Opening Address at the Trinity Global Graduate Forum

PACCAR Theatre, Science Gallery, Trinity College

08 November 2013

Good afternoon,

and welcome to the Trinity Global Graduate Forum. This is an historic occasion: the gathering together of Trinity graduates and friends who have risen to the very top of their fields, and who are respected worldwide for their expertise, talent, and commitment.

You’ve all come from demanding schedules round the world to be here these two days to talk about Trinity’s future – the challenges and opportunities facing us. You don’t do this just from regard for this university, or because of happy memories of student days, but because you feel part of this great Trinity community. That’s why you’ve answered our call.

We thank you wholeheartedly, and look forward to a truly extraordinary two days.

***Higher Education at a Crossroads***

Why have we decided to hold this forum now? Well, Trinity is at a crossroads. And not just Trinity - all round the world, universities are in a transitional state. Higher education is changing - the way it’s funded, the way it’s delivered, and who it’s delivered to.

When I was an undergraduate here in the 1980s, Trinity operated as a kind of public-private partnership: there was a government grant and students paid fees – these were the main revenues. Students tended to be Irish, with small contingents coming from the UK and further afield. Academic standards were high. There was a vibrant creative life in clubs and societies, but this didn’t translate to a curriculum emphasis on entrepreneurial or creative endeavour.

The result was a small, cohesive university, with excellent professor-student interaction. But, inevitably, sometimes an insular outlook, and something of an ‘ivory tower’ approach – learning in the classroom wasn’t being applied to ‘real life’ situations.

This model, which had existed for hundreds of years, was already changing then, and is changing even more rapidly now. Funding of research by government and industry has accelerated, and innovation and the commercialising of research is now an intrinsic activity for staff and students. Universities are increasingly looking to industry partnerships to raise research revenue. Campuses are international, with staff and students coming from all round the world. 

Higher education is now a borderless and globally-traded activity. Staff, students, and research projects are increasingly switching countries and institutions, going to where the money and expertise is. And creativity is key to the entrepreneurial spirit that universities now encourage. This is happening in Trinity, in Europe, and globally.

Why is this happening? There are many drivers for change, for instance:

  • the demonstrated effect of the innovation practises of US universities like Stanford and MIT on their regional economies;
  • the opening up of China as a market, and the emergence of new highly-funded universities in Asia;
  • the revolution in communications, which has enabled global link-ups as never before.

Collectively, these developments are game changing. This is a tremendously exciting time for universities, and I count myself lucky to be Provost in this period.  

But because the opportunities are huge, so too are the challenges. We need to get this right, to use this period to set Trinity on a path which will see it flourishing for another five centuries, and beyond.

And we want your help in “getting it right”. In this competitive new global environment, Trinity has many advantages:

  • wonderful students
  • one of the world’s most beautiful campuses
  • a distinguished 400 year history,
  • a culture of excellence in research and scholarship,
  • and it has you: alumni who have achieved extraordinary career success in diverse fields, in countries round the world.


We don’t, of course, make claim to your success – your success is your own. But we take huge pride in it. And we don’t take lightly your generous willingness to be here today. To be able to count on your support and expertise as creative, social, and innovative leaders – that’s something no institution should take lightly.

***Trinity and Ireland***

When I talk about securing your help, I don’t just mean for Trinity’s future, but for Ireland’s. Trinity has long been important to Ireland’s place in the world – that’s clear from a roll-call of alumni:

  • Mary Robinson and Edmund Burke in politics;
  • Ernest Walton and William Rowan Hamilton in science;
  • Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett in literature.

Trinity has helped drive change and reform for over 400 years.

Trinity’s great service to Ireland has been the education of citizens – people willing to engage with society, to reform and improve it. We remember the famous names, the radical geniuses, but there are also of course generations of doctors, lawyers, politicians, engineers, journalists, business people, writers, teachers, scientists, who have contributed to improving society in Ireland and abroad. In this way Trinity serves the public good.

