'Globalisation, Trinity Education Project and the Graduate Attributes'

Second Coimbra Group Seminar for Rectors & Vice-Rectors

Trinity Long Room Hub

13 November 2017


Thank you, Juergen,

And good morning everyone, and welcome. We’re delighted to see you here. Thank you for inviting me to speak. It’s been my pleasure to participate in, and speak at, other Coimbra Group seminars over the years.

In my address today I will focus on the significant changes which we’re currently making, in Trinity, to the undergraduate curriculum. We’re calling this ‘the Trinity Education Project’. We are now two years into this Project and next academic year will see changes implemented. We’re not talking about small tweaks - this is the most significant renewal of the undergraduate curriculum in a century.

Before I get into what changes we’re making, I’d like to look at the ‘why’ – why do we feel the need to renew a curriculum which has, after all, being delivering well for us, going on the usual criteria of the quality of students enrolled and retained, and their achievements as graduates.

This ‘why’ is something that particularly confronts us as Coimbra Group universities. Because of our long-established reputations and the central place we hold in our countries, our universities tend to be over-subscribed. Because we turn away far more students than we can offer places to, there is little incentive for us to change the curriculum – in the language of the market we might say “why change our winning product?”.

We enrol excellent students, and excellent input makes for excellent output – and without us having to do a whole lot. It might be argued that, what counts today as a measure of intelligence is being admitted to a world-ranked university, not what is learnt there. We might call this the ‘Ivy League effect’ or indeed the ‘Bill Gates effect’ – because what everyone remembers is that Bill Gates got into Harvard; and it doesn’t matter that he didn’t graduate.

In Trinity we are undertaking this ambitious renewal of the curriculum for the same reason that the Coimbra Group has convened here to debate the internationalisation of the curriculum. Because globally, this is a period of truly transformational change, not only for higher education but for society in general. The changes are so great that it would be irresponsible of us, as educators, not to reflect and anticipate the transformations that are happening in our curricula.

I’ve identified seven key current influences which impact higher education. These are global changes which have to be taken into consideration when we look at the theme under discussion today: internationalising the curriculum.

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First, there’s technology, which is accelerating change in the university, affecting everything in the core mission of education and research.

Second, there’s increased staff and student mobility, with people and projects moving rapidly between institutions and countries; we are approaching an era of what we might call ‘multi-institutionalism’. One of my other roles is as a board member of the EIT – the European Institute of Innovation and Technology which aims to grow Knowledge Innovation Communities, or KICs, as strong networks of innovation and entrepreneurship. Trinity is a member of KIC Health, KIC Raw Materials, and KIC Climate.

Fourth, 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.

Fifth, 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 bucks the European trend. Between 2011 and 2028, the number of Irish school-leavers is set to grow by a massive 25 percent.

Sixth, 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 complex career challenges.

Seventh, there’s the decrease in state funding per student to universities. This is certainly happening in Ireland, but it’s also happening globally.
Around the world, countries are 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.

This is a major and difficult transition and it brings up other challenges – for instance, if decreasing state funding is going to be the new normal, it should be accompanied by deregulation so that universities can operate in a more entrepreneurial fashion and less like public sector entities. But this isn’t happening yet, at least not in Ireland.

I won’t concentrate further on funding in this address, but it should be mentioned as one of the key international influencers which is changing how we deliver higher education.

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All universities are affected by these seven influencers to some degree. We might not like all the new developments. We might see them as indicative of a more competitive neo-liberal world, and the waning of the post-war solidarity which served Europe so well for decades. We might regret this, but we cannot stop it – except perhaps through educating different kinds of leaders and policy-makers in society.

The really significant thing about the current transformations is how rapidly they are happening. European universities have seen other transformative periods - such as the introduction of new scientific disciplines in the 19th century. But change used to happen over decades, now it happens over years, and months even.

As universities, we want to stay ahead of change so that we aren’t overwhelmed by it. This is where the Trinity Education Project comes in.

In Trinity we agree a Strategic Plan every five years. Your universities probably do something similar. Our current Strategic Plan was agreed in 2014 and has two more years to run. It’s an ambitious plan and, I think, a far-seeing one, strongly focused on preparing for the future.  

Central to the Plan is the goal to ‘Renew the Trinity Education’. We go into some detail outlining the new circumstances confronting 21st century graduates. We recognise clear patterns of change in education, research and the workplace.

For instance, we recognise that ‘compound disciplines’ - like bioengineering and neuroscience and digital humanities - are products of internationalisation, having emerged typically, though not always, in universities in the US. We point out the need to strike a balance between, on the one hand, disciplinary strength and the accumulated traditions of learning, and on the other, interdisciplinarity.

Relatedly, the old model of a job for life is changing. Our graduates will likely have a number of careers, and will live in a number of different cities and countries, and they will constantly have to update their skills to keep on top of rapid patterns of change in technology and in work practices. They will have to be self-starting and to remain open to learning new things throughout their careers. Teaching ‘love of learning’ will be ever more important.

