Provost's Mid-Term Address

Edmund Burke Lecture Theatre, Arts Building, Trinity College Dublin

14th October 2016


Good afternoon,

Thank you all for taking the time to be here. I know how busy everyone is – and this is one of the busiest times of the academic year – but I think we're all agreed on the importance of coming together across our different areas to get a sense of the working of the university as a whole.

I wanted to create an opportunity for us to review and evaluate what we've achieved, and look ahead to what needs doing.

It's now the midpoint of my provostship, and it's also the midpoint of the current Strategic Plan.

So now is a good time to be asking how we're dealing with the challenges and opportunities identified in my inaugural address five years ago, and where we're at with the goals and actions set out in the Strategic Plan. In what areas is the College on a good course? What areas need attention?

I also want to affirm the commitment and energy that I will bring to my "second term", if I can call it that. A Trinity provost gets a long run – many universities now limit their president to five, or seven years. Of course, in previous centuries a provost, once elected, was there for life. Thankfully both you – and I - are spared that!

But I want to dispel any suggestion that, after the first five years, a Provost can sit back and coast along. This can't happen, and won't happen. Trinity has pushed ahead in difficult circumstances - as I hope to show in my talk today - but we can't afford to take our foot off the pedal. We have an ambitious programme to implement. I need your continued energy. And in turn, I pledge my own.


Let's start by taking a "helicopter view" of higher education globally. What are the current global movements and tendencies? What constraints and opportunities are universities operating under?

I'm aware that answering this question is like trying to hit a moving target. We're in a period of radical change in higher education, as in society generally.

There are the new trends in higher education – such as online learning and the development of global academic networks. Then there are general trends, like the emergence of the digital workplace and the rising global population. And then there are localised phenomena, like Brexit, which is certainly going to have an influence on us - we just don't know how.

Things move on very quickly. I was made aware of this when I looked back at my inaugural speech to see what tendencies I identified then.

Lots of what I said remains pertinent – for instance I talked about "the emergence of higher education as a globally traded and borderless activity", and about the changing nature of the jobs market, and the way that education and research are contributing more directly than ever before to economic growth.

But still, this speech, only five years old, feels like another world. For a start, it was streamed, but there wasn't one tweet. The way we communicate has changed.

And in other areas, things have moved faster than I foresaw. For instance, back then I praised the HEA-inspired research collaborations across the island of Ireland but, I said earnestly, "let's build links beyond these waters – let's have global academic networks".

It's quite touching to read that now: then it was a goal, an aspiration - now it's almost routine. This year Trinity is embarking on joint degree programmes with the Singapore Institute of Technology, with Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh, and one with Columbia University New York is almost agreed. Other universities are establishing joint campuses, and I predict, we'll shortly see universities merging across national borders.

In the inaugural I also spoke enthusiastically of increased staff and student mobility and I ended by quoting Erasmus"Ego Mundi civis esse cupio" – I long to be a citizen of the world. I expressed this hope for our students.

Well, be careful what you wish for!

The other day, my eldest daughter, who sits her Leaving Cert this year, said that she was considering the University of Groeningen, as her first choice. It's in the Netherlands - ironically the home of Erasmus.

She's showing me the brochure for Groningen – and I'm thinking "what about Trinity?!" Of course I'd like her to stay closer to home and attend this university, that is my passion. But what can I say? I pleaded for world citizenship. She's taking me at my word!

The truth is, when I spoke about student mobility, I didn't foresee it happening at undergraduate level quite this fast. Her friends are the same – they’re looking at universities round Europe, including the UK, despite its much higher fees.

We can no longer assume that Irish school-leavers will elect to come here. Talk of a “globalised higher education system” isn’t mere rhetoric. Competition isn’t just colleges around the corner, it’s worldwide.

So, all told, trends discernible five years ago are now evolving fast. And new situations have emerged.

I've identified six key current influences on higher education:

First, there's increased staff and student mobility, with people and projects moving rapidly and easily between institutions and countries;

Second, there's the development of global academic networks and partnerships which I've already mentioned. We're now habituated to inter-institutional initiatives at a national level, like AMBER, CONNECT, and Molecular Medicine Ireland - soon we'll have international initiatives.

