Nov 17, 2014

Does Trinity have a class problem?

Rachel Lavin examines the economic diversity of Trinity...

Rachel Lavin| Magazine editor

In a poll last year conducted by the Trinity identity Initiative, 72% of Irish people said they regarded Trinity as ‘snobbish’. This led me to the question: do we still  fulfill the traditional Trinity stereotype that is much held by Irish society? Having reflected on my four years here, a large majority of the students I have met have, more often than not, fit the one stereotypical profile; privately educated with middle-class backgrounds. Most of my friends here don’t have part-time jobs and live comfortably. This means that positions in societies, that are the lifeblood of Trinity’s social scene, or participation in demanding academic institutions like Schols exams  and even running for SU elections are far more accessible to those who are privileged. This is made obvious by the fact that one of the biggest societies in Trinity,  DU Snow Sports, take a ski trip every Christmas costing more than 700 euro, a cost unthinkable to most people at such an expensive time of year. Yet it’s one of the most popular society trips of the academic year.

72% of Irish people said they regarded Trinity as ‘snobbish’.


Culturally speaking, an elite social scene exists through the numerous ‘private clubs’. Not just relics from the past, such as the Knights of the Campanile,  new elite groups are forming all the time with each new batch of students; ‘Team England’, the frat, ‘Made in Dublin’ etc. It is prevalent too in the eagerly grabbed society positions which are a marker of status within the community. The attitudes behind this elitism have often baffled me. When a colleague once remarked how ‘The Gonzaga Mafia’ (Gonzaga is a Dublin private school) seemed to be dominating all the society positions, I replied that perhaps that was true for all of those from private schools in Dublin which is not widely unlikely – If you already have a large network of people before you enter college you’re more likely to get involved and elected to different societies. But his response was more simple: ‘Maybe we’re just naturally better’. A snobbish attitude no less, but then I have encountered such attitudes regularly. ‘Knacker’, a term to denigrate those from working-class backgrounds, is thrown around lightly. I’ve also heard the term ‘quality of people’ thrown around in casual conversation. Such slurs and fancies go largely unchallenged or even noticed. In fact, at one ‘Take Me Out’ charity event ( hosted by a society designated to helping the poor) two contestants turned up dressed as ‘skangers’, acting up to a Northside working-class caricature, much to the audience’s apparent amusement. 

Of course, this is just my experience and I accept that the experience of everyone who walks in the doors of Trinity is different. So I decided to investigate. Just how economically diverse is Trinity in 2014? Are we still a university for the wealthy and the elite? And if so, how does it affect our culture in Trinity? How do we change that? Ultimately, I am asking, does Trinity have a class problem?


First of all, let’s look at the demographics of a sample of Trinity’s current undergraduate student population. Although hard to gain, Trinity communications office supplied me with a list of Irish feeder schools, and the number of undergraduate students who came from each of them to Trinity last year (13/14). Of last year’s first year students who entered through the CAO, there is a sample size of 459 schools and 2516 students (excluding 369 students who had no school details and 27 students who were external candidates).  From these figures we can deduce that at least 35%(871) of the Irish students who came through the Leaving Cert last year came from fee-paying schools (private or grind schools). That’s approximately one-in-three Irish students coming from a private education. As a private education is a common indicator of one’s economic class, we can fairly say that, at least according to these figures, more than one-in-three Irish undergraduate freshman students accepted into Trinity last year came from privileged economic backgrounds.  Meanwhile, the percentage of students who came into Trinity through the leaving cert last year that are from disadvantaged schools is 9% (223) according to TAP. That’s less than one in ten Trinity students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

35% of the Irish students who came through the Leaving Cert last year came from fee-paying schools

Geographically speaking, approximately 37% of the students from the listed feeder schools are from Dublin schools. Although Trinity is based in the center of Dublin, the majority of Dublin city students on the list are from the generally more affluent Southside, with 68%  of those Irish educated undergraduate students who sat the leaving Cert last year coming from feeder schools South of the Liffey, while only little more than a third are coming from the North, at 32%. This relates to national statistics released this year, which found that while 99% of 18-20 year-olds from Dublin 6 went on to third level, only 15% of school-leavers living in Dublin 17, which includes areas of significant social disadvantage, made it to university.

Thus, it appears, from these stats at least, that Trinity is far more accessible to the middle classes. This is not entirely surprising given Trinity’s historical reputation, but given how we’ve now had nearly 20 years of “free fees”, which supposedly levels educational access, why is this class imbalance enduring? I sat down with TAP representative Lisa Keane to discuss what she thinks the causes are..


To begin with, she says those from disadvantaged backgrounds simply aren’t applying. What Trinity refer to as ‘non-traditional’ students, (which is telling in itself) they simply don’t think Trinity is for them.

As John*, a student from a lower socio-economic background explains: ‘I come from an exemplary non-third level traditional background. None of my family or extended family have attended third level education.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds simply aren’t applying because they don’t think Trinity is for them.

