When he was elected Trinity’s provost in 2011, Patrick Prendergast inherited something of a poisoned chalice. Ireland was in the depths of recession and austerity measures seriously hit the higher-education sector. Running a campaign against a backdrop of economic crisis saw him set out ambitious plans for what would become a new era for a 400-year-old institution.
With international travel having been largely halted for over a year now, it is hard to remember a Front Square packed with tourists and other visitors, in the form of international students, but the internationalisation of Trinity – cementing College’s place as an institution with worldwide recognition – has been a defining characteristic of the Prendergast era.
His 2011 campaign manifesto read: “My vision for Trinity College is of a university with a worldwide reputation, known for the care it gives to its students and their education, and for the very highest achievements in research and scholarship.”
“It will be a university which is fully part of Irish society yet distinctive in its role as Ireland’s international university – a university for Ireland on the world stage.”
My vision for Trinity College is of a university with a worldwide reputation
From the beginning, Prendergast committed to increasing the number of international students as a means of increasing income and prestige.
In the 2010/11 academic year – when Prendergast was elected – just over 20 per cent of students were international. Ten years later, this figure has risen to 32 per cent. Trinity now ranks eighth in the world and first in Europe for Internationalisation in the Times Higher Education rankings for 2021.
Prendergast also pledged to “increase student mobility as part of the undergraduate student experience, working with academic colleagues to build alliances with peer international universities and provide funds for student exchanges”.
Even so, some argue that Trinity’s place on the world stage could have been higher on the priority list.
We have a global brand, which we have not leveraged
In an interview with The University Times, former College Board member and Business School Professor Brian Lucey said he doesn’t believe internationalisation has been “pushed remotely enough”.
“I think we’ve lost”, he said, adding: “We have a global brand, which we have not leveraged.”
However, Lucey does not believe these perceived failures are the fault of the Provost alone, but that the responsibility is on College more widely, “from the schools to the faculties”.
According to Lucey, College needs to consider the role that satellite campuses could play in an ever-expanding Trinity. He also suggests “being much more assertive about dual degrees” and “much more open to years abroad built into courses”.
While most arts and humanities courses at Trinity attract a hugely diverse student population, some courses, including many STEM programmes, continue to be dominated by Irish students.
Students and others do make choices of which university to attend based on the university’s rankings
With fierce competition from abroad, and many courses ranking outside the top 100 globally, College has struggled to become a top destination for international students looking to study science.
In a recent interview with The University Times, Prendergast admitted that the College’s inability to reclaim its rankings with the top universities of the world is an issue, saying: “Students and others do make choices of which university to attend based on the university’s rankings.”
In his election manifesto, Prendergast noted that international students “offer an opportunity to increase marginal income to schools and departments if Trinity can succeed in capitalising on its recognition for quality in North America and Asia.”
“But”, he warned, “it is dangerous to think that international students can solve the problem of the deficits entirely”.
But they certainly became part of the solution: Income from international fees rose from €107.6 million in 2010 to €163.7 million in 2020.
Fee income is a large part of what allows us to be what we are
The highly contentious issue of rising fees has been taken on by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), which recently voted to lobby for a reduction in international student fees specifically.
However, it should be noted that the proportion of College’s income coming from the exchequer has decreased significantly, from 70 per cent of the university’s total income in 2008 to 39 per cent in 2020. So are international students being treated as cash cows, or is the rise in fees a necessary evil to ensure the survival of Trinity?
After taking over from Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, Vice President for Global Relations Juliette Hussey has been at the helm of internationalisation in recent years and, unsurprisingly, feels positive about the economic advantages of a global university.
“Fee income is a large part of what allows us to be what we are”, she said, adding: “The financial autonomy that more fee income provides is very important.”
Hussey described the “chronic underfunding” of third-level education by the exchequer, saying that fees covered by the government “don’t go the full way towards paying the actual requirements in terms of tuition”.
Hussey’s remarks were echoed by Veronica Campbell, College’s bursar and director of strategic initiative, who has been working in Trinity since the 1990s.
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. They’re actually paying the real cost of being able to provide that experience for them
Speaking to The University Times, Campbell argued in favour of the shift. “What’s probably more stark is the lack of economic funding available for the full economic cost of the courses that we provide”, she said.
“The funding available per student on specific courses is just inadequate to really deliver the quality education, and the quality facilities that we want to be able to deliver.”
“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. They’re actually paying the real cost of being able to provide that experience for them”, she added.
Trinity’s student body is not the only aspect of College which has been fundamentally changed by internationalisation in the past decade. An increase in cross-border academic co-operation now sees nearly half of the university’s research publications involve international partners.
Trinity has also expanded its reach through dual degree partnerships, such as with Columbia University. Over 900 students have completed the allied health programmes delivered in Singapore and there are currently 640 registered on the joint programme in physiotherapy. In addition, recruitment pathway programmes were developed with universities in India, China and the US, among other countries.
it wasn’t just that Trinity set out to attract students from abroad, an equally important part of that was to encourage students from Trinity to go overseas
But Prendergast did not look solely across the Atlantic to improve College’s prospects – he also actively strengthened Trinity’s links with other European universities. In 2017, Trinity became a member of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) – a group of the most elite research-intensive universities in Europe. In the same year, College joined Coimbra Group, which promotes internationalisation, academic collaboration and excellence in research within multidisciplinary universities.
Trinity’s Director of Public Affairs and Communications Tom Molloy points to Prendergast’s own time as a student on the continent: “ The fact that he trained in Holland, that he trained in Italy, whereas previous Provosts have gone to the United States … I think it’s a really important part of understanding his legacy and his achievement.”
“Trinity is not dependent on one thing”, Molloy says. “Even within global relations, even within the internationalisation strategy, it really is important to emphasise that it wasn’t just that Trinity set out to attract students from abroad, an equally important part of that was to encourage students from Trinity to go overseas.”
Indeed, the number of undergraduate students engaging in some form of exchange during their degree has more than doubled, from 522 in 2012/13 to 1,101 in 2019/20. In tandem, the growth in those taking a semester or full year year in a university outside of Europe has increased almost sixfold from 37 in 2012 to 211 in 2019.
Prof Linda Doyle will now inherit a different kind of poisoned chalice as she takes over as Provost. Although the pandemic looms large, international student numbers are expected to return to – or even rise above – what they were pre-coronavirus, with Brexit being a key factor.
However, internationalisation did not feature heavily in Doyle’s manifesto. So, when she asked the electorate to “imagine Trinity” in ten years – with regards to global relations – much has yet to become clear. There are many clear benefits to the internationalisation of Trinity, but Doyle’s message of change may see the drawbacks come into focus.