Provost's Address to Members of the Royal Dublin Society

RDS Business Breakfast
19 October 2011


Thank you for inviting me here this morning. I'm delighted to be here. Since being appointed Provost three months ago, I have of course given many talks and addresses, but at 7:30 am this is the earliest one!

Our theme today is “Trinity College – a university of global significance”. Last month I gave my inaugural address as Provost, and I touched on this very theme. Well the words I used then were: “Trinity College – playing for Ireland on the world stage”. My inaugural address was wide-ranging – I couldn't go into this in as much depth as I would have liked. So I'm very grateful for this opportunity to expand on what I meant by “playing for Ireland on the world stage”.

This morning I'll talk about some of the different ways in which I think Trinity can extend its global reach, and how this can benefit Ireland. But first I'd like to say a few words about Trinity and the RDS.

The RDS and Trinity: public good and international excellence

I can't think of a better setting for this particular talk than the Thomas Prior Room in the RDS. I'm not going to go into all the connections between Trinity and the RDS because I'd be here all morning, and I'm sure you're all aware of them. But I read that Thomas Prior was a friend of our own Berkeley and Swift, and I know he's the man responsible for that great quote:

“Whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”.

The very first meeting of the Dublin Society in 1731 – when it wasn't yet Royal – was in the rooms of the Philosophical Society in Trinity College. Among the fourteen founder members were fellows and associates of Trinity; and this connection between Trinity staff and members the RDS has continued ever since. Some of the RDS' most distinguished members and presidents were from Trinity, including George Francis Fitzgerald – famous for discovering the formula for dimensional change as you approach the speed of light – and Charles Jaspar Joly, the geologist. I don't recall much of his geology but he did organise a corps of students to patrol the rooftops of Trinity College in 1916. And of course this connection between our two institutions continues to this day – I note several Trinity alumni here present.

But it's not simply a question of personnel. Or at least the reason why so many have performed – and do perform – the dual functions of working for Trinity and for the RDS is because of the similarity in our core missions. Both core missions focus on promoting the public good, or – as you put in your literature – “advancing Ireland, both economically and culturally”.

Trinity and the RDS are in agreement about the best way to promote the public good. We want Irish people, Irish research and Irish events to be world-class, and we want to apply best international practice to our activities in all fields.

One of the Dublin Society's first actions in 1731 was to order the printing of Jethro Tull's revolutionary book on tillage, which had just come out in England and was causing a storm. The Society was adamant about applying its revolutionary techniques to Ireland.

Today the RDS alternates the prestigious Boyle medal for Scientific Excellence between Irish and international scientists – a commitment to recognising excellence that is both local and global – a commitment which Trinity shares.

Global significance and the rankings

Trinity's core mission today is to be Ireland's centre of global academic excellence and so enhance the country's position on the world stage. In any system of universities there needs to be a leading edge. Not all players on the team have the same role.

Being on the leading edge isn't an easy position to be in, but we relish it. And we will set ourselves tough targets in this regard.

The initial title suggested for this talk was ‘Trinity College – becoming a university of global significance’. I removed the ‘becoming’ because while I think there are many ways in which Trinity can improve its global standing, I also know that the quality of our education and research is such that we're already a global academic presence.

So the question I want to address today is how to up our game. In fact even to stand still, we will have to up our game, because of the way other universities, particularly in Asia, are upping theirs. Recognising a different set of competitors is the first step in upping your game.

You all know that, like other Irish universities, Trinity has been falling in the rankings. From a height of 43rd in 2009 we are currently, as of last week, placed at 117. It's not that Trinity or UCD or other Irish universities have suddenly started performing badly and have allowed their standards to slip. Far from it. It's that other better-funded universities are going faster. To some extent we can also see that our reputation is affected by the negatives about Ireland in the international media – a significant part of the ranking metrics are derived from reputational surveys.

A word on the rankings. I know that some people think too much significance is placed on rankings. They believe that rankings are crude and arbitrary and that we should have our own codes of excellence. All I can say is:

  • first, that the rankings use many different metrics and if you check out the top twenty universities you won't find many surprises.
  • second, the rankings are what everyone goes on internationally – a global university can't ignore the rankings.