In my own family I am the third of eight children and so far the only one to progress to third-level education. My peers certainly have not aspired towards Trinity or any comparison, a lot of my friends dropped out of school after the Junior Cert’.  So without the apparent possibility or established route of being accepted into Trinity, most students don’t even apply in the first place.Lisa, however, is trying to change that. As she explains: ‘Our mission is to increase access for socio-economically disadvantaged students who are under-represented at third level either because of the areas they come from or the level of education their parents have had.’‘One of our ambitions is around raising aspirations.’ To raise the aspirations of non-traditional students, TAP reaches out to link schools in disadvantaged areas, mainly in Dublin and offers guidance, day trips to Trinity and summer schools.
‘So from a very very young age we are getting students to see that “I can do whatever I want to do” and that “Trinity as an institution is accessible to me and a place where I should feel I can go when I am 18 years old”. We try to help in supplementing that and the type of educational guidance that is required to steer them in the right direction.’

Indeed, if it wasn’t for TAP, John might never have applied here, as he explains ‘The reason I came to Trinity is strictly because the Trinity Access Program was recommended to me by tutor in school.’


Of course, another reason students with poorer backgrounds aren’t applying is because they simply do not want to. If the public perception of Trinity as an elite space is to be believed then Trinity may seem a daunting and unwelcoming place.

In coming to Trinity they risk becoming the outsider, with fears of being looked down upon for a different economic background and different identity.

I wouldn’t speak out in tutorials for fear of being judged for my accent”.

John recalls struggling with these things during his first year in Trinity: ‘I certainly was shocked by the cultural dynamics of Trinity and I did indeed struggle upon entering, I was self conscious about my accent which saw me too fearful to speak in tutorials for fear of being judged.’

Some students may also experience imposter syndrome where they feel as though they aren’t deserving of being a student in the college. John explains: ‘I also held an inferiority complex. I remember sitting in the exam hall in first year in the RDS thinking every single person in this room has gotten more Leaving Cert points than I had and more than half probably got twice as many points as I did.’
Certainly the perception of Trinity as an elitist institution is off-putting  to non-traditional students but whether or not that culture actually exists within Trinity is debatable.

John says: ‘I do think there is an elitist culture but I think it’s only confined to certain departments and societies. At the beginning I thought it to be all elitist, but but mostly it is okay.’

“One of the difficulties ‘non-traditional’ students face is their experience of straddling different worlds.”

However, whether or not it exists within college is, as Lisa explains, individual to each student who walks through the gates although she does admit: ‘Obviously we have an institutional culture which I think is very good but we have subcultures within our institution and some of those will suit students better than others. It may be more prevalent for some than others but it will not happen everywhere’.

It is not just their identity within Trinity that is compromised, but outside of college and back amongst their own community too.Lisa admits, ‘one of the difficulties they face is their experience of straddling different worlds, that maybe their experiences in their own community and where they fit here in trinity can be very different. It can be difficult for people to marry the life they have here and the experiences here with the experiences they’re having outside. And there is a responsibility and an onus on the institution to narrow that gap.’

Financial & Educational support

Of course once admitted, a different cultural atmosphere may be the least of a TAP student’s worries. But by far, it is financial difficulties that inhibit the TAP student’s ability to stay in college once admitted. A recent Bank of Ireland survey has estimated that the annual cost of attending third-level education is as high as €13,000, while the average student grant payment is €3,025 per annum. Meanwhile, Dublin has one of the highest costs of living in the country and it is only getting higher. Between accommodation rising 13% and a city center location required to be near to Trinity, you’re looking at an average of 500 euro a month on rent, amongst the highest in the country. That’s one deterrent to applying to Trinity specifically, especially if you are from outside of Dublin. 

“I have held various jobs mostly giving 20–30 hours per week so I never really got the chance to get involved with societies.”

In John’s own experience, he says: ‘I suppose I couldn’t afford to enjoy student life as much as I would’ve liked. I and many other TAP students I know have to work quite a bit.  Since the Trinity Access Program I have held various jobs mostly giving 20-30 hours per week so I never really got the chance to get involved with societies and organisations as much as I would’ve liked but I’ve done okay.’

Although not experienced by John, these demands can also impact their educational experience in Trinity as well as their social and personal lives. As Lisa explains: ‘There can be issues around balancing work and home. Most of the time both young adults and mature students have multiple roles. They may be in a position that they are supplementing the income at home – work is a key part of what they do. This can be difficult in terms of balancing that with their academic schedule’. TAP aims to counter that by offering a variety of education supports such as providing a math’s help room, a writers resource center, a computer room and a laptop as well as additional classes or tutorials for those who require them.

But despite all these obstacles that non-traditional students face, TAP is progressing and their numbers within Trinity are increasing. ‘We took in 223 this year. Our first year in 1998 would have been around 10. The growth has been exponential’.

Economic Access

While the gains in terms of TAP’s work have seen exponential increases in the future admittance and maintaining of lower-socioeconomic students, it however still faces significant difficulties. Will we be able to keep increasing while wider structural obstacles are at play?

“The free fees scheme hasn’t improved number of students from certain socio-economic groups to third level at a national level. Most students can’t live accurately on the grant.”

