In recent years, when Provost Patrick Prendergast has ventured into the media, he’s tended to focus predominantly on one issue: funding.
Small wonder: for third-level, government underinvestment has been the monster at the end of the bed for years – and in the last few months, with economic crisis looming, Prendergast has been making the case for state funding more stridently than ever.
But to those paying attention, there’s often been a subtle, secondary narrative in Prendergast’s rhetoric – autonomy. In media appearances set up to discuss third-level’s finances, Trinity’s provost has rarely missed an opportunity to argue that Ireland’s universities function best when they’re free from state interference.
On the face of it, Prendergast’s belief in the value of autonomy isn’t surprising: universities have long taken badly to efforts by the state to encroach on their territory.
But in Trinity, Prendergast is a member of a working group that’s just proposed sweeping changes to how College is governed – changes viewed by many Board members as a threat to its autonomy.
It’s no secret that the government – and the Higher Education Authority – wants more control over universities. Since last summer, legislation has been in the works designed to give the state new powers and reshape governance in colleges.
Prendergast’s role in these developments, though, has been harder to read.
Last November, Trinity asked the government to meet in the middle, and allow it more time to make similar changes to those devised by the state. At the time, this seemed like a delaying tactic: push off a fervent government, and hopefully minimise the damage.
But the sweeping proposals rejected by Board last week – including more external members, and an as-yet unwritten plan to reduce its size – are eerily similar to those that caused such consternation when mooted by the government last summer.
Whatever your views on the merits of external membership and the effectiveness of Board, the recommendations of the working group read like they could have been drawn up by a government keen for a say in college governance.
While Prendergast has touted the benefits of Trinity’s autonomy at every turn, he doesn’t appear to have kicked privately against recommendations that could jeopardise it.