Of course in Ireland we know the nuances of our universities and where the best specific course is. But when students and staff on the other side of the world, or even on the other side of Europe, are trying to decide where to go, they don't have time to ascertain the subtleties; they just look at the rankings. Ireland currently has no universities in the top hundred. This isn't a good situation for the country. Especially since, for many years, we have rightly prided ourselves on the standard of our education.

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I want to talk for a moment now about education in Ireland. We are very fortunate in this country on being able to draw on a great tradition of education. When I speak of Trinity and the RDS promoting the public good and advancing Ireland both economically and culturally, I know that we are not the only institutions in this country with this core mission. I know that we have a whole network of public institutions with this aim. There is such a thing as society – and we have our public institutions part proof of it.

The education sector in Ireland is dynamic and diverse. At third level, it ranges from the research-based education of Trinity to the more job-directed education offered by, say, some of the institutes of technology; we have exceptional and world-ranking academics; and we have the advantage, from a global perspective, of delivering courses in the English language.

At the primary and secondary level, we offer a broad, wide-ranging curriculum. We do beat ourselves up a lot about its shortcomings. And for sure more emphasis could be put on languages, maths and science and we all know the problems with the points system. Nevertheless, compared to many other countries, our students arrive at university with a thorough grounding in core disciplines, and most will have been encouraged by their schools in extra-curricular activities such as sport, arts and music, and volunteering – all areas which future employers put great emphasis on.

The proof of the quality of our education is first of all that Irish graduates remain highly desirable employees the world over; and secondly that other countries are seeking to emulate it. Many of the resurgent universities in Asia are modelling themselves on precisely the research-based education which universities like Trinity has offered for centuries.

An education hub

You hear a lot of talk about turning Ireland into a hub – an innovation hub, or a software hub maybe. Well, why not an education hub? This isn't an area where we'd have to reinvent the wheel. We have in place an enviable structure. Why aren't we making the most of it?

Europe, by reason of its history, culture, and influence, remains a top destination for students globally. Ireland could, and should have, a flourishing international student body. We should be known around the world as an educational hotspot. We are very far from this at the moment.

The truth is that we are currently mostly confining our excellent education to our own students. Speaking for Trinity – which has I think a more international student body than most Irish universities – I can say that just 22 percent of our students come from outside the Republic of Ireland, and just one third of those come from outside the EU.

Unfortunately, the way we think of education in this country can be quite inward looking. But at this stage in our history – in world history – such focus on the national looks like protectionism and can seem like a burying of one's head in the sand.

I can't speak for how other universities see this but we in Trinity wish to think strategically beyond this island in terms of making our student body more international and, just as important, giving our own students a more international experience through study abroad. Trinity already thinks globally in terms of staff recruitment – half of Trinity's academic staff are citizens of other countries.

We now want to face up to the challenge of internationalising the student body because we know that there is a demand globally for the kind of education which we offer.

I will talk in a moment about how Trinity proposes to face up to these challenges. But first I need to say a word about funding.

Building the fence: the funding issue

You probably all know my position on funding for higher education because it's been reported fairly widely in the media. I'm not going to go into it in any length this morning but, equally, I can't ignore it.

As I said in my inaugural address, global competition is not static. Investments made through private fees and public funds in many countries are currently greatly outpacing us. We do not now employ enough academic staff, by international standards, for the number of students we have.

For Ireland to succeed as an education hub we simply have to find ways of bringing more investment into the system – we need to think strategically about financing.

When I talk about the ways in which I want Trinity to step up to the challenge of globalisation, I'm aware that implementing my suggestions will require finance. Trying to implement improvements without sorting out the funding issue … well I'm reminded of a quotation from one of our most brilliant medical alumni, Denis Burkitt:

“If people are constantly falling off a cliff, you could place ambulances under the cliff, or build a fence on the top of the cliff. We are placing all too many ambulances under the cliff”.

Trinity is currently falling down the ranks like those people falling off the cliff. Strategic funding is the fence on the top of the cliff – the first and most crucial way of preventing the plunge.