Sometimes, indeed, Trinity students go beyond what their professors intend. I don’t think the mainly unionist professors who lectured the Young Irelander Thomas Davis in the 1830s expected him to go on and found The Nation newspaper, calling for repeal of the union between Ireland and Great Britain, but equally I don’t think those professors would have considered changing the Trinity curriculum. Knowledge has its own impetus. And Trinity, like other world-class universities, has always respected that. 

In the 20th century, knowledge gathered further impetus as the doors of higher education were thrown open – most famously, of course, to women, where Trinity was in the vanguard – but also to minority ethnic groups, to people from economically deprived backgrounds, to mature students, to people with disabilities.  

However, when it comes to broadening participation at third-level, Ireland still has a distance to go. Our universities are still not being accessed by all the country’s talent, although initiatives like the Trinity Access Programme are helping to change that.

Trinity’s latest action is to diversify admissions. We’re not happy that there’s only one gate – the CAO points system – through which to admit students. It’s not a bad gateway but it shouldn’t be the only one.  And the Leaving Cert, while not a bad exam, favours one particular type of intelligence. We want to bring students to Trinity whose potential is not being measured by the current exam system.

So, this year, we’re trying out an alternate, ground-breaking admissions route in three courses. This scheme is on behalf of the entire third level sector in Ireland. We’ve been commended, nationally and internationally, for showing leadership in this difficult area.

The admissions system determines who gets to go to university. This, in turn, determines who gets to contribute to society, and to influence the way the country develops. So we need to get admissions right, because we want diverse people with diverse talents to determine Ireland’s future direction.

Trinity’s core mission is in research and education. Today, this mission incorporates another crucial role, which has come about due to those changes in higher education that I’ve been mentioning. Because universities are now educating entrepreneurs, encouraging innovation and creativity, and aiming for impact in their research, they have become pivotal to growth and the knowledge economy.

You’ll have heard the term “innovation ecosystem”. Well, universities provide the cutting-edge research which ‘fuels’ the ecosystem; they educate the researchers, entrepreneurs, and leaders who drive the knowledge economy; and universities are nodes for attracting talented people to a region. A leading-edge university brings talent streaming into the city and region where it’s located – to great intellectual, cultural, economic, and societal benefit.

As Ireland’s highest-ranked university, and one that now produces twenty percent of all Irish spin-out companies, Trinity has a key role to play in Ireland’s innovation ecosystem.  

A strong Trinity helps build a strong Ireland. The choices we make in higher education will help define the pace and pattern of the country’s economic, social, and cultural development for generations to come. It’s as crucial as that. We need your help to ensure that this university develops in a way that benefits Ireland - and indeed the world.

***Challenges and Opportunities***

As I’ve said, Trinity is at a crossroads.  What are some of the issues that engage us? What are the choices we have to make? In which particular areas do we seek your help?

We’ve isolated five key areas for your consideration. Depending on your expertise and preferences, each of you will, I hope, be drawn to a number of these. And after this talk, we’ll have two break-out sessions, and one tomorrow, so you can input into three areas of your choice.

The five areas are:

  • Reputation
  • Education
  • Technology
  • Growth
  • Finance

In each of these areas Trinity has both a challenge and an opportunity. Choices in each will set us on a particular course. The stakes are high. We need to take the right decisions. We await your expert feedback.

I’ll set out what’s involved in each of these areas. But, first, I’d like to talk briefly about Trinity’s status. I think it’s important for you to know the environment we operate in before you start brain-storming for change.

***Context: Legal Status***

Last night, our two college debating societies, the Phil and the Hist, put forward the motion that: “This house believes that Trinity should become a private university.” The Hist, opposing the motion, won the debate!.

This motion may surprise some. There seems to be ambiguity around Trinity’s status: there are people who think we’re already a private university; others think we’re a kind of public-private partnership.

It’s easy to see how this ambiguity arose. Trinity does have a royal charter - that’s how companies got formed in 1592. It was established as a private chartered company. Though it received grants from the British treasury, revenue came predominantly from student fees, private investments, and philanthropy.