Third, there's the increased centrality of universities to economic and social development. 21st century universities are powerhouses for the regions and cities they serve. We educate the highly skilled graduates who drive growth, and we do the research that's needed across the board – for high-tech companies and for government policy areas.

Fourth, there's the rising population. This is a global phenomenon. It's not a European one – in many EU countries, populations are falling. But Ireland does not follow the European trend. Over the next decade, the Irish student population is set to grow by a massive 25%.

Fifth, there's the changing nature of the jobs market and the work environment. The key developments here are the digital workplace and need for entrepreneurial skill sets. The idea of a profession and job for life is evolving into something more flexible and diverse. Graduates have to be prepared to manage such complex career challenges.

Sixth, there's the decrease in state funding to universities.

Let me look at this a bit more closely. Decrease in state funding was a dominant theme in my inaugural address. But I only spoke of it as an Irish problem. In fact, as now emerges, it's a global phenomenon – private contributions are increasing and direct state subventions are decreasing.

I don't think this trend is bucked by the announcement in this week's budget. Of course we welcome the first increase in state funding to third level in almost a decade, but we'd need to see a far greater sum to get excited. The Irish Federation of University Teachers has described the amount offered as "like offering a wet sponge to a man dying of thirst" - which is a rather good description.

Although, I do note that in those circumstances a wet sponge is actually quite welcome, or at least not something to be refused … … …

Of course we hope to see more, and greater, state investment but the tendency, around the world, suggests that we're moving from the 20th Century system of high state support for universities to one based on non-exchequer, private funding – more like the system, in fact, that Trinity operated under for its first 300 years: fees, philanthropy and commercial activities. We're also moving from a system of limited access and small student numbers to broadening access and high numbers.

This is a major transition and like all major transitions, it's difficult and painful. As a country, we have yet to come to terms with what's happening and to put in place a funding system that is fit for future challenges. 

But here in Trinity, I believe we're transitioning well. We're not where we were five years ago. We've moved from an approach focused on petitioning the government to act, to one focused on acting ourselves. We have strongly urged action – particularly at the 2014 IUA symposium, which we convened. But it's not a decision that we have control over. Ultimately it's a nettle for the government to grasp. I don't underestimate the difficulty for them.

We can, and should, continue putting pressure on government to implement the Cassells Report. But that may take time and it may not happen in the way we want. So our focus has rightly switched to what we do have control over: growing our non-exchequer revenue and becoming more financially independent.

To excel at this, we will need to have autonomy in our decision-making and governance. This was another theme of my inaugural speech, and thankfully it's an area that has seen improvement. The over-regulated environment which came in with austerity has, to some extent, receded. There has been some relaxation of, for instance, the Employment Control Framework.

But we have to continue making the case for universities' right to act independently. This is particularly important in a situation where the onus is on universities to generate their own revenues.

It may be that governments have yet to accustom themselves to the new way of doing things. I note that Louise Richardson, in her recent speech as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, spoke of the challenge of (I quote) "ever growing, ever more intrusive, ever more constraining government regulation".

And in many other countries, over-regulation is a more significant challenge than it is in Ireland or the UK.

If decreasing state funding is going to be the new normal, it should be accompanied by deregulation so that universities can get on with financing themselves.

But I accept that the pace of change is so rapid, that it's not surprising that we're still constrained by legacy ways of doing things.

Universities are operating in changed and changing circumstances. The ones that will survive and emerge strengthened are those that act with foresight, pragmatism and ambition. It's not a given that Trinity will be one of these. Nothing is pre-ordained.


How has Trinity prepared for the changes I've been speaking about:

  • Staff and student mobility;
  • Global academic partnerships and networks;
  • Changing work environments;
  • Increasing centrality to economic growth;
  • Rising student numbers; and
  • Changed models of funding;

Well, we've not been caught napping. We've put in place strategies to create opportunities in these fields. On this slide I've laid out in a timeline, with some of our more significant actions and initiatives over the past five years.

Slide 1

There are too many such initiatives to include them all but this gives a good idea of our wide range.

Let's focus on some key areas. Here's Global Relations:

This was an area in need of urgent attention. When it came to attracting international students and establishing joint degree programmes with peer universities worldwide – well, Trinity wasn't on the map five years ago.

Look where we are today: an increase in numbers of international students of 30% over four years. So now we're on track to meet our target: by 2019 almost 20% of our students will come from outside the EU. This has generated very important new revenues for us, as shown on the bar chart here.

