Provost Patrick Prendergast may have been the frontrunner in the 2011 race to win Trinity’s top job – but he was not students’ first choice.
Angered by the re-introduction of fees and worried about graduate prospects in the middle of a recession, students did not back the man dubbed “the quintessential Trinity insider” by the Irish Times. Indeed, a “Trinity insider” was likely the last thing many students wanted.
Then again, as former Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President Nikolai Trigoub points out, with the country on the brink of collapse, the provost elections were the last thing on students’ minds. He admits that “I don’t think anybody really captured the students’ hearts and minds at the time”.
Thus, in a way, Prendergast was forced to work backwards. Having won the rest of the electorate over, it was then up to him to win the support of those who were largely unbothered about his vision for College.
A key point in Prendergast’s manifesto was his desire to make Trinity a university “known for the care it gives to its students and their education”. Prof Brendan Tangney, the College registrar and former warden of Trinity Hall, believes that Prendergast succeeded in this: “I’ve always found him very student supportive. He was a tutor himself when he was a lecturer. I think he does have students’ experience [at] heart.”
I’ve always found him very student supportive. He was a tutor himself when he was a lecturer
“I remember he came out to one of the musicals we had on one night”, Tangney adds. “That’s just an anecdotal example of, you know, the fact that he took the time when he had lots of other things he could have been doing.”
“[Student] numbers have gone up, funding has gone down”, Tangney adds. “And within that context, I think the student voice has been as well listened to as possible.”
Indeed, the funding question was a defining issue of the Provost’s tenure, and students were, for better or worse, a large part of that. Prendergast had his eyes set on “strengthening our global reach” and students – particularly international students – were the key to achieving this.
“It’s really important that students have the opportunity to study alongside students from all over the world”, Juliette Hussey, College’s outgoing vice president for global relations, points out. However, Prendergast and his administration have been regularly accused of recruiting more non-EU students for the hefty fees they pay, not for a more cosmopolitan campus.
Perhaps they have a point. After all, fee income is responsible for the majority of the College’s funding as both Hussey and Brian Lucey, who served as a College Board member from 2014 to 2019, observe. So did Prendergast allow international students to become Trinity’s cash cow?
It’s really important that students have the opportunity to study alongside students from all over the world
Not exactly, explains, Veronica Campbell, College’s bursar and director of strategic initiative: “The income coming from international students is being used in some cases to subsidise the lack of funding, the lack of true required funding for the courses … [because] the funding available per student on specific courses is just inadequate to really deliver the quality education”.
“I don’t think that it’s the case that international students are being overcharged for the quality of the education they’re provided here”, Campbell explains. Rather, unlike Irish students, “they’re actually paying the real cost” of a Trinity education.
Money – specifically, where it goes – was at the core of much of the student opposition Prendergast faced, and maintaining the balance between preserving the student experience and the cost of enabling College to take on a constantly increasing number of students was something he never quite escaped. Even as Ireland emerged out of the financial crisis, many students did not feel the recovery. Coming to Dublin for college has only become more expensive, and while it’s unreasonable to expect the head of Trinity to single handedly solve the accommodation crisis, Prendergast’s solutions were never particularly palatable to students. Deals with luxury accommodation providers provided more beds, but did not address the underlying issue: many students cannot afford rent of upwards of €800 per month.
But beyond finances, Prendergast’s radical re-imagining of College’s undergraduate education left him at odds with students. Trinity’s Strategic Plan for 2014 to 2019 promised “an expanded vision in education through innovation and entrepreneurship”.
All students can benefit from entrepreneurial training, whether they’re studying medicine or engineering, or music or history
Innovation and entrepreneurship are positive traits to have in a graduate. But Prendergast’s vision for Trinity students was seen by many as an attempt to streamline their skillsets, attempting to push everyone down the same path. When criticised, he doubled down, arguing at the time: ”All students can benefit from entrepreneurial training, whether they’re studying medicine or engineering, or music or history.”
“Universities have been known for something … we are very well-known for entrepreneurial activities by our students”, Lucey explains. He is confident that it was never Prendergast’s intention to push students down a particular path.
Nevertheless, the backlash Prendergast experienced over his vision for Trinity’s graduates paled in comparison to students’ response to the launch of The Trinity Education Project (TEP). The phrase ”TEP” became, like commercialisation, a catch-all term for College’s perceived indifference towards students.