After 1921, Trinity, like other Irish universities, benefitted from government investment in higher education - a key strategic decision of independent Ireland. Students continued to pay fees. Effectively Trinity was operating as a public-private partnership, but legally the college’s status was unchanged; we remained a private not-for-profit company.

In 1997 the Universities Act came into being. This defined Trinity, like all Irish universities, as a public body, which remains our status today. In effect, we’re still operating as a public-private partnership because revenue from non-government sources has grown, and now makes up almost 50 percent of our total. But legally we’re defined as a public body – our Board structure is different than other Irish universities but like them we’re public bodies nonetheless.

This means we’re subject to the same restrictions and controls as other public bodies. In a climate of austerity and public cuts, such restrictions can be severe. Different pieces of legislation now tie our hands, and limit our independence to take decisions on hiring, promotion, remuneration, research funding, and tuition fees.

We can’t, for instance, decide to woo a top academic to Trinity with a competitive salary, because, for this, we need to get Ministerial permission. And this is the case, even if we are funding a new chair from non-government revenue sources!

Our staff are now public servants, and redundancy can only be voluntary. So the day-to-day running of our university is affected by our legal status.

I know that many of you will grasp immediately what’s at stake here, because you understand about public and private ownership and about stakeholder needs. In Trinity we have diverse stakeholders – the government, the college staff, the students, and friends and alumni who are benefactors. Are the interests of all our stakeholders best served by the current legal frameworks?

If not, it’s time to think about change. Many universities around the world serve the public good as private institutions; others are public-private combinations, or receive public funds as a subsidy, while being essentially private. There are many different models, and the status of a university can change, as Trinity’s has done. We know our government seeks only the best for Trinity, and is an advocate for diversity in higher education. So nothing is set in stone. We have the flexibility to make changes. But for the moment we’re subject to the situation I’ve outlined.

With this in mind, let’s return to the five areas.

***Reputation ***

Reputation is about how Trinity is perceived in the world. And it’s about finding the best ways to tell the world about the exciting research and education delivered by Trinity.

There is, I think, a mantra in business to the effect that, if you’re not careful, your greatest strengths can become your weaknesses. If you inherit significant strengths, you risk taking them for granted, not developing them, and being insufficiently vigilant about measuring competitors’ strengths.

Compared to most universities in the world, Trinity has inherited huge advantages: 400 years of tradition; a stunning campus; and alumni who are household names as far afield as Burma. Apparently Aung San Suu Kyi’s father trained himself in oratory through studying Edmund Burke’s speeches.

But this isn’t enough. The Burmese may know about Edmund Burke; the Chinese may have done an extraordinary production of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World – but people in these countries don’t necessarily associate these names with Trinity. Trinity itself is not a household name round the world. And even if it were, this would not automatically give us a top position in the rankings.

All venerable universities face this issue – places like Harvard and Oxford face it more acutely than Trinity. Sometimes Oxford slips in the rankings. Names of new universities, unheard of a decade ago, overtake established institutions. But this is higher education in the 21st century. Nobody has a place by birth-right. We all have to work at it.

Marketing and communications were not, traditionally, part of a university’s artillery. If you were Trinity or Oxford, you assumed that top students and professors would fight for a place in your institution. Of course, we still turn away more than we accept. But now that higher education is a global and borderless activity, universities need to attract students not just from their own regions, but from all regions. To do that, universities need to get their message out there. There is no place for reticence.

Trinity is not relying on its local reputation. We launched last year our Global Relations Strategy which, among other actions, seeks to brand Trinity internationally. The college leadership have embarked on recruiting and profile-raising trips round the world, which have had tangible results, in terms of partnerships with peer universities and student exchange agreements.  And we’ve created a new post, the Director of Communications and Marketing.

Many of you are experts on building reputation, and on crafting and delivering a message that resonates round the world. We look forward to what you can tell us.

*** Education***

In Trinity, we offer a unique and dynamic education. This is what gives us the confidence to go round the world seeking talented professors and students to come to Dublin.

Our education has never been about preparing students for a first job, it’s always been about preparing for life. We want our students to do more than just solve problems, we want them to anticipate problems, and resolve them using the communication, leadership, and teamwork skills they have developed in Trinity, both inside and outside the lecture-room. 