I want to pay tribute to Jane Ohlmeyer and Juliette Hussey. As Vice Presidents for Global Relations, they and their team turned the situation around. Not only do we benefit from a more cosmopolitan campus but the growth in revenue is exceptional.

I know not everyone likes looking at graphs, but do take a moment to look at this one: since 2011 a growth of almost €10 million euro from international fees - and this is recurrent revenue.

Now let's turn to Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This is a comprehensive strategy – I don't have time to name all the initiatives. But as an example – last year a hundred contracts were signed with industry, including with household names like Google, Pfizer, Intel and IBM, as well as with innovative SMEs like Sigmoid Pharma and Vitalograph.

And this year we collaborated with UCD to launch the €60 million Atlantic Bridge Fund to invest in spin-out companies.

Now let's look at commercial revenue generation activities because again, this is an area where we've seen very significant growth. Trinity has huge advantages here which other universities can only envy. To put it bluntly: Front Square and the Book of Kells – among the biggest visitor draws in Ireland, and indeed in Europe. By investing in the Trinity Visitor Experience, including opening the Zoological Museum, we've seen huge growth.

Here it is plotted on this graph – again a €10 million euro growth in revenue since 2011 – and, again, this is recurrent revenue. This is our "Get Out of Jail" card.

Another focus has been on growing philanthropy - last year we received the largest philanthropic grant in Irish history, from Atlantic Philanthropies, to set up the Global Brain Health Institute, GBHI, in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco.

Thanks to revenue from international fees, spin-outs, industry collaborations, visitors and philanthropy, we've been able to offset the decrease in state funding.

What have we done with this increase in non-exchequer revenue? We've invested in our core activities in education and research. Let's take a look:

Education: last month I had the pleasure of welcoming our 40 new Ussher Assistant Professors on their induction day. As we know, one of the greatest casualties of decreased funding has been the worsening staff student ratio in Irish universities. So it's wonderful to have funds to bring forty new professors to the university at the start of their careers.

And this afternoon I came from turning the sod in the Trinity Business School. This flagship School is shortly going to transform that part of Pearse Street, put us on the map for business education, and drive economic growth in Dublin and Ireland. I note that UCD recently announced a massive  €65 million euro investment in its Smurfit School of Business. This confirms what we said from the beginning: a successful city needs two world-class business schools. Who believes UCD would have invested in the Smurfit School if we hadn't emerged as competitors? Ireland, and graduates from both universities, are the beneficiaries.

Research: The grant to launch the GBHI came about because of Trinity's leadership in ageing research, itself the result of a decade of investment. TILDA was established in 2006 and has gone from strength to strength. Ageing is a key interdisciplinary research theme for the university and over the past five years we've identified nineteen more themes.

Interdisciplinarity is hard. It's almost like a holy grail for universities. Frequently it's easier in theory than practice. But in Trinity we're getting good at the practice. Institutes like the Long Room Hub and TBSI are achieving results in cross-disciplinary and cross-faculty initiatives. They are showcase institutes – we look forward to establishing more.

Public Engagement. In Trinity we have a mission to "fearlessly engage in actions that advance the cause of a pluralistic, just, and sustainable society". Investing in improving access and admissions is one of the ways in which we honour this mission.

As you may have heard, the Oxford College, Lady Margaret Hall, has just launched a pilot scheme for a Foundation Year directly modelled on that of the Trinity Access Programme - and the director of TAP, Cliona Hannon has been seconded to Lady Margaret Hall to oversee the scheme.

Our pilot alternate admissions route to the Leaving Cert and the CAO was launched two years ago. Like the Access Programme, it attests to our commitment to finding ways to attract students with the most aptitude for the education we offer, regardless of background and performance in the Leaving Cert.

All these initiatives are concrete achievements of the staff of this university. Unfortunately there are just too many initiatives to name everyone, as you deserve, but I do want to take this opportunity to thank you all. You have kept this university moving despite massive drops in state funding, salary cuts, and all the rest. The resilience of Irish universities has been remarkable, and it's right to pause to acknowledge all that's been achieved through your hard work and talent.

These achievements are recognised by what we might call "independent benchmarks".