TEP was billed as the “biggest overhaul of our undergraduate curriculum in a generation”. It involved, among other things, breaking with 400 years of tradition by introducing Christmas exams. But its implementation stirred up controversy and – at times – outrage among the college community.
Prof Chris Morash, who was Vice Provost when TEP was rolled out, explains that “it was always very difficult to get a kind of two-way flow of information and I think there were certainly phases where people felt like TEP was being done to them as opposed to that they were doing TEP”.
The phrase ”TEP” became, like commercialisation, a catch-all term for College’s perceived indifference towards students
“But you’re going to get that to some extent with any big project. I think the fundamentals of it – that we should be trying to make a structure that was more student-centred, was more flexible for students … this is one things that we [he and Prendergast] both agreed completely on.”
Morash, in his capacity as chief academic officer, became the public face of TEP and took much of the criticism for issues that came up as it was implemented. When Christmas exams were first introduced in 2018, students balked, feeling that College had failed to fully consider the implications that such a change would have. Many teething problems have since been fixed, but even a project in the pipeline for seven years looks, in hindsight, like it was pushed through too quickly.
Morash says that Prendergast is “very results-orientated”: budgetary constraints and rollout hiccups often frustrated him.
“He liked to hear that things were being completed to target and when you kind of had to say: ‘Look this isn’t going to happen, because there’s a big piece of work that has to be done here first’, that could make the relationship difficult at times.”
For all its faults, TEP meant that the student experience was a central topic of discussion among College administration
But, for all its faults, TEP meant that the student experience was a central topic of discussion among College administration. Tim Trimble, a former junior dean, remarks that “it sort of situated the educational aspects of the student experience” at the forefront of Trinity minds. Academics had to seriously consider the question: what do we want our students to get out of a College education?
But dialogue among College decision makers is one thing: communication between decision makers and students is another. Prendergast arguably learned his biggest lesson about communication from the Take Back Trinity protests. Sparked by the announcement of a €450 supplemental exam fee, the protests, which took place in 2018, culminated in a campus-wide student protest and lock-in.
The situation escalated quickly, hitting national headlines. With even security and staff members on students’ side, the College responded by alarming doors, closing bathrooms and bringing in private security. Reflecting on it now, Prendergast describes some of the methods employed by students at the time as “totally unnecessary and achieved nothing in the end”.
Former TCDSU President Kevin Keane explains that the union, ever since the recession, has “always been of the view there’s the consequences of austerity, which led to the defunding of universities and students overseas, should not be borne by students and college administration should look elsewhere for making up their shortfall of the shortfall is then on the backs of students, particularly on the backs of students who were struggling in their exams”.
Most students will agree that the money has to come from somewhere, but Keane argues that Take Back Trinity was the release of several years of pent-up frustration: “If opportunities exist to offset the systemic underfunding that universities are experiencing, through commercialisation, that doesn’t prejudice or impinge on on that student-first experience, fine. But I think that perspective was lost forever.”
The consequences of austerity, which led to the defunding of universities, should not be borne by students
But he learned, he explains, how when there is a breakdown in dialogue, as there was at that time, “nobody benefits from that”. Nevertheless, the movement did grab his attention, even if he says that it did not enable his realisation that commercial activities can deteriorate the student experience.
”We don’t care more about tourists than we do about students”, he insists. ”The whole college is set up primarily for students: teaching students and to the benefit of the student experience. But I would say that those that come in who are tourists and visitors do deserve to have some consideration given to their experience as well.”
”And if we get it wrong … enter into dialogue with the students and others, and rebalance. And that’s what we’re continuously trying to do. And we’re sensitive as we can be to it.”
Reflecting on what he would have done differently in hindsight during his tenure, Prendergast is mostly unwavering. ”I came in with a fairly good idea of how I wanted the 10 years to go.”
We don’t care more about tourists than we do about students
”Things I would do differently…you know, one of the things I find myself doing more and more as time goes by is being an advocate for the student experience. I sometimes find on Zoom calls having to say to student union presidents and vice presidents and officers, throwing the ball to them to say: ‘Put your speak in now, if you want something to happen.’”
”So the Provost is probably more of an advocate for students. I think, probably if I’m to say one thing, I’m sorry I didn’t start doing earlier is probably that.”