The practice of raising philanthropic funds in order to finance university activities is not new to Trinity, but doing so on a large scale is typically considered the preserve of US universities and countries without a state-funded third-level system. That Trinity is soon to launch its first-ever large-scale funding campaign, however, marks an important shift in this long-standing distinction.
The Trinity Foundation has traditionally taken charge of gathering funds for the College, prioritising projects such as the Science Gallery, the Old Library and the construction of the new business school. A fundraising campaign in 2014 saw €20 million raised for the school. This new campaign, however, marks an escalation of such efforts, and an increasing acceptance that government funding is not adequate, or reliable enough, to depend on as a source of funding.
This acceptance marks a shift in how we think about university funding in Ireland. While many groups continue to push for free fees, and the government continues the false narrative that we don’t currently pay fees, embracing an American-style system of philanthropic fundraising is an admission that the exchequer-funded system is inadequate to provide the funding necessary for a university to truly thrive, or even to function adequately. A slow shift is already starting to take place across Trinity’s campus, with many new projects named after financial backers rather than famous thinkers, and Irish universities will be forced to increasingly rely on such a model unless the government drastically increases the funding it provides to third-level institutions, or larger fees are introduced.
That Trinity is using this campaign to appeal to industry and to government is a welcome step, particularly in light of criticisms the College has received for what has been perceived as relying on students – whether it be via new charges or increasing fees for international students – as an income source. It’s better than a chronically underfunded sector, but it’s not without negative consequences – we can easily conceive of a situation in which one “flashier” project pulls in funding over a more vital one. Unless something changes soon, we may find ourselves in just such a scenario.