The hamburgering of Trinity

November 17, 1995

Hijacking the autonomy of Trinity College Dublin is part of a battle for the soul of Ireland, says Sean Barrett.

Trinity College Dublin has enjoyed autonomy unique in the Republic of Ireland since its foundation in 1592. Some two dozen other institutions of higher education in Ireland, such as the colleges of the National University, two new universities, and the institutes of technology and regional technical colleges, have external board members. Since the outside representatives tend to interfere in the running of the colleges there is a strong case that the TCD model of autonomy should be extended.

Under proposals from education minister Niamh Breatnach, TCD's autonomy is under threat. She wants to abolish it by Christmas. The latest proposals, leaked in the national press, would give her the power to impose ten outside members on the board, to set gender quotas for the board and to abolish the board.

The minister has not yet stated what precisely she hopes to accomplish by this. Trinity has been sentenced without any statement of the charges. She appears to believe that TCD is not accountable. This is easily rebutted. The college accounts are prepared by a firm of the highest probity. Its courses are assessed by international examiners. It attracts the highest qualified school-leavers in the Republic.

In September the Sunday Times reported that its graduates ranked with Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Durham as the highest ranking graduates in Britain and Ireland. TCD achieves this at half the unit cost of the United Kingdom universities. The college calendar in the past two years records some 212 pages of books, papers and refereed journal articles published by the staff and graduate students. By any standards TCD has brought honour and distinction to Ireland.

Yet the minister appears to believe that all universities should operate under the same legislation, like a franchised chain of hamburger outlets. Since the two new universities required legislation, as did the National University, TCD has been caught up in legislation against its will.

The minister is particularly hostile to TCD but the problem also extends to the permanent civil service. Previous proposals to impose outsiders on the board of Trinity College were dropped, reportedly on the advice of the attorney general of the day because of the protections which the Irish constitution gives to private property.

Thomas Mitchell, the provost, has argued strongly against the proposals. In the current issue of Studies in Education he writes that "universities are not, never have been, and cannot be allowed to become an arm of government, or another branch of the public service, or an instrument for the achievement of particular political or social agendas". He has received strong support from the president and vice president of University College Cork and from the president of University College, Dublin. The provost enjoys the unanimous support of his board, which includes academic, student and members of the college trade unions. He also enjoys the unanimous support of the fellows, the legal owners of the college.

The Irish government undertook in the Downing Street Declaration to examine aspects of the south which are repugnant to unionists. The undermining of the autonomy of TCD is an attack on the only institution in the south to which Unionists have strong loyalties. The minister for foreign affairs and the deputy prime minister, Dick Spring, captained a TCD rugby team with a strong Ulster representation and must be aware of this dimension.

TCD is also an important part of Anglo-Irish co-operation. By an Act of 1801 British publishers give to the college library free copies of all books published in the United Kingdom at a cost of several million pounds per year. TCD is the copyright library for all of Ireland.

Up to 1922 TCD returned members to Westminster. Today the college constituency returns three members to the senate. There are also three senators from the National University of Ireland. In the Senate the independents and opposition have a majority. One of the TCD senators, Shane Ross, will resign the Fine Gael whip rather than support the legislation. The leader of the Progressive Democrats, Mary Harney, is a loyal graduate of TCD and her party has put down a motion rejecting the interference of the government in TCD and any reduction of autonomy in the National University. Historian Senator Joe Lee of University College Cork has strongly criticised the government stance on the matter. At the Fianna Fail party conference last weekend I found strong opposition to the proposals. The likelihood is that the proposals will be defeated in the Senate in the next few weeks which would delay them for 90 days.

The man charged with getting the proposals through the senate on behalf of the government is the leader of the house and noted political scientist from University College Dublin, Maurice Manning. He looks, and sounds, decidedly unhappy in the role.

Interference by outsiders in the running of the other colleges in the Republic is a fact of life. Irish politics lacks significant ideological differences. The emphasis is therefore on the spoils of office such as putting placemen in boards and influencing appointments and promotions, "rent-seeking" in the economists' jargon. The experience with the "social partners", a mutual admiration group of high officials from trade unions, industrial organisations and the civil service, is also bad. Ireland is a classic example of the Lindbeck "insider-outsider" economy.

As one captivated by TCD for 25 years I utterly oppose the government on this issue. As an Irishman, I see the extinction of TCD as an autonomous college and its transformation into a government quango as a disaster.

An independent voice will be silenced in a country which lacks diversity in ideas, traditions and institutions. Autonomy gave TCD vital links to unionists and to the United Kingdom. That the government failed to appreciate either link questions its assessment of the peace process.

Statism dominates Irish government policy in education. In its treatment of TCD the government has set aside its policies of liberalism, pluralism and openness. The TCD issue is a contest for the soul of Ireland against a statist political culture and an over-powerful civil service. I hope that TCD may be able to delay the measures until the next election and that we may be able to secure the support of other political parties. My greatest fear is that, if the present government destroys the autonomy of TCD, we might not have the wit to reinvent it.

Sean D. Barrett lectures in economics at Trinity College Dublin.

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