Anyone who has tried to use Trinity’s Sports Centre in the past year or so knows the situation there is far from ideal. Anyone who has not done so should at least remember the extra “Sports Centre Charge” that shows up when you try to pay your fees. The status of that charge – currently at €90 – is now in question, and the result of the upcoming vote will directly affect all Trinity students.
There is far more to this issue than the simple “more money bad, less money good” mentality that too often dominates student life. The Department of Sport has been laudably transparent in seeking to inform the debate, which may be the biggest sign that something needs to change. They feel so confident in their position that they have put all their cards on the table, with the expectation that students will see the obvious truth in front of them.
Students choosing to come to Trinity would have benefitted from knowing that such drastic increases would be necessary.
I’ll summarise the major trends here, although the campaign literature will likely provide more detail for those interested. Roughly 60 per cent of students have actually activated their student card to use the Sports Centre, even though all students are obligated to pay for the right to do so. The students who have activated their cards make up 80 per cent of total gym memberships, with the rest going to staff and members of the public. But students account for just 72 per cent of gym usage, which in the above context indicates that non-students make greater use of their membership.
Each of these statistics supports a single compelling narrative, which is that an increase in non-student memberships should be an unacceptable outcome. The most obvious problem with the gym presently is a lack of space, causing frustration for members and pushing the limits of safe capacity. But the department argues that a continuation of the status quo would require almost doubling the number of non-student memberships to meet funding targets. Having already established that non-student memberships get used at a greater rate than student ones, this additional burden would be unsustainable.
To work around capacity issues while increasing memberships, all members would be charged a per usage fee during the wide-ranging “peak” hours of 4–9pm. Such a charge not only undermines the concept of paying a membership fee in the first place, but it would disproportionately drive students from the gym given their limited disposable income. This is the near future of the status quo, and it is clearly not an appealing one.
An increase to the Sports Centre Charge is thus necessary to maintain student-focused services. I worry, however, that the Sports Department has carried its reasonable argument to an unreasonable conclusion. The department has publicly voiced its support for an increase to €160, which is a fair stance for them to take, given that personally I’d prefer to pay no fees to attend Trinity or to use the gym. Both positions stem from self-interest and ignore economic reality.
A per usage fee discourages gym usage by design, while a flat fee lowers the average cost of attendance with each additional trip and encourages higher uptake.
Those proficient in maths may notice that €160 is almost double this year’s €90, which is itself up from the €77 that was charged last year. To justify that kind of increase there would have to be a radical improvement in services. Instead, we hear that this money would fund “state-of-the-art squash courts and a rifle range,” as well as renovations for facilities in Santry and the Boathouse in Islandbridge.
For a very small minority of Trinity students, I am sure such improvements are considered necessary and long overdue. But given that it’s already arguably unfair to charge 40 per cent of students for services they will never use, asking them to fund a rifle range on top of that seems ridiculous. These specialised projects should be paid for either by the clubs that use them or through fundraising.
Unlike at many American universities, Trinity’s sports programs do not attract a significant level of income or external media attention. It therefore seems unreasonable to double the charge for ordinary students to subsidise expensive renovations. The Sports Centre Charge should follow the spirit of the Sports Centre itself, which is to maximise the benefit for the entire student body. In that spirit, an increase to €120 appears reasonable.
As outlined by the department, this minor increase would allow the maintenance of the current student to non-student membership ratio while providing new fitness theatre space – i.e. the primary “gym” space that most students use. The additional cost to students is negligible when spread over a twelve-month membership, and might actually encourage more people to make use of what they’ve already paid for. The distinction in incentives is crucial: a per usage fee discourages gym usage by design, while a flat fee lowers the average cost of attendance with each additional trip and encourages higher uptake.
While the status quo may be unsustainable, making the right choice is hardly a sacrifice.
In endorsing this increase, however, I admit that several questions need to be addressed before students lighten their wallets again. The university should have a fairly accurate model for predicting sports centre revenue given that all Trinity students are required to pay the charge, and the number of students has been rising or at least stable over the past decade. Management claims that the student usage rate is trending upward as well, but all of this suggests a well-planned schedule of fee increases could be arranged. Instead we get calls to jump from €77 to €160 over just two years. Students choosing to come to Trinity would have benefitted from knowing that such drastic increases would be necessary.
Furthermore, students deserve clear answers on how an increase would affect those struggling to pay for college. The department maintains that students with financial hardship would continue to be exempt from the total charge, but will the relevant threshold for an exemption rise with charges, now or in the future? While a fee increase may inevitably give the impression of squeezing students, we can at least ensure that all college services remain accessible for everyone.
By now it should be clear that there is far more to consider in this debate than just the sticker price. Students must imagine three distinct worlds, and in each case weigh what they are giving up against what they are purchasing. An informed appraisal of all three options should conclude that change is necessary. While the status quo may be unsustainable, making the right choice is hardly a sacrifice.