Another vital area that we touched on in the Strategic Plan was responsible citizenship – we wrote about developing ‘an aptitude for cross-cultural understanding and an affinity for global citizenship’. In the three years since articulating this, it has become even more important.

In Europe and the United States, we are facing political upheavals – social inequality, the rise of the so-called alt-right, increase in terrorism and hate crimes carried out by our own citizens. Are these issues which should concern universities? Do we have a responsibility to our societies to help prevent them? Absolutely we do.

As publicly-funded universities, we have an obvious societal duty but our responsibility goes beyond this. ‘Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world” Nelson Mandela said. If universities are not agents of change and improvement, who will fill the void?

This year has seen headlines about the embarrassing lack of diversity at elite universities. To put it bluntly, world-ranking universities, particularly it seems in the UK and the US, are not broadening access sufficiently. If world-class higher education is only available to those coming from upper or middle-class backgrounds who attended good schools, and if our curricula focus overly on educating for individual gain and private success - then we have to admit that universities are contributing to social inequality, rather than addressing it.

Through our admissions programmes and our curricula, we should be engaging directly and fearlessly with global challenges such as inequality, climate change, migration, energy provision, conflict resolution. If we are sending out graduates into the world who have no experience of, and are indifferent to, these issues that ultimately affect us all - then, I would contend, we have failed in our duty as educators. We can’t talk about the ‘internationalisation’ of the curriculum without highlighting these international challenges which know no borders.

In articulating this, I’m being pragmatic. Yes, I think there’s a moral obligation on us to act, but it’s also a simple matter of self-preservation. As with the seven influencers, it’s not really a question of whether we welcome or disparage trends. These changes are coming whether we, as university rectors and members of faculty, welcome them or not. Our responsibility is to prepare our students for the workplace and society that they will confront, not for the workplace and society that we experienced ourselves.

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So that’s the background to the Trinity Education Project. I’m sure much of what I’ve said resonates with you because we are talking international trends.

To recap: as educators and researchers we want to avail of all the opportunities available to do cutting-edge international research, to contribute to economic growth in our countries and regions, and to prepare our students for dynamic careers and responsible citizenship. How can we do this?

Our approach in Trinity has been a top-down one. We started by identifying what attributes our graduates would need to be successful and useful in the world. We focused on attributes rather than skills. Skills are specific to the discipline studied – for instance, computer science students obviously need programming skills and drama students need acting skills. But we know that the way the world is evolving, graduates will frequently change direction and careers, so our duty as educators is not so much to impart the specific skills which get a first job. Rather we have to imbue our students with the right mindset for career and life success.

After deep consultations, which lasted a year, and much debate across the university, we emerged in June 2016 with agreement on a set of graduate attributes which will shape the kind of education we offer. These attributes are shown here:


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  • Firstly we want our graduates to be able to think independently; this is not easy in an age of incessant media and marketing campaigns designed specifically to prevent it; but the capacity for independent thought should to be treasured – this includes thinking creatively and critically.
  • Secondly, our graduates should be able to communicate effectively to diverse audiences through different media - in meetings, in writing, in oral addresses, through different languages, visually, graphically, and on social media.
  • Thirdly, our graduates should have the skills to develop continuously after graduation; they should leave Trinity with a love of learning, recognizing that their education is only starting, not ending; and with an appreciation of their discipline, and a flexible, adaptive approach.
  • The final attribute concerns how our graduates should ‘act’ in the world; diverse views of academic staff were expressed on this, to act ethically, to act morally, to act resiliently – the agreed attribute is one I am quite proud of: to act responsibly. Taking responsibility for our actions is a characteristic of a citizen in a democratic society - taking responsibility for society, for the environment, and ultimately for the well-being of our fellow citizens.

Some might dismiss these attributes as pious aspirations. Others might believe that the attributes are self-evident and do not need to be spelled out. I understand both views but disagree with them. There comes a time when colours need to be nailed to the mast, and these are our colours.

Having named the graduate attributes, we are now in the next step: making sure that these four attributes underpin the education of every Trinity undergraduate. How are we going about this?

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When we talk about renewing the curriculum, we are talking about deep structural change. It’s not just about content, but delivery.

For instance, we have to bring our term periods, exam scheduling and time-tabling in line with international norms because you cannot facilitate staff and student mobility and all the advantages that come from that, if you pay no attention to how the rest of the world organises things.

And we need to bring flexibility into the curricula so that combining subjects and changing pathways during the course of study becomes easier. We cannot talk about inculcating attributes of independence and continuous development, if we are ourselves rigid and inflexible.

And we need to familiarise students in all courses with new technologies but at the same time keep them analytical and aware of the dangers – such as, for instance, the ease with which social media spreads ‘fake news’. 