Ireland's spend per student is below the OECD average. The proportion of funding for higher education in Ireland from private sources is also below the OECD average. We need to change this, and quickly. We should look flexibly at all the options, including having a graded or ‘ramped’ system of grants available for those in need funded in part by fees levied from those who can afford to pay. This could be funded through fees. Another scheme used profitably in many countries is ‘Dual Track’ funding.

A financing system based on grants, or on economic fees charged for a percentage of students on dual track funding, with the recruiting net cast on a global scale – this is what we need to turn Ireland into an educational hub.

That's all I'm going to say about funding here. But it's important that I say it because we can't have globally competitive and highly-ranked universities unless there is some game-changing about how universities are financed.

Now I'd like to turn to the second part of my talk this morning: the ways to make globalization in higher education real – the ways in which I believe Trinity could play for Ireland on the world stage.



Student Exchanges

First, let's look at student exchanges. Currently I think about 1 in 20 of our undergraduates goes abroad to study. Many of these are language students who benefit from the Erasmus programme.

My goal is for half our students to take a semester or a year abroad. I was recently in Melbourne and met Trinity students there, studying history, engineering, and science. What they were gaining from the experience in terms of intellectual and personal development was palpable to see.

I myself had the opportunity of studying in Bologna and the university of Nijmegan in the Netherlands. I'm an engineer, not a language student, but the corollary of living in these countries was that I did learn some Italian and Dutch. Learning these languages and experiencing la dolce vita and – I'm not sure what the Dutch equivalent is – het zoete leven – count among some of the most formative experiences of my life. It's why I'm such an advocate of students going abroad.

What we the academic leadership in Trinity have to do is set up student exchange programmes with top-tier universities abroad. We have a good number of these already, but we must eliminate the ones from second-rate institutions and increase the number from peer-institutions. The result will lead to dynamic student exchanges: our students will go abroad for a semester or a year, and foreign students will arrive here. The campus will become more multicultural and more reflective of diverse experience.


But we don't just want students on exchange. We would like to offer a full Trinity education to students from all over the world. In order to do this, we have to recruit. I know ‘recruitment’ may seem like an odd word to use. But I think the usual word – ‘enroll’ – is a little passive. ‘Enroll’ doesn't get across the purposeful, proactive activities required to attract the best students from abroad. We're in a global competition for the best minds. We have to demonstrate that we have a better education to offer. I'm in no doubt about the value of our education. But we're not currently demonstrating that value. To borrow another term from business, our selling could be a lot better.

Trinity recently appointed ProfessorJane Ohlmeyer from the School of Histories & Humanities as Vice-Provost for Global Relations. This is an entirely new post, created with the express aim of improving our messaging abroad and focussing global interest on Trinity. By creating such a post we are seeking to coordinate our activities towards the core aim of opening Trinity to the wider world.

The diaspora – our alumni

One of the key ways in which I think we can help ‘sell’ Trinity is to enlist the support of our alumni. We should fully develop our alumni network.

The recent Global Irish Economic Forum, held in Dublin Castle, sought to strengthen ties with the Irish diaspora to develop Ireland's global business and trade relations. Enlisting the Irish diaspora is a key component to the national strategy for economic renewal.

In Trinity our alumni are our diaspora. We have close to 92,000 alumni living in 130 different countries. Most of them carry warm memories and have deep attachment to their alma mater. Many are people of influence within their communities. If they could be shown ways to spread the message about their great education, I'm sure that they would be only too delighted to get involved. It's a question of creating a platform which people can build on.

The reason why so many students from Asia come to Ireland to study medicine is because of the quality and international recognition of the qualification. This happened organically and naturally over many decades. We want to replicate, but speed up, this process for other disciplines.

Extending our presence: 1. Our physical presence – A campus abroad?

If you look at the universities in the top ten of the rankings, one thing many have in common is campuses abroad. They establish themselves in other countries, not just through their reputation, but physically. Building campuses abroad is currently beyond Trinity's scope. But we could think in terms of a study centre. You'll be familiar with the concept of study centres abroad because for instance the Notre Dame University has one here in Dublin. That study centre is geared towards helping American students based themselves in Dublin. I don't envisage a Trinity study centre in quite this way. I envisage a Trinity Study Centre in, for instance, India, where local students could come and study some Trinity courses and where Trinity staff could build real research links with partner universities. It would be a way of extending our reach, making important connections, and physically locating ourselves in a key university city.

