Trinity’s Belfast campus has been neglected by the College, leaving staff feeling overstretched and detached and students without support services.
The criticism comes from staff and student representatives, speaking to The University Times. The College’s largely unknown Belfast campus hosts one master’s course in conflict resolution and reconciliation under the Irish School of Ecumenics and was set up in 2005. Every year, around 10 to 15 students enrol in the course in Belfast, with a cap at around 20 students.
Yet, despite being over a decade old, the course employs just two full-time academic staff members to run the master’s course. One of those staff members, Dr Brendan Browne, told The University Times of the range of difficulties facing students and staff in the Northern Ireland campus.
“It’s a small teaching cohort. To deliver a whole master’s programme with two staff members, it’s unbelievable”, he said.
The campus has one executive officer, who does a lot of work beyond her remit, including providing assistance with the processing of visas, an increasingly complicated matter in a post-Brexit education system for a course which attracts mostly non-EU, US students. Speaking to The University Times, President of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) Shane Collins commended the staff on the Belfast campus, saying that they were “doing so much stuff that is above and beyond the call of duty”.
As it stands, Belfast staff members don’t have full access to HR services and “that’s a problem”, according to Browne. Online HR services allow staff members to access payslips and apply for promotions, among other things, from their own computers.
In many cases, given that there are no senior academic staff members working on the Belfast campus, high-level administrative work falls on junior academic staff members where this is not the norm. Trinity’s Belfast campus has to go through a Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) examination process, given its UK location, and junior staff members are left to carry out the processing of paperwork for this, taking away from their research and teaching work.
Commenting on the detachment staff members felt from the College, Browne said: “Belfast staff really want to have the full campus experience themselves. Staff, that is, not just students.”
College did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the issues that Trinity staff face on the Belfast campus.
The programme has changed premises several times and the College is currently negotiating lease agreements for the building that currently houses it. The temporary nature of the location causes other problems for the campus. Collins told The University Times that the building in Belfast was without a Trinity sign on the door for over a year: “When we went up to visit them we couldn’t find them.” Collins has since raised the issue of the sign with the College’s Identity Committee. Speaking on the challenges of the programme, Browne said that “it’s challenging not knowing the long-term location of the programme”.
“If it seriously wants to move beyond lip service to Belfast, it should provide a space that is going to be there for the next 20 years”, Browne stated.
Both Collins and Browne raised concerns about the the lack of awareness of the existence of the Belfast campus in Trinity or the work that they do. Browne put this down to “blurring the lines” between the school’s own identity and that of Trinity’s. To ensure more students attend the school in the future and that the campus is allowed to grow, Browne said that there “needs to be a far more concerted effort” as “there hasn’t been enough focus on promoting Belfast as an option”.
Speaking about Brexit, Browne underlined the opportunity this could provide for Trinity in Belfast as “the only university on the island that has a campus north and south of the border”. In other universities in Belfast, he said, there is a lot of effort going into thinking about Brexit and “what it’s going to mean for the island of Ireland”. Browne emphasised the need to “make sure Belfast gets better resourced or gets better publicity” to take advantage of the “catastrophic” situation in the UK for student recruitment.
Before the start of the academic year, the GSU sent a delegation of its executive committee to visit the Belfast campus to assess the situation for students there and the ways it could help bridge the gap between campuses across the border.
Since visiting students and staff in Belfast, the GSU has partnered with Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union (QUBSU) to include Trinity students in orientation and other international student events.
There has been an informal relationship with Queen’s and Trinity in Belfast for years, whereby Trinity students can join the clubs and societies in Queen’s, but Browne said that students in the past had not engaged: “In my experience they haven’t [participated] so I wish they would because it would enhance their experience greatly.” Trinity students in Belfast also have full access to the library in Queen’s as part of a deal with the College. This year’s orientation week in Trinity’s Belfast campus saw officers from QUBSU address Trinity students and welcome them to their events.
Access to student services is a problem in Belfast. While the Counselling Service, the Careers Advisory Service and Student Learning Development are accessible to students who travel to Dublin, for many of the Belfast students, this is not feasible. The separation from a big campus as well as a small class size, usually with only 10 students, can sometimes lead to isolation among students, according to Browne.
Commenting on Trinity students’ experience in Belfast, Collins said: “If they’re paying those types of fees, they should be receiving as good a service as everyone else in the College.”
Collins has said he will lobby for Global Relations to have “someone that these students should go to about the immigration processes for the UK because they’re under a different system”, adding that “that work should not [fall] on the hands of an executive officer”.
Speaking about the initiatives led by the GSU for students in Belfast, Collins stated: “I’m absolutely chuffed to be honest with you because it shows how we don’t even need the colleges to be involved.”
While Browne was concerned about multiple issues in Belfast falling under the College’s radar, he said: “We are an afterthought at times and that needs to change and I do believe that is changing.”
Browne had only positive things to say about his students, calling them “superstars”, and was hopeful about the future of the master’s course: “I would love to see the school expanded.”
Speaking about the staff on the Belfast campus, Collins stated that “It’s because of the individuals we have and the extra hours they put in” that the course is delivered at a high level.