But I don’t need to spell out to you the virtues of a Trinity Education. We’ve adhered closely to the traditional values which you’ll remember from your undergraduate years:

  • small, focused tutorials and seminars;
  • the tutor system;
  • original research in the library, lab or field, undertaken by all students in their sophister years;
  • extracurricular activities;
  • volunteering;
  • public speaking;
  • civic engagement.

The quality of our education and research builds our reputation.


Our education values remain unchanged since your time - although maintaining them hasn’t always been easy in this climate of public spending cuts.

As well as preserving, we’ve also been expanding the Trinity education. In the past five years, there’s been a marked emphasis on creativity and innovation.

Students are now inspired to think entrepreneurially, by the example of their professors, and by concrete initiatives like the Innovation Academy for PhD students, and LaunchBox, which is a new scheme to mentor students, and provide them with seed funding to develop their business ideas.

We’re embedding innovation and entrepreneurship into the curriculum. This extends, of course, to creative and social entrepreneurship.

When I was a student, there was an unspoken message that creativity was great for extracurricular activities, but shouldn’t interfere in course work.

Now creativity is course work. Recently, we’ve opened the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art, and the Music Composition Centre, and we’ve launched a Masters in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship, which is jointly delivered with Goldsmith’s University of London.

We understand creative expression as crucial - both for our students’ personal development, and for building the innovation ecosystem. Ireland has great and traditional vitality in the creative arts, which must be developed.

To continue strengthening the Trinity education, we need to invest in our core values and capitalise on opportunities. We need to be free to set our own academic agenda. Unfortunately, some of this freedom is under threat, for the reasons I’ve already discussed – we are now a public body, subject to legislation which is limiting our decision-making.

This potentially compromises the Trinity Education. Our mission is to develop critical thinking, independence of mind, and initiative in students. To do this properly, we need to be able to exercise full independence and authority ourselves, to lead by example.  Because - as you all know from personal experience - the practices of the board and management affect the whole company.

Delivering a world-class education to students serves the public good. Reduced funding, and attempts at micro-management, work directly against this mission. But, as I’ve said, our current legal status and governance model is not set in stone.

With your help, we’ll continue to improve the Trinity education. And to seek an intellectual, innovative, and independent campus to educate the thinkers, creators, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.


Technology has been a game-changer in the delivery of education; it’s a determinant of quality in education and research.


I’ve already spoken about how the communications revolution has enabled academic link-ups round the world. A research project no longer has to be physically located in one lab, institution, or country.

For this forum, we’ve showcased some of our research into exhibits you can visit. As you’ll see, most of these research projects are collaborative and inter-institutional. Technology has enabled the sharing of information. For the first time in human history, knowledge is genuinely global. There’s always been a free movement of ideas between intellectuals, but transmission used to take years, decades. Now it’s immediate.

The greatest potential educational change in centuries - and revolutionary in its implications - is online education. Universities have to decide how to use this tremendous new resource.

Used in the right way, online can help us deepen our core offering. It offers the potential to free up lecture hours, thereby enabling professors to spend more one-to-one time with students. It also develops alternate skills. Instead of writing down findings, students can now articulate research and ideas – they are already delivering mini ‘TED-talks’ on their course work. Staff and students will exploit the new medium to find innovative ways of showcasing research. It’s really game-changing.

There’s a fear that this new oral/aural/visual culture will kill off the written word, involving a loss in seriousness, concentration, and profundity - an incalculable loss of the reflective approach. All radical new developments bring risk, and this is something we, in higher education, have to consider.

In terms of serving the public good, Online has huge potential. At its most avant-garde, through massive online open courses, or MOOCs, it offers courses to hundreds of thousands of people – to as many as have access to high-speed internet. People with limited access to universities and libraries will now be able to share our learning – for free.

They will not then be getting what we call ‘a Trinity education’, because our understanding of a Trinity education involves face-time with professors, and access to the whole range of extracurricular activities. Do you have to come to Trinity to get a Trinity education?  