For instance, this summer Trinity became a member of the prestigious Consortium for Advanced Studies Abroad, or CASA – a consortium of nine Ivy League universities who work together to facilitate student mobility worldwide. Trinity is CASA's first member from outside the United States. 

And for the second year running, Pitchbook - the venture capital-focused research firm - placed Trinity as Europe's best university for educating entrepreneurs.

And then there's the quantifiable success of our first MOOC, which attracted 50,000 users within its first week, making it one of the most successful MOOCs on the Future Learn Platform;

And of course there are all the distinctive honours to individuals. There are too many to name. But I know that we're all delighted when, for instance, Shane O'Mara's book, Why Torture Doesn't Work, gets global coverage. Or when Valeria Nicolosi becomes a five-time European Research Council winner – the only one in Ireland, and one of a very few in Europe.

These are impressive benchmarks by any standards.

At a difficult period in our history, when we could have hunkered down, we instead scaled up our ambition, and put in place strategies for growth and expansion.

Almost a hundred and twenty years ago, in 1899, the then Provost, George Salmon remarked that students attended Trinity (I quote)

"not to be taught advanced mathematics or very high classical scholarship but to get a qualification for the learned professions, and just the moderate amount of knowledge which is necessary for the purpose".

Now Salmon was a good Provost, but the modesty of his ambition for his students is striking. He sees them as propping up the professions in Ireland – defending the status quo, nothing more.

We've come a long way since then. No-one now would say or think of students like that. Linda Hogan, when she was Vice-Provost, had a lovely line:

"we're ambitious for our students and we want them to be ambitious for themselves."

That captures the way we think now.

Looking at these achievements on this slide, I think we can all be proud. Of course, that's not to say that we have got everything right. There are areas where we need to speed up action, such as online education.

And there are things that, looking back, I would have done differently. We didn't get everything right. This year some very public mistakes were made. As Provost I take responsibility for what goes wrong on my watch.

But I believe that the strategy we have developed is the right one, and that if we have the courage to stick to it we will have real success in the very near future.

We can be proud of what we've achieved. We've built on the traditional strength of our research and education, and we've remained open to new developments. We've helped secure our future by growing our financial independence, so that more than half our revenue – 57 percent – now comes from private non-exchequer sources.


In a globally competitive environment and with the rate of change in higher education this fast, we can't just copy other universities, we have to be developing our own unique strengths. We have to be continually looking to the future: what developments are happening in research and education? How are we positioned to capitalise on them?

Right now, as I speak, inspired policies and initiatives are being planned and implemented across the university. A timeline for the next five years is given on this SLIDE. You can see here we will continue our revenue generating strategies against aggressive targets.

Slide 2

Let's focus briefly on some of the initiatives:

As most of you are aware, we've embarked on an ambitious university-wide project to renew the undergraduate curriculum. The Trinity Education Project, as we're calling it, is about building on our traditional pedagogical strengths and ensuring that we're adapting appropriately to changes in the workplace and society.

The Trinity Education Project is our response to some of the transformations that I spoke of earlier: re-affirming the centrality of education to our mission, and responding to the changing nature of the jobs market and the growth of the digital workplace.

After consultations, evaluations of existing programmes, and research into the best programmes internationally, the Trinity Education Project has agreed a set of graduate attributes to shape the kind of education we offer.

These attributes are centred round four core pillars:

  • To think independently
  • To communicate effectively
  • To grow continuously
  • To act responsibly

Students will embed these attributes through academic and co- and extra-curricular activities. They will learn through more diverse styles of assessment, and greater flexibility in combining subjects and changing pathways, with continued emphasis on depth in disciplinary knowledge.

We look forward to the successful delivery of the Project within the next two years.

Another transformative initiative which we're launching this year is the college's first ever comprehensive Philanthropic Campaign.

What makes this campaign "comprehensive" are the two fundamental aims that have guided all my thinking about it:

  • First, we aim to raise philanthropy for initiatives right across the College, and,
  • Second, we want to establish processes that will encourage engagement in fundraising into the future – create a culture in Trinity that appreciates the importance of philanthropy to securing our future.

What does it take for a fundraising campaign to succeed? My Campaign Cabinet – a group that includes seven external members - has identified three criteria that projects for the campaign should satisfy. They should:

  • Be directly aligned with the College's strategic plan;
  • Have an academic champion ready and willing to commit time and energy to it; and
  • They should show evidence of work already underway to build a community of potential philanthropic supporters.

