Comment & Analysis
Mar 17, 2018

Students Aren’t Snowflakes. They’re Fearless

Take Back Trinity was a welcome attack on commercialisation in our universities, writes Dr Daragh Downes.

Daragh DownesOp-Ed Contributor
Ivan Rakhmanin for The University Times

For the past few years, we have been told with thudding regularity that today’s university students are a bunch of neurotic little snowflakes who melt at the first sign of difficulty or discomfort. Yet here we are, after the single most important student protest Trinity has seen in decades, and not a melted snowflake in sight.

Some 60 students occupied the Dining Hall, others the Exam Hall. The Book of Kells exhibition was sporadically blocked. Protests at the Front Arch forced the Front Gate shut. Somewhat confusingly for their detractors, these students were not protesting over the colour scheme in the Ussher Library or the ergonomic inadequacy of their seminar room chairs or the cost of a pint in the Pav. No, they were taking a stand against the proposal to impose a €450 fee on any (non-TAP, non-HEAR) student who finds themselves having to sit one or more supplemental exam. They argued, as they argue still, that the reasons for failing to pass an exam can be myriad and complex, and worry that financially vulnerable students will fall through the cracks as a result of this policy.

The protesting students were not virtue-signalling. They were being virtuous. They were sticking up for the underdog. Crucially, their protest was about more than supplemental fees. It spoke to something that has been poisoning the university sector in these islands and beyond: marketisation.


I would rather lie on my ass and fart and think about Kafka than work in one of those intellectual, educational and vocational wastelands

The game plan of the edu-marketisers everywhere is nothing if not simple. Stop thinking of your students as students and start thinking of them as customers. Redefine your teaching staff as service providers rather than educators. McDonaldize the terms of academic employment wherever you possibly can. Treat ancillary staff like you are Tesco on a bad day. Monetise anything that moves, and much that doesn’t. Pay lip service to quaint notions like “liberal education” but train your real focus on the Rankings Olympics and their Gradgrindian metrics. In short, place the sleek optimisation of your university’s brand above all other considerations.

I have been hearing horror stories of late from friends and associates at certain other universities, here and abroad, where the Thatcherite mentality has taken total hold. Personally, I would rather lie on my ass and fart and think about Kafka than work in one of those intellectual, educational and vocational wastelands the neoliberal ideologues have created.

I love Trinity. When I first came here as a teenager, I dreaded the university’s storied snobbery and elitism. But I was shocked to find friendly, approachable lecturers who actually knew your name, who took an old-school personal interest that went beyond any conceivable call of duty, who offered sage counsel when you were in trouble and punched the air with delight when things came right. I found friends who taught me that the point in life is not to see through people but to see people through. And I found books. Lots of them.

The students who organised and supported this protest have done themselves and their College proud

Trinity is – still – a special place. Stuff goes on here all the time that would be apt to draw blood-curdling screams from the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. The student who pulls an all-nighter so she can get just right that killer reference to Hannah Arendt towards essay’s close. The colleagues who will think nothing of devoting 27 minutes of an exam meeting to agonising over the final mark of one particular student whose case is borderline third/two:two.

The students who organised and supported this protest have done themselves and their College proud. They have shown a backbone and an ethical seriousness that one underestimates at one’s peril.

I hope they prevail. I am confident that Chris Morash, the decent and smart fellow that he is, hears their chants for the honourable cris de coeur that they are. I have no doubt that he and the student representatives can sit down together again, chew gum and find a workable solution.

Most importantly, though, I hope we can all take back Trinity College, Dublin, and prevent it being turned into Trinity, Inc. I hope we can use this resurgence in principled student activism to remind ourselves, and the utilitarian pinchpennies in government, of Trinity’s core raison d’etre: free intellectual inquiry, meaningful scholarship and – above all – a teaching mission that values students for what they are, the very lifeblood of the place. The rest really is noise.

Dr Daragh Downes is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Germanic Studies.

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