To signal the vitality of this new sphere, I’ve created a Deanship of Online Education to spearhead our online activities. And next year, we will offer our first online course, ‘Ireland in rebellion, 1798-1916’, in partnership with Semester Online, a consortium of prestigious US universities.

These are tremendously exciting developments. All of you are coming from fields that have been impacted significantly by technology advances. Is there learning from your particular fields that can help us incorporate technology into the Trinity Education?

***Growth ***

Today Trinity has over 17,000 students and 3,000 staff, and we’re in contact with 70,000 alumni in 130 countries. Twenty years ago, Trinity had 9,500 students, and a hundred years ago we had just over a thousand.

To make room for these growing numbers, Trinity is physically expanding.


We’ve now ‘burst the campus’. Our Pearse St corridor extends from the Science Gallery up to the Lir Academy on Grand Canal Dock. And we’ve long since spread out to St James’s Hospital, where the new national children’s hospital is to be located, and where we opened this year a new Clinical Research Facility.

And within the campus, we’re constantly upgrading and expanding. I’m happy to announce here, for the first time in public, a new 70 million euro project – the Trinity School of Business, co-located with an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub.

Work will start on this next summer: subject to planning permission and approval of the College Board, the building will rise to six storeys above ground, and three below, and will include:

  • a 600-seat auditorium,
  • a public space for students to meet and exchange ideas,
  • a rooftop conference room,
  • and space for prototyping and for company incubation projects.

All this is tremendously exciting.

But like the other issues facing us, growth also raises questions: how much to grow by? When will numbers get too high? Where are we going to expand to? Should we invest now to buy as many buildings as possible on Westmoreland Street and Pearse Street? How can we give all new buildings a “Trinity identity”, commensurate with our campus buildings? Should we be looking to develop a new campus elsewhere in the city? Should we be thinking about a campus abroad, as some universities have done?

In your own fields, you’ll have faced issues of growth: when does a company need to expand? Or to consolidate? What are the risks of expanding into new territories? How to best use capital investment? We look forward to your invaluable expertise on these, and other questions.


And finally Finance, the issue that affects all the others.


Building up reputation, conducting strong research, hiring more staff, physical expansion – all these need to be funded. Funding isn’t the be-all and end-all. Trinity has held a good position in the rankings despite competition from much better funded universities globally. In the recent QS rankings, Trinity was placed 61st in the world – well, we’re certainly not the 61st best-funded university in the world! Far from it! So our strength in education and research has stood us well.
But to draw, again, on the ecosystem metaphor - funding is like rain. Without it, growth eventually ceases.

On the one hand, this is a difficult period for Trinity, as for universities in Europe and North America, since public sector funding to higher education is reducing.

In Ireland, government contribution to undergraduate costs has reduced by more than 50 percent since 2008, but charging tuition fees is a political hot potato that no-one wants to touch.

And because of the austerity programme and our legal status, Trinity’s hands are tied in ways that I’ve already discussed.

On the other hand, universities now have new revenue streams not available to previous generations. Almost 50 percent of Trinity’s revenue is now from private sources such as postgraduate and international student fees, commercial activities, philanthropy, and alumni giving.

This is excellent, and we want to bring on board new revenue streams to the point when we’re generating the majority of our income from non-government sources.

Your advice on financing issues will be invaluable. How to generate new revenue? How to find the balance between public and private funding? These are key questions many of you have faced in your businesses.


To recap, the five key challenges we face are:

  • How can we build Trinity’s reputation internationally?
  • How can we protect and improve the Trinity Education, and protect our freedom to set our own academic agenda?
  • How can we exploit all the advantages of online and other technologies?
  • How much should we grow by? And where should we locate the physical expansion?
  • How can we bring on board new revenue streams? And achieve the balance of public and private finance so that we can set in place all these measures?

I’ve been concentrating, in this address, on challenges and risks. I don’t want to under-estimate the task we face, because no good ever came of complacency. We need to look at the problems, with a view to finding workable solutions, in a sober, focused, and grounded way. That’s why we’ve gathered you here. You’re all proven masters of problem-solving.