Lisa identified one of these obstacles while I was talking with her. ‘While fees is one part of the issue, the grant system is a bigger question. If you had a proper stratified grant system that truly supported those who needed it most, fees are less of an issue. Most students can’t live accurately on the grant. It is not what I would call stratified as there is a very sharp cut-off’. Fees should be part of broader discussion of renewed support for grant students. What is the best way of distributing funding available for third-level education in a way that we have the most equitable access for all? The key question is, does treating everyone the same equate with treating everyone equally? Statistics would show you that the free fees scheme hasn’t improved number of students from certain socio-economic groups to third level at a national level.’

Meritocratic Admissions System

Another structure contributing to unequal third-level education access is the CAO points system. Because of the high points only those who do well in secondary school will make it, but for those who receive an elite education in a private school, they are far more likely to get a coveted CAO place in Trinity. Patrick Geoghegan, the former Senior Lecturer who pioneered the Trinity feasibility study does admit that this limits the diversity, both geographically and economically of Irish students. This is something Geoghegan has set about tackling with the Trinity Feasibility Study which begins its pilot scheme this year. Although not directly aimed at lower-socio economic students, his plan for a more rounded admissions scheme would likely see a more economically diverse student population in Trinity./span>

‘If the college admissions were accurate it would mean that say “all the intelligent people live in the even number Dublin postcodes and the stupid people live in the odd ones” whereas we know that that’s ridiculous’- P. Geoghan

Geoghegan explains that with the current points system: ‘Something is wrong there because, ability isn’t linked to what you’re home address is because if the college admissions were accurate it would mean that say “all the intelligent people live in the even number Dublin postcodes and the stupid people live in the odd ones” whereas we know that that’s ridiculous. So, there is something unequal there so we had to try and see if we could balance it’.
He acknowledges that the economic background of students can give them a huge advantage in their Leaving Cert saying: ‘Someone who goes to an elite school could also have their parents paying for grinds whereas someone from a disadvantaged school mightn’t have the option to study higher maths and miss out on the extra 25 points.’

He explains the Leaving Cert also only measures a certain type of intelligence, that can sometimes be learnt off. ‘Sometimes even though students who are great at learning off prepared answers but don’t underneath know what it really meant. You know, we’d rather have students who were independent creative thinkers.’

His scheme which begins it’s pilot year this September will see 25 students in history, law and medieval history and archaeology admitted on three facts. Their Leaving Cert score, their relative performance rate, which ranks their Leaving Cert performance relative to others in their school and therefore puts into context the level of their education. And a personal statement, further contextualising the type of struggles they may have had and achievements outside of school, in order to get a grasp of that person’s whole character. Although the TFS’s selection is anonymous Geoghan does hope that it will allow for more lower socio-economic students to get accepted into Trinity.‘Ultimately what everyone wants, is the students who are the right fit for the course, the right fit for the college and who will be the best possible student for that. Someone who is enthusiastic about learning, someone who is passionate about the subject, someone who will brighten up the class. We know from the success of TAP that that person isn’t always the person with 600 points. Some of our best students who have gone on to lecture and gone on to do PHD’s are people who came through that foundation year on TAP. They had a hunger and a determination and a passion because it really meant a lot to them. College I think benefits from having a wide mixture of students from all different backgrounds. Trinity is meant to be a university for the whole island. If Trinity could say that we got the students with the ability and potential from all over the island, every county, I think that’s much better than just getting a lot of students from the same school.’ The scheme has been received very positively and Geoghan hopes that in the next few years he may see it expanded alongside the Leaving cert into the other seven leading universities.

Geoghan also hopes however, that this variety of students both geographically and economically will break down the reputation Trinity has as an elitist and exclusive institution.

‘We cannot underestimate the value of these students to the Trinity community.’

‘What we want is the people who have the right fit for Trinity, academically able, great potential, involved in the wider activities in the college, we would love to get the students from every county on the island and break down that kind of prejudice like ‘don’t go to Trinity, they’re all snobs.’ We want to make sure on the domestic front that we’re getting in the best and that they’re not put off by the negative connotations of Trinity.’

The benefit of mixing students from different economic background cannot be underestimated. Lisa believes economic diversity is not just important for TAP students but for Trinity as a whole. ‘We looked at experience of our graduates. Last year we did a piece on family and community impact, and while hugely transformative, both at personal and community, we cannot underestimate the value of these students to the Trinity community’.

Trinity is striving for more diversity, be it through TAP or the ground-breaking feasibility study. Hopefully with initiatives like these lead by people like TAP’s Lisa and Professor Geoghan and more importantly by students like John, Trinity can become a truly diverse melting pot of students.


What do you think? Does Trinity have a class problem?


Next Article: What do Outsiders think of Trinity?


Photograph by Eavan McLoughin


Correction: 20:05, October 7, 2014
An earlier version of this article appeared in Issue 2 of UTzine.
However, due to a miscalculation this version incorrectly stated that, from the figures given, 37% (not 35%) of Trinity’s first year students in 2013/14 were from Dublin city schools and, as a result, stated that 66% (not 68%) of those students were from Southside schools, and 34% (not 32%) were from Northside schools.These detail have been amended above.

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