“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
So wrote Samuel Beckett in his novella Worstward Ho. Yet should a present-day Beckett, elected a Scholar of Modern Languages in 1926, seek to apply his quote to Schols, he might be tempted to adapt his words: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Go home”.
The removal, in 2014, of the right of students to attempt Schols more than once is one of a raft of changes the current Provost has made in the past 10 years intended at reducing the number of students elected Scholars. The latest change, namely the introduction of quotas to limit numbers elected to Scholarship, is justified by the College as a means of fighting grade inflation and limiting the financial costs incurred through Schols. Yet as The University Times editorial pointed out, the introduction of quotas to fight grade inflation is hardly a valid argument, given quotas have not been introduced as a means of tackling grade inflation in any other set of exams. At a time when the College has shown welcome flexibility in other exams on account of the situation, adopting the opposite approach to Schol candidates raises questions of consistency in their newfound concern for high marks.
This leaves their second argument, the financial cost of Schols, as the obvious grounds for placing non-academic quotas on an academic award. In a time of belt-tightening across the university, cost-cutting is a necessary evil, and the College can be forgiven for seeking to reduce their exposure to costs. However, honesty is also required from the College in explaining how curtailing election to an academic award is a justified exercise in financial prudence.
At a time when the College has shown welcome flexibility in other exams on account of the situation, adopting the opposite approach to Schol candidates raises questions of consistency in their newfound concern for high marks
The difficulty for the College to justify quotas on financial grounds is that, on a comparative level, Schols costs relatively little. For context, the direct cost of Scholars and Fellows combined in 2017 was €376,000. In comparison, Trinity spent €621,000 on bank charges in the same year. During this time period, the College also spent €1.95 million on a luxury apartment that housed the Provost during the noisy Luas works, and circa €300,000 in refurbishing 1 Grafton St for when things had quietened down. Nor is this expenditure on property a legacy of the recent past – at the same time as the Provost mooted cuts to academic investment on account of Covid-19, he gave the greenlight for the €16 million purchase of Stack B at the IFSC – over double what the previous owners had paid for it a few years earlier.
Where Schols really hits the College exchequer is through the indirect cost of earnings forgone, in particular student accommodation. Student accommodation is a lucrative source of income for the College, yielding a net profit of €10.9 million in 2018. With the College making a tidy €83.84 profit from every €100 of rent charged, student accommodation has an even greater profit-margin than rooms rented to tourists during the summer months. And while housing Scholars does not directly cut into the income generated by the College given that Scholars are housed at-cost and continue to pay utility charges (more than can be said of the Provost), they occupy rooms that could otherwise be “rented-out to students who fork-out”.
Following enacted and mooted rent hikes (apparently necessitated in the interest of fairness for Dublin-domiciled students), profits are likely to increase further. It was most likely with fairness in mind that the Provost also sought to withhold accommodation entitlements from Dublin-domiciled Scholars in June and offer those rooms at full rent to non-EU fee-paying students instead. Only after objections did he clarify that this was always intended to be purely voluntary, and any Dublin Scholar who did not wish to dispense with their accommodation entitlements needed to contact College to stop them volunteering away accommodation entitlements on the Scholar’s behalf.
Gaslighting aside, the motivation and values behind the College’s decision-making needs to be strongly queried. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. It is not a quote the Provost is likely to draw on when lauding our College’s alumni, yet it aptly describes the approach the College is taking toward academic investment. Students, academic scholarships and accommodation should not be viewed through a financial lens, but through an academic one. Yet the College has lost sight of its raison d’être and has focused on profit-maximisation, prioritising the highest bidder at the cost of accessibility and academic endeavour.
Students, academic scholarships and accommodation should not be viewed through a financial lens, but through an academic one
Schols is an incredible privilege that, although costing the College relatively little, provides scores of students with opportunities to pursue an academic future. For students who, like myself, relied entirely on the SUSI grant for accommodation and living costs, Schols provided not only security in the final years of undergraduate study, but also the opportunity to pursue academic interests into the future. On a personal level, it has enabled me to pursue a PhD on a subject of great importance to me: socio-economic inequalities in education progression in Ireland. This is something that would not have been possible without Schols. Yet, had the quota been in place the year I sat Schols, I would not have been elected.
There is no obligation for students to sit Schols, nor any shame should a student not be elected. But it is a disgrace that students who strive for and attain the required academic standard to merit Schols will be refused the award on account of the College prioritising profit over students. It is true that the College has had to contend with limited resources from the state, and the Provost is right to lobby for increased funding for higher education. Yet, he also severely undercuts his own arguments for increased government investment when he insists that sweeping cost-cutting measures should touch neither his pet projects nor his salary, despite his remuneration package breaching government mandated limits each year of his tenure.
Should the Provost truly desire to limit the financial pressure on the College, there are many ways he could do this. Following the Scholars’ example and paying his own utility charges would be a start.