The start of 2020 brought a spate of strategic plans from Ireland’s universities with one – major – commonality: big, ambitious promises focused largely around construction and capital projects.
At the time, this Editorial Board wondered about the risks attached to embarking on such extravagant spending sprees, given the porous nature of higher education funding and the reliance of colleges on commercial revenue and international student fees.
Now, months down the track (though it seems longer, given everything that’s happened in the interim), we’re in a situation beyond the worst nightmares of universities’ strategists – and it’s reasonable to wonder whether colleges are rueing the ambition of their promises.
In Trinity, things happened a little differently than other universities. The College’s biggest projects – including its Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies (E3) Institute, and a €1 billion Technology and Enterprise Campus (TTEC) that Trinity this week said it will push ahead with – have been in the works for years, with legwork put in to secure funding to pay for them. (Elsewhere, plans for capital projects appeared for the first time in universities’ five-year strategic plans.)
But for all the planning that went into these projects, there remained a lot of unknowns. And in the current circumstances, it’s hard to see beyond the end of your nose – let alone envisage long-term success for expensive construction plans.
So it’s been remarkable to observe the confidence of Trinity’s decision-makers when they’ve been asked to assess the viability of College’s capital initiatives. If we’re to take the College at its word, then plans for E3, TTEC and the Old Library refurbishment will be full steam ahead once life returns to something approaching normality.
It’s a hard circle to square, in a College that has implemented a recruitment freeze amid fears of a €120 million revenue drop-off in the next two years. Surely something has to give when it comes to projects that will set Trinity back hundreds of millions?
Admittedly, Trinity is hardly likely to come out now, in the middle of a pandemic, and announce major changes to a set of projects that represent progress and stability.
But at some point, you’ve got to wonder about the long-term feasibility of College’s building plans.