College conversation this week was mostly dominated by talk of exams and timetabling, and with good reason.
Trinity, like all universities, has been plunged into the fires of a deadly pandemic, and the first priority has to be getting through the next few months with as few scars as possible.
But this week also saw another – ominous – development, with College informing heads of department of a freeze on staff recruitment due to the “significant financial consequences” of the coronavirus.
It’s hard to ignore the echoes of the past – we’ve seen a hiring embargo at third-level before, after the 2008 crash – and difficult to escape the notion that it could mark the beginning of a new financial reality.
It was also the first tangible acknowledgement from Trinity of the depression we’ve been told is hurtling down the tracks.
Until now, financial problems had remained abstract: Provost Patrick Prendergast admitted Trinity would take a “financial hit” as a result of the pandemic, but sounded confident College could get through, and questions from this newspaper about capital plans revealed delays, but not cancellations, to expensive construction projects.
The recruitment freeze is a prudent move. College is hardly likely to be hiring staff now anyway, with campus in shutdown for the foreseeable future, and it’s the type of decision Trinity’s administrators will hope can get it out in front of economic meltdown.
But it’s impossible not to wonder about its implications. Does it mean, for instance, that Trinity’s plan to slash its student–staff ratio – central to a strategic plan launched just five weeks ago, and vital to Trinity’s rankings position – is dead? And how long will the freeze last?
And it also raised another harrowing spectre of the past: College’s Planning Group – a decision-making body made up of Trinity’s most senior officers, which operates outside the structures of Board and Council – will make all decisions on recruitment.
Planning Group hasn’t made too many headlines in recent times, but you don’t have to look too far back to find a time when many students and staff were up in arms about radical cutbacks being made behind closed doors by a small, elite group.
The parallels, in many respects, are almost too acute.