Upper Sixth Form Students for International Women's Day

Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh

07 March 2014

Good morning,

It’s great to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a privilege to have this chance of addressing you on International Women’s Day.

I am here as Provost, or head, of Trinity College Dublin, the oldest university in Ireland and, indeed, one of the oldest in the world. It was founded in 1592. Since then, it has educated many thousands of students, from all over Ireland and the world.

Some of you may have already visited Trinity. If you’re in the centre of Dublin, it’s hard to miss. It’s such a beautiful campus that people like to stroll through it, and it has many visitor attractions, such as the world-famous Book of Kells, and the Science Gallery ‘where art and science collide’. There we show scientific experiments and have interactive installations - where you can become part of the experiment.

The Book of Kells dates from the 9th century, whereas the Science Gallery opened only six years ago. Together they get across the spirit of Trinity which is about tradition and modernity. Trinity is very proud of its traditions:

  • our Old Library with its ancient manuscripts;
  • our debating societies, the Hist and the Phil; the Hist is the oldest student debating society in the world;
  • and our world-famous graduates like the Nobel Prize winners - Samuel Beckett in literature, and Ernest Walton who won the Nobel prize in physics for helping to split the Lithium atom.

Equally, we’re very proud of our recent developments. For example:

  • our state-of-the-art Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, which is unique internationally for combining in one building experts from the disciplines of Biochemistry, Immunology, Medicine, Chemistry, Pharmacy and Bioengineering. Another recent development is
  • The Lir: Ireland’s new national Academy of Dramatic Art, where we help educate the next generation of actors, directors, and stage designers.

And because tomorrow is International Women’s Day, I’d also like to recall that Trinity was one of the first universities in the world to admit women as students. Apparently the Provost of the day insisted that women would only be admitted over his dead body. He died soon after saying this, and the rules were immediately changed! That was over a hundred years ago. Today we have slightly more female than male students, and Dr Mary Robinson is the Chancellor of the university.

Mary Robinson was of course the first woman President of Ireland and she is admired around the world for her work on human rights and gender equality.

Before she became President, she was a professor of law in Trinity and also a senator representing the university in parliament. In the Senate she was instrumental in getting a lot of important equality legislation passed – for instance the right for women to sit on juries, and for women in the civil service to be able to continue working after marriage. 

It seems incredible that in the 1970s women had to resign from jobs when they got married, and couldn’t sit in juries! But that was how it was. It took the courage and advocacy of people like Mary Robinson to change it. The reason why we celebrate International Women’s Day is to put focus on the ongoing struggle for women’s rights. In some countries, women are still denied what we would consider to be basic rights. Even in developed countries, there is discrimination and bias, and unconscious bias.

In our universities we are proud of our diversity, and that we make every effort to ensure its benefits are felt in education. This extends not only to gender. In Trinity we have a very active Access programme, which has worked successfully to make it possible for students from backgrounds under-represented in higher education to come to Trinity. This includes students from socio-economic backgrounds not traditionally represented. We also have excellent support systems for students with disabilities.

And our students are international. They come from all over the world – Africa, Asia, America, and Europe – and from all over this island.

Welcoming students from Northern Ireland is particularly important to us because of the long tradition of connectivity between Trinity and Northern Ireland. In the 19th century a fifth of Trinity students came from Ulster. And in the 1950s and 1960s, a full third of Trinity students were from Northern Ireland. The joke then was that you were more likely to hear a Belfast accent in the College than a Dublin one!

Trinity acted as a bridge between north and south, and as a bridge between the two neighbouring islands - and it fulfilled this important role through difficult times.

Some of Trinity’s most distinguished graduates are from Northern Ireland. I’m thinking of:

  • the poets Michael Longley and Derek Mahon;
  • the judges Sir James Andrews, lord chief justice of Northern Ireland, and Sir Donnell Deeny of the High Court; Sir Donnell has recently been elected as a Pro-Chancellor of the university.
  • the journalist and BBC governor Lady Lucy Faulkner (wife of the former prime minister Brian Faulkner);
  • and the great Denis Burkitt, who gave his name to the childhood cancer he discovered and helped cure, Burkitt’s lymphoma.

