Meeting the future head on


MY EDUCATION WEEK:Prof Patrick Prendergast Provost TCD


My children and I are volunteering today. We’re painting a Helping Hands Tree with members of the local community and students. There’s often a university-related event at the weekend. Today’s event profiles the work of the 200 Trinity students who give tuition to school children from the local neighbourhood – now that I live in