With its decision not to cancel Erasmus exchanges for the first semester next year, Trinity has marked itself out as an outlier among Irish universities.
Several other colleges have suspended outbound exchanges at least partially for the coming academic year, meaning the decision was taken out of students’ hands. But as the world begins to open up again, and international travel starts looking more feasible, Trinity students have to make a call: stay or go?
Since its initial decision, announced on May 29th, Trinity has expressed regret at leaving students with a “difficult choice”, and is currently holding a series of online information sessions to inform them of the “issues and risks” involved in travelling abroad.
Students have until June 25th – next Thursday – to tell College if they want to proceed with their Erasmus exchange.
This account is based on interviews with eight students, about Trinity’s decision not to cancel outbound exchanges, and about their own circumstances.
Many expressed worry about potentially infecting themselves or someone else if they travel, while some are glad they still have the choice. For others, Trinity’s decision to leave it in the hands of students is not enough.
In fact, for some, it’s “typical” of the College.
They never take responsibility … they just leave us out to fend for ourselves, although we are the people with the least power of being able to do anything
Celine O’Brien, a second-year law and German student, said: “They never take accountability – that’s what they always do. They never take responsibility … they just leave us out to fend for ourselves, although we are the people with the least power of being able to do anything.”
Although College announced that students have a four-week “grace period” to cancel their exchange four weeks into Trinity’s semester, not every university starts term at the same time as Trinity. Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany, where O’Brien hopes to study, starts in November. Trinity’s decision, O’Brien said, effectively leaves her “alone” if she runs into any difficulties, with the added risk of having to repeat the year if she does travel.
Like O’Brien, second-year European Studies students Doug Suffield and Anna Lee find themselves in a slightly different position to other Erasmus students. Because their course normally requires students to spend a year abroad, students are being given the option to stay in Trinity for the first semester, but must go abroad in the second.
Suffield, who is due to travel to the University of Siena in Italy, said he was “relieved” that Erasmus was not cancelled, calling it a “balanced decision”.
He said: “If it’s a decision that just affects your individual well-being, why should Trinity have anything to do with it? Why shouldn’t it just be our individual call?”
He said he believes Trinity’s decision was “the only fair way” adding: “Trinity would be massively overstepping their reach to prevent us from going.”
If it’s a decision that just affects your individual well-being, why should Trinity have anything to do with it? Why shouldn’t it just be our individual call?
If his exchange had been cancelled, he said, “I don’t know if I’d have gone to college next year”.
Suffield is still planning to go on Erasmus to the University of Siena for the full year, describing it as “more of an adventure” than the alternative of staying home.
Lee, who is due to travel to the University of Bordeaux, shared Suffield’s view. She said she didn’t want to be in Trinity for the first semester, as she didn’t feel it would be of “any benefit” to her. As a language student, Erasmus is a very important part of her degree, so she was “always completely set on going”.
Lee remained relatively optimistic about the likelihood of Erasmus taking place as normal: “I think it should go ahead as things are starting to get lifted already across Europe.”
Weighing up her options, Lee concluded that “it’s just as risky here for COVID as it will be in France.”
Lorna Fitzpatrick, the president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) told The University Times this month that “it would have been much more beneficial and positive, I suppose, if they [Irish universities] could have had an alignment between all of the institutions and that they all could have made the one decision”.
This is something that is really important for each individual student to think through – to come to us, to really engage with us
The differing approaches taken by universities, Fitzpatrick said, have led to “more questions than answers”.
Caoilin Young, a second-year law student, said timing was everything when it came to the announcement. On this, she said, Trinity didn’t play ball: “Every other college knew and I had people texting me nearly every day like: ‘Our college has cancelled Erasmus – is yours cancelled?’”
“We were one of the first colleges to close and start the whole process and one of the first to finish the exams so surely, they could have been thinking about it”, Young says. “I know they didn’t want to make a definitive decision but you kind of have to in these situations.”
In an interview with The University Times, Juliette Hussey, Trinity’s vice-president for Global Relations, said that the decision was delayed because “there was an awful lot to think about”.
“We felt it was very much within the thinking of our Erasmus partners that they were looking at ways that we could facilitate students, where they wanted [to travel] and where they thought long and hard about all of the destruction that could occur if there was a second wave in whatever country that they were going to, or there were travel restrictions”, Hussey said.
“There’s so many things to consider when you’re looking at the number of countries that participated in the Erasmus programme. So they’re really the reasons it might appear that it took quite some time. We really gave it an awful lot of thought, and consulted widely – and had many, many meetings about it.”
Hussey added that students are strongly advised to communicate with the Global Office when making a decision on whether to travel.
We were in the dark before and we still kind of are now
“This is something that is really important for each individual student to think through – to come to us, to really engage with us, to think through the challenges. There’s challenges, always, about going overseas – this is an extra one”, she said.
Trinity has admitted that its decision on Erasmus “may be revised” in the case of a second wave of the virus, and is discouraging students from going ahead with their exchanges if their host university is offering online teaching and learning only.
Second-year English literature and sociology student Ana Bravo, who is due to travel to the University of Malta, has been left feeling conflicted following Trinity’s announcement about Erasmus. For her, not a whole lot has changed following College’s announcement: “We were in the dark before and we still kind of are now.”
“I know they might have been thinking that ‘we won’t deny our students the privilege and the experience we might have been waiting years for’”, she said. But she also felt that there was a lot of “uncertainty” and a number of important questions left unanswered.
Bravo expressed concern over the potential difficulty of socialising abroad and the possibility of a second spike later in the year and the resulting effects this would have on students: “It would be very frightening if we were to move abroad and a second spike came about and we had to move home. It’s definitely taking a gamble.”
Ultimately, Bravo is currently still planning on going abroad to the University of Malta for the year. She described Erasmus as “a new opportunity”, which she’s always wanted to experience.
This, for her, “outweighs the cons in regards to the uncertainty and the perplexity of the situation”.