be “a launchpad for a new kind of education experience for students with a focus on collaborative and project work”. It will connect to the existing older buildings of zoology and physiology.
In its report, Dublin City Council praised the contemporary design of the project: “The proposed development will upgrade one of the most prominent locations in the City, contribute to the animation of the area, will allow for the construction of striking and innovative contemporary/modern building in a historic city location, proximate to public transport and other amenities. The proposal exhibits a distinctive contemporary design which will make a positive contribution to the subject site and Dublin’s urban fabric.”
The old biochemistry building, Robert’s Laboratory and the PC huts are currently being demolished to make way for the new building.