Address at the annual reception for College Tutors
Saloon, Provost's House, Trinity College
06 June 2019
Welcome to the Tutors’ Reception in the Saloon of the Provost’s House. We had hoped to be in the garden but the clap of thunder at four o’clock put paid to that!
The tutor’s reception is always an event I look forward to: it heralds for me the end of the academic year and it’s a chance to thank all who make Tutorship possible – one of Trinity’s oldest and most valued traditions.
In all the college’s activities and endeavours, I’m constantly reminded of how central tutorship is to our mission. The past few years, for instance, have seen us put focus on renewing the undergraduate curriculum through the Trinity Education Project. Tutorship is one of the key supports that maintains a distinctive undergraduate education.
And this year we’ve recently launched in three cities, with more to follow, the first comprehensive philanthropic campaign in the history of the university. We’re calling this campaign “Inspiring Generations” because we want to capture the way that Trinity’s great research and education inspires each new generation.
Tutorship is central to our inspirational education. We are the only university in Ireland and one of a very few in Europe to have such a system. As you know it hasn’t been easy to maintain in the face of cutbacks, and without your extraordinary commitment, it couldn’t continue.
And what makes your commitment all the more extraordinary, is that Tutorship has probably become ever more demanding over the years.
This is a time of great opportunity for students. Students today have chances to travel and build global networks, to develop skills in innovation and entrepreneurship, to do global internships, to use social media to build platforms, to be flexible and experiential in their learning and assessments. I’m often astonished, at the myriad of opportunities compared to when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s.
But it also seems like students have more challenges. We hear every day about studies showing rising levels of anxiety and depression in young people. Some of this is certainly down to greater awareness and openness - to that extent, increased reporting is a good thing. But students today do face fundamental challenges in terms of housing and living costs. They are growing up in a rapidly changing and competitive world where jobs and technologies keep evolving - for some this is exciting, for others it’s stressful. And what might once have been termed ‘existential’ challenges - like climate change, biodiversity loss, migration, over-population – are becoming urgent. The prognosis can verge on the apocalyptic.
All of this is having an effect on our students’ mental health and their capacity to make the most of these precious college years. Tutors are at the frontline. For some students, you’re the first port of call.
Nearly 4,000 student cases were processed in the last year through tutors. Many of these cases involved the difficult aspects of a student’s life: financial problems, family difficulties and breakdown, health issues, especially increased mental health difficulties and homelessness.
Tutors this year have visited hospitals; they’ve helped students gain employment. Sadly, they have even attended funerals.
I’m so grateful for our students that they have you. But I don’t underestimate the toll of pastoral care. Being a good tutor means forming connections with students. As academics, you are already fulfilling multiple roles in education and research. I know, from being a tutor myself, that tutorship is deeply rewarding but it’s also demanding.
The College acknowledges the considerable time and effort you put in. We thank you. Sometimes you make the difference between a student staying in college and completing their course, or leaving with a degree. Tutorship plays an important part in Trinity’s excellent progression and retention rates.
This year we have 268 tutors – the highest number we have ever had. This is a tremendous endorsement both of the strength of the system and of the quality and commitment of our staff – of all of you.
On behalf of the Board and the whole community, I thank you all. Tutorship is a shared activity across all Faculties. It is enabled by a dedicated team.
I thank the Senior Tutor, Dr Aidan Seery who has agreed to take on his role for a further term and is doing an outstanding job.
I thank also Helen Richardson for her work supporting students financially, and assistance with accommodation. She is the cornerstone of the Senior Tutor Office team and has served 18 years in the office.
Also Martin McAndrew for single-handedly managing all Postgraduate Advice cases and for organising the very successful conference ‘Postgrad Lives’ in May to mark the 10th anniversary of the Postgraduate Advisory Service.
And Caroline Campbell as first point of contact for students and tutors for the expert and sensitive way in which she deals with even the most difficult cases.
It is, of course, essential that Tutorship works as well and smoothly as possible. As with all activities, we need to be vigilant and ensure that we are putting in place the right processes. Chamber sizes, once very large, have been reduced to an average of 44 this year.
In the coming academic year, there will be a new dedicated ‘Tutor Week’ as part of Fresher induction to highlight the Tutor System for new entrants and to encourage them to meet their Tutors. I remember well meeting my own Tutor in September 1983. Dr Tom Glynn had an office in the basement of the Museum Building, and it was full of smoke as I recall when I went to visit him! He was a kindly man and we had a brief chat and I knew he would be there for me if I needed him.
Next year there will be T-shirts and badges to identify Tutors. I’m afraid this will lead to more work for tutors – the emphasis will be on students getting in touch with you! But since we’re very proud of tutorship, of course we want to make the system widely known.
I hope those of you who will continue as Tutors next year are ready for the T-shirts and badges! To all of you, my heartfelt thanks for taking on this vital role, without which the unique education we offer would not be possible.
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