But if over-optimism is a flaw, so is overt pessimism.

And a worse flaw indeed, because pessimism stultifying. As we look ahead to achieving an improved future, we remember what a remarkable success story Trinity is.

In the course of its history, Trinity has faced significant political, social and intellectual challenges:

  • There was the radical period of the 1790s which saw students, like Robert Emmet, convulsed by revolutionary ideals, and greatly at odds with College authorities.
  • In the 20th century came the dreadful loss of life of two world wars, which left Trinity bereft of so many students and alumni.
  • After Irish independence in 1921, came a difficult adjustment period, painful for many.
  • And there was the thirty-year episcopate of John Charles McQuaid, from 1940 to 1970, when Catholics from Dublin and other dioceses were forbidden from attending Trinity - forcing a disconnect between this country and this university, which we certainly never wanted.

Trinity has survived all these difficulties and tragedies.

From its foundations as an instrument of the Protestant reformation, Trinity has emerged today as a flourishing, multi-disciplinary, multi-denominational university, modern in its approach, secure in its traditions - not only Ireland’s, but one of Europe’s leading universities.

We enjoy high-level research collaborations with over a hundred countries, as well as course partnerships with peer institutes around the world - and we can count on the support of successful alumni operating in 130 countries, each of them, in his or her own way, an ambassador for the Trinity Education.

It’s a remarkable success story, whichever way you look at it. I could point to many different ‘heroes’ who are responsible for this success. There’s the investment of successive governments in higher education which has made Irish graduates so globally sought after.

And there are my predecessors as Provost. There was A.J. McConnell, whose long provostship, from 1952 to 1974, started with a revolution in college governance, and laid the groundwork for today’s outward-looking university. And Tom Mitchell, who articulated a superb vision of the Trinity education and the need for a broader curriculum, which continues to influence our own work today. And my immediate predecessor, John Hegarty, to whose policies we owe much of our current success in innovation and creative entrepreneurship.

Then there’s the generosity of benefactors who have endowed Trinity. This summer we unveiled the Benefactors’ Roll at the entrance to the Dining Hall. It includes the names of major benefactors from Queen Elizabeth the First to Google. This is our way of thanking our patrons and of enshrining the importance of giving. We are, of course, indebted not only to the major donors on this Roll, but also to our alumni and friends who support Trinity in a huge variety of activities.

So, yes, there are many heroes. Our story, like all good stories, is rich and diverse. Through it all, one thing has stood out: our commitment, enshrined in our 400 year-old statutes to “scholarship and sound education”. It’s no exaggeration to say that Trinity has stood firm by this commitment through good times, and through very bad.

Even when the Trinity Education - with its emphasis on original research, independence of mind, and extra-curricular activities – was helping to radicalise students, the College stood by that education and refused to compromise it.  

“Conserving and promoting scholarship and sound research” say the statutes. This is, if you like, our core mission, which we’ve trialled and stress-tested for centuries. It has stood up to the tests. Today, we may be at a crossroads, but it’s no means our darkest hour. By standing firm to our core mission, we will prevail, and go on to greater triumph.

“Educate that you may be free”. That was the slogan Thomas Davis gave to the Nation newspaper. He was thinking of political freedom, but like all profound sayings, this has survived to inform another age. When I think of educating for freedom now, I think of economic freedom – to free Ireland from the conditions of the bail-out. And I think of academic freedom – to give universities the autonomy and independence to deliver their mission. And I think of personal freedom – to educate people to take control of their own lives.

At the beginning, I spoke of this audience’s ‘expertise, talent and commitment’. Now, looking at you, what strikes me most is your freedom. By educating yourselves, by applying yourselves, by understanding what was necessary to rise in your fields, you have won for yourselves great freedom – the freedom to decide your own fate.

You are now in the enviable position of being free from immediate concerns of survival – you have advanced to the position where you are free to apply yourselves to helping others.

It’s a privilege to address such an audience. I thank you for using your freedom to be here these two days. And I look forward to your contributions that will enable the freedom, in all its senses, of future students and citizens, and of this country.

Thank you.

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