I’ve already mentioned Samuel Beckett.  He was a Dubliner but went to school at Portora Royal in Enniskillen. Oscar Wilde was another student who was educated at Portora and then at Trinity. At his famous libel trial, he was cross-examined and destroyed by one of his former classmates at Trinity – Edward Carson. 

Trinity has always had a great tradition of educating radicals and rebels, nationalists and unionists, those who created the State and those who opposed it - because Trinity has always believed in providing an education that encourages independent and critical thinking, and which enables students to reach their full potential.  Education is the key to transforming lives, and at Trinity our goal is to offer students opportunities to transform potential into achievement.

We benefit so much from having a diverse student body.  That is why Trinity is – and always has been - a university for the whole island.

However, in recent decades our numbers from Northern Ireland have been in decline. There are a number of reasons. There is a separate admissions system for admission to colleges in the south – the Central Applications Office, the CAO – and this can be confusing for prospective students who are used to the UCAS system. 

A bigger problem has been the way A-Levels have been calculated into points for admission through the CAO.  Less than one in seven students in Northern Ireland study four A-Levels and this makes entry to many courses difficult, and to some it is impossible.

This is a cause of regret and concern to us. We regret that the long historical links are being weakened, and we regret that we are not benefitting from the dynamism of students form Northern Ireland.

So we’ve decided to do something about it - to take targeted action to reverse the decline in applicants from Northern Ireland.

The Irish Universities Association together with the Irish Institutes of Technology will look specifically at student mobility on this island.  Our intention is to find a fairer mechanism so that students who only do three A-Levels – in other words the overwhelming majority – will be able to access any courses in the south, depending on their results.  This builds on work that has been ongoing over the past twelve months.

And since the start of this academic year, Trinity has been developing a Northern Ireland engagement programme, co-ordinated by the Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Dr Patrick Geoghegan, who is here today.  As part of this, we have been visiting schools all round Northern Ireland to talk to students - and to teachers and careers guidance counsellors - about Trinity. We’ve been bringing with us former students from the school being visited, or from the locality, because no one can capture the excitement of Trinity better than the students themselves.

Our student ambassadors talk about the fears and reservations they had about coming to an unknown city and university when their school-friends were going elsewhere. It’s always a challenge to venture into the unknown, but our students from Northern Ireland say that coming to Trinity is a challenge that is more than worth it.

Our students find Trinity welcoming. They love all the clubs and societies – there are more than 150 – where they make friends while playing every possible sport or pursuing every possible interest or hobby.

They speak highly of the academic challenges and quality of the courses. They appreciate that they are only a train or bus-ride from home, but are in a new and exciting city. And they love that Trinity is so diverse – they meet people from all backgrounds and all countries.

The response in Northern Ireland to our student ambassadors and our initiative generally, has been overwhelmingly positive. Last week the team was at the Trinity stand at the UCAS fair in King’s Hall in Belfast. There they met students greatly excited by the possibility of coming to Trinity – one girl described it as her dream – and greatly heartened that we are looking to change the way A-Levels are used to select students for entry to universities in the Republic.

Next Wednesday the team will be back in Armagh to talk to students from the Royal School and St. Patrick’s Grammar School.

My take home message is that if you apply to Trinity you will be applying to a place where you will be welcomed and appreciated, and where you will feel at home. You will connect to the generations of students from your own towns and regions who chose, in their time, to come to Trinity.

And, surrounded by students from all round the world, you will feel part of Trinity’s great outward-looking expansive vision – a vision which is about using Trinity’s research and values to benefit the world, whether that’s through the medical discoveries of a Denis Burkitt, or the human rights  advocacy of a Mary Robinson.

The most important thing about Trinity is not the history of the place, or the beautiful buildings. It’s not our world ranking, even though we are consistently ranked as one of the world’s leading universities. 

It’s the fact that at Trinity you become part of a community of scholars, where we help transform potential into achievement.

A college where every student is given a personal tutor to look after them if they get into any kind of difficulty.  Because we care about our students’ well-being, both inside and outside of the classroom.

A university where students and staff are together as part of a shared mission in education and research, advocating a spirit of critical enquiry and a love of learning, as well as promoting a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship through engaging with the social and economic challenges of our time.  It is a community of scholarship and one you would be very welcome to join in the future. 

Thank you. 

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