Extending our presence: 2. Our online presence – Distance learning

Another way to extend Trinity's global reach is distance or on-line courses. I don't favour distance learning for Trinity undergraduates. The undergraduate education we offer is premised on a full, diverse experience, which is not just about the lecture hall and seminar room but about the College grounds, the sports halls, the clubs and societies, even the Pav and the Buttery.

I think everyone with a Trinity bachelor degree benefits from the full Trinity experience as part of their personal development. But when it comes to postgraduate studies this applies less. There is no reason why someone in India shouldn't do a Trinity masters or PhD, making full use of Skype, emails, and conference-calls to maintain a strong relationship with their supervisor. Of course we currently have postgrad students living abroad. But we could have far more. And we could have more diploma students abroad. This is an area rich for development but to do this successfully we need to overcome government constraints.


These are some of the ways in which we hope to internationalise our student body. Now I want to turn to an equally important area: the internationalisation of research – or to be more precise inter-institutional collaboration on research.


Much of our research is of global consequence, there's no doubt about that.

You know in the RDS about our ground-breaking immunology research, because you recently awarded Luke O'Neill, our professor of biochemistry, the Boyle medal for his pioneering work on the molecular understanding of innate immunity and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Trinity's discoveries in the area of immunology and their application in the treatment of poverty-related diseases constitute some of the most important medical research currently being undertaken anywhere in the world.

Groundbreaking research in lung cancer and eczema published in premier league journals will also help improve and save the lives of many.

In all disciplines, from conflict studies to bioengineering, from computational linguistics to smart cities, our research is of the highest quality and is peer-reviewed internationally.

Much of this research occurs as part of global networks.

Telling global stories

One of the things which I think we can do to expand our global networks is to articulate our mission, tell our global stories, let the world know just how good we are. Trinity does make world headlines. Recently it made headlines when the New Yorker pointed the finger at one of our computer postgrads, naming him as Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of an online currency called Bitcoin, which

has so far been used for $35 million of transactions. The student, Michael Clear, said he was flattered, but denied being Nakamoto.

Trinity doesn't mind that kind of publicity. The creator of Bitcoin was, in the words of an internet security researcher, ‘some kind of genius’. And there was nothing illegal about it. So the association does Trinity and Clear no harm. It may even turn out that Clear is playing a double game. He told one interviewer: “I'm not Nakamoto, but even if I was, I wouldn't tell you.” Watch this space, as they say…

But still, we'd rather be spreading global stories about the research we can stand by openly. The precise articulation of our mission will involve telling the story of Trinity's excellence in a vivid and accessible way, and telling it strategically in places where we most want to be heard, and where we can have most effect.

And of course Ireland will benefit. That's why I like to talk about Trinity playing for Ireland on the world stage.

Global, but local

My talk has focussed strongly on the global, to looking beyond these borders, to forging international links and networks. But I'm sure I don't have to explain to this audience that if my focus is global, my impetus is local.

As the country's leading university, and home to some of Ireland's most ground-breaking research, we accept that we have a responsibility to the people of this country. We relish this responsibility. We are relentlessly focussed on success because we know what our success can mean to the whole country.

The ideas which I've been outlining here – student exchanges, a study centre abroad, a programme of distance learning, recruitment conferences and fairs abroad, global academic networks – all these will yield impressive returns for Trinity – but also for Ireland.

As an educational hub, Ireland will have an international student body, mirroring the international profile of its academic staff. University research will be collaborative and inter-institutional, our expertise pooled with centres of excellence abroad. The resulting dynamism of the education sector will have a multiplying effect on the whole economy.

When I talk about creating an educational hub in Ireland, I envisage Trinity as the hub of the hub. Yes, I hope and believe we will be the first port of call for foreign students and for exciting research opportunities. But I know that Trinity can't be a hub without Ireland – nor Ireland without Trinity. I celebrate our mutual interdependence. To quote Denis Burkitt again in his most famous quote: “Irish by birth, Trinity by the grace of God”.

We all want our universities to exceed expectations – for its own sake, yes – but also because of the advantage this brings our country.

Many thanks for your patience in listening to me this morning. I look forward to questions.

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