Several College Board members have spoken out strongly against Trinity’s decision to increase postgraduate fees by five per cent. The move has triggered anger from students and serious reservations from senior staff about the impact of such an increase.
Speaking to The University Times, several members of the College Board, some speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss Board meetings, have roundly condemned a decision that Trinity has said is necessary to sustain the finances of a university that has run a deficit for several years.
In recent days, postgraduate students discussed the possibility of taking strike action in response to a decision, taken by Trinity’s Finance Committee in September, that will see postgraduate students – and in particular multi-year students whose degrees have seen annual incremental increases – hit hard by a hike in fees.
For many Board members, this was a bridge too far. Speaking to The University Times, Sarah Alyn-Stacey, a Fellow and a member of the College Board, expressed her concerns, as a member of staff, over the impact a fee increase would have on students.
“People affected by the increase in fees are the next generation of scholars”, she said
The dispute has revealed the gulf between Trinity’s arts, humanities and social sciences staff and their colleagues in the science end of campus. For staff members who sit on Board, the detrimental impact on arts students was top of their list of concerns.
The fee increase, Alyn-Stacey said, suggests a “shift in the focus of what the academic mission is meant to be”. For staff members who have suffered for years under a funding crisis – largely created by a decline in state funding over the last decade – the fee increase raises the possibility that academic promotions could be affected. The number of postgraduate students that staff supervise is often one criterion considered for academic promotions.
One Board member, speaking to The University Times on the condition of anonymity, said there wasn’t enough scope for decision-making by Board before decisions are taken at Finance Committee.
Other Board members shared concerns that the burden of the fee increase would fall most heavily on arts students.
Prof Eunan O’Halpin, the Bank of Ireland Professor of Contemporary Irish History, speaking to The University Times, said the increase was “unfair”.
“Most of the decision-makers in college are effectively coming from the STEM end, so they don’t even see the issue”, he said. Many of them, O’Halpin said, have a “Darwinian” view of postgraduate funding.
“Everything is about getting big grants in. There’s a focus on inputs, not on scholarly outputs”, he said.
Many of those speaking to The University Times questioned whether a fee hike was the best approach to balancing Trinity’s finances. Over the last several years, College has run a deficit and is expected to do so into the future.
Alyn-Stacey said that while she was “sympathetic” to “the Provost’s commitment to education”, the cost of “€2.5 million is a small price to pay for the next generation of scholars”.
Others also questioned the approach to money-saving: “College seems to be behaving like a cross between Mick Wallace and Nama”, said O’Halpin.
For many, it was the unfairness of the situation that caused concerns. Speaking on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss their concerns, another Board member acknowledged that the inability to plan ahead due to year-on-year increases was a “bitter pill to swallow” for postgraduate students.
Although Board is the final decision-making body in the College, the decision taken at Finance Committee was final and was only brought to Board for approval. Under the College statutes, the Board can grant agency powers to other bodies in high-level decisions.
In an email statement to The University Times, the College’s Chief Financial Officer, Ian Mathews, affirmed the authority of the Finance Committee to take such a decision under the principles of agency laid out in the statutes. This revision to the statutes that gave Finance Committee this power was made in 2015.
Speaking about the decision-making power granted to Finance Committee on fees, President of the Graduates Students’ Union (GSU) Shane Collins said that “it’s a nice way of taking away the authority of Board”. The arrangement “to give them complete authority over setting fees is a step too far”, he added.
Speaking to The University Times, Collins said that student members were not the only group opposing the increase at Board. “In my view Board were very supportive of the Graduate Students’ Union’s view on this matter”, he said. The decision to increase the fees was initially sent back to the Finance Committee by Board, before they passed it through consensus.
The only student voting member on the Finance Committee is the President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), with the President of the GSU sitting in attendance, a right which was granted to the GSU in 2015 after lobbying by TCDSU.
Collins said that the GSU has pushed for voting rights on Finance Committee: “It has been raised for the best part of the last three years.”
He expressed concern that “the biggest issue that comes up” on Finance Committee “year on year for postgraduates is fees and we theoretically don’t have a vote on the matter”.
TCDSU President Kevin Keane, who also sits on Board, told The University Times that “the fee increase for postgrads and non-EU undergrads that finance [committee] approved is totally unacceptable to the SU”.
Keane referred to the increase as being “unconscionable” and said that it “demonstrates the university’s developing attitude over the last couple of years that students are the method to bail out the university”.
“We are far more than a money-making organisation. We’re an institution of learning”, Keane said.
At a meeting of the GSU council last Wednesday, Collins gave a rousing speech, urging postgraduate students to actively oppose the increases, which he called “unacceptable” and “fiscally irresponsible”. A motion later passed mandating the union to explore strike action in protest.
Collins stated: “Postgraduates students are not going to be the cash cow for this issue any longer.”
Postgraduate fee increases are known to impact students in the arts, humanities and social sciences hard, as these subjects enjoy a lot less funding and scholarships than in other subject areas. In his statement, Mathews stated that at the meeting of the committee, “the issue of the potentially disproportionate impact on AHSS students was highlighted and acknowledged”.
Justifying the increase, Mathews stated that the €2.5 million income generated from this increase in fees would go towards “improvements in student services and the student experience overall”, promising a “detailed plan in this regard” soon.
Mathews explained that one of the reasons for the increase was to make Trinity “more closely aligned with that of its peers” around the world with regard to pricing.
This is not the first time student Board members voiced opposition against fee increases at the meetings. In March 2015, a proposal passed at Board to increase a number of student charges. The original proposal included the introduction of a €250 fee for taking supplemental examinations, which was conceded. The then-president of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne vehemently opposed the increase in student charges and ultimately challenged the decision in an appeal to the Visitors. The Visitors, one of whom is always the Chancellor of the University, hear appeals made against decisions of College bodies, including the College Board
The decision to raise these fees was supposed to be taken the previous year, but TCDSU under then-president Tom Lenihan launched an email campaign appealing to Board members to prevent these fee increases, delaying the discussion at Board.
In 2015, The University Times revealed the heavy-handed, top-down lack of respect from Provost Patrick Prendergast for the views of Board members, with several student and non-student members voicing discontentment of what they saw as a stifling of debate.