And we need to continue making space for extra-and co-curricular activities. We know that taking on roles within clubs and societies develops skills and attributes like leadership, fund-raising, communication, volunteering, public speaking, event-organising, creativity, innovation.

Trinity has always been strong on extra-curricular – our debating societies and sports clubs were established centuries ago, and in recent years we have proved particularly successful at fostering entrepreneurship and innovation through student accelerator programmes.

So when we talk about renewing the curriculum, we also mean enabling the extra-curricular.

In practical terms, how are we going about balancing all these changes?

Well, last year, the Trinity Education Project achieved an important milestone when the Statutes were changed to allow a new academic year structure. This new year structure will come into force next September. As well as allowing for end of Semester examinations, it will facilitate internships and student exchanges abroad.

This may seem like a small milestone but Trinity is a venerable university much wedded to its traditions and no major change can be implemented without the agreement of the Fellows, of whom there are 250, many of them rightly disinclined to assent to change unless it’s absolutely necessary. So getting agreement on a new academic year structure showed that there is buy-in for the Trinity Education Project, and that of course is vital.

And in another far-reaching development, we have decided to develop Trinity Electives in areas of research strength. Thus linking our best research to the undergraduate curriculum. Five research themes have been selected for the first wave. They are:

  • Digital Engagement
  • Identities in Transformation
  • International Development
  • Making Ireland
  • Smart and Sustainable Planet

And one Trinity elective in languages:

  • Mandarin Chinese

Facilitating curricular change isn’t easy, as I’m sure you’ll all appreciate. We all know the difficulties of timetabling and the more multidisciplinary a university is the harder it becomes. And electives bring particular challenges – familiarizing students from other faculties requires a special effort from educators. But proactive, solutions-oriented people always find a way, and this is proving the case. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank staff here in Trinity for getting behind the Trinity Education Project. It would be impossible to implement such a comprehensive renewal without the effort put in across the college.

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By this time next year, the Trinity Education Project will be in place. Students will be taking Christmas exams and doing electives; they will be preparing for internships and study programmes abroad; some of them will be deciding to change their course of study as they discover new talents and interests they didn’t know they had; they will be engaged on entrepreneurial and creative projects within the curriculum and beyond it.

My summer reading on family holiday in France this summer was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. In the novel a young nobleman explains to his uncle that he must go and fight with Garibaldi’s forces because, he says, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change around here”.

This resonated with me because in many ways the Trinity Education Project is about changing everything in order to preserve the standing of our undergraduate education.

At the heart of the changes we are making lies the question: what kind of students do we want to educate? What graduates are we most proud of?

We know the answer to that. The graduates we truly celebrate are the ones who make a difference. In Trinity that means Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett in literature; William Rowan Hamilton and Ernest Walton in Science; George Berkeley and Edmund Burke in philosophy and political thought; and Mary Robinson in humanitarian activism. These are not our wealthiest graduates, nor even those who achieved highest office; indeed some of them suffered terribly in life. But of all of them you can say, they left the world a better place and their work lives on beyond them.

When these students came to Trinity they were enabled to develop in a way that released their potential. That is the promise we must continue delivering for all our students: to release potential.

Potential is released differently in the 21st century than in the 18th – hence the need for the Trinity Education Project. And I want to end on a point that returns to the wider theme of this seminar: Internationalisation.

The seven key influencers I mentioned came about as a result of internationalization. The reason why workplaces are changing, and technology is fast-developing, and staff and students are more mobile, and university research is having economic impact is because we live in a highly globalized word.

Globalisation also carries dangers and there are now strong movements against it – Brexit and ‘America First’ being the most obvious ones. But as European universities we are beneficiaries of globalization. We must work to combat the challenges it brings, but we do not seek to return to a world of borders, ivory towers and silo-ed disciplines; of economic protectionism and political nationalism; of social parochialism and monoculturalism.

The Trinity Education Project is a ‘punt on the future’ – or a bet on the future, as all serious initiatives. With this Project we are saying that we expect that the world will continue developing in a way that makes it beneficial for our graduates to be creative, entrepreneurial, flexible, adaptive, multi-lingual, well-travelled, communicative and socially responsible. We are saying that we do not expect narrow, rigid, nationalistic mindsets to flourish.

That is our gamble, if you like. But because education is a weapon to change the world, we are also influencing the future. We are sending out graduates who will help to create and shape the world. That is too serious a mission not to be serious about.

Last year, you might recall, the UK prime minister, Theresa May said: ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’. I couldn’t disagree more. Against her narrow view, I would set Erasmus: he said ‘Ego Mundi Civis Esse Cupio’. I long to be a citizen of the world. It is through education that we build our common humanity. In this, the 30th anniversary year of the Erasmus programme, let us pledge to continue educating our students to be citizens of Europe and of the world.

Thank you.

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