Without these three things, no fundraising effort can succeed. These criteria also indicate how Schools should think about fundraising plans in the future.

In terms of the immediate campaign, it was clear that there were three key philanthropic areas:

First, Major capital projects – including the Trinity Business School and E3. These projects are already substantially underway as a result of significant philanthropy.

Second, The Library: our reputation as a leading global university owes no small debt to our exceptional library. A new Library strategy has been approved highlighting the need for substantial investment for conservation, acquisition and redevelopment.

Third, People: our staff and students are our most important resources. Recognising this, a major strand of the campaign is to raise funding for a series of transformative professorships. Relatedly, we need a massive investment in scholarship funds to attract the best students from home and abroad.

This is a Campaign for Trinity, for the whole university. There is no "being in" or "being out" of the Campaign. It's the beginning of a new direction that will see this university follow in the footsteps of major US colleges, where philanthropy is in their DNA.

As this country's leading university, we can make a very strong case for philanthropic support. At the core of that case is our ambition to secure Trinity's position as Ireland's university on the world stage. To bring the best of Ireland to the world, and the best of the world to Ireland. This is a message that has resonated with many of the philanthropists that I’ve met in my years as Provost, and it's one that I know many of you are proud to advance.

* * *CONCLUSION * * *

So, at this midpoint of the Provostship and the Strategic Plan, I'm here with this ambitious programme for the next five years, and beyond.

I'm confident that together we'll achieve success. This confidence comes from a sense of how far we've travelled, and how much we've done.

Five years ago, if I look back, my inaugural speech struck a somewhat doom laden note.

We were then three years into austerity. We were alarmed at the way things were going. We wanted the government to take note.

And now? Well, the funding situation hasn't changed. But so much else has changed. That's because we got creative. The definition of madness, as you know, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Which Einstein may, or may not, have said.

The decrease in state funding was our Groundhog Day. That film is a brilliant depiction of frustration – and at a certain point, of madness. But if you recall, Bill Murray got himself out of the bind – by acting and thinking differently. It was all up to him. The circumstances around him didn't change. He was the only one who could move the clock on. 

That's what's happening with us, here in Trinity. We're finding our way through. I don't say we're there yet. We haven't quite won Andie MacDowell. But there is much to be optimistic about.

This is thanks to the creativity and talent of so many people, across the university. People who saw openings, and with their teams, are pushing through change in their own areas.

Trinity is lucky – it's a reservoir and generator of talent. When you get this many great minds together – pooled from all round the world - you get great ideas.

We're on a strong track. Our efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Let me end by confirming a rumour that you may have heard: yes, we are on the shortlist to join the League of European Research Universities, or LERU.

We will find out in a month, on November 18th, if we're to be admitted to this prestigious and influential group of currently only 21 universities.

That's 21 out of the thousand universities in Europe. If Trinity is admitted, it will be an extraordinary achievement. To be shortlisted is already a significant endorsement of the quality of our scholarship, and of our commitment to fundamental research.

We deserve this endorsement because all our goals and actions – everything of which I've been speaking comes from the same bedrock: our proven excellence in research.

The way we educate is determined by what, and how, we research. Our initiatives in public engagement, our decisive contributions to crucial world challenges – all this comes from our confidence in the strength and quality of our research.

Research and scholarship is at the heart of all we do. What this means is that we are committed to "the search for truth, no matter where it might lead"/em>, as it says in our college statutes.

*  *  *

Two weeks ago we had the honour of welcoming back to College our graduate, last year's Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, William C. Campbell,. We were naming a lectureship after him – the William C. Campbell Lectureship in Parasite Biology.

He gave this beautiful speech in which he paid graceful tribute to his professor in Trinity, Des Smyth, who first nurtured his interest in the parasitic worms that 25 years later, would lead to his great discovery.

He said that after he left Trinity to do his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, he wrote, in his first letter home, that:

 "there was no other university in the world that he would rather have been to than Trinity College."

We couldn't ask for more than that.
Not from a Nobel laureate.
Not from the freshest of our Freshers.
May we continue to inspire ourselves, and each other, so that we may inspire future generations.

Thank you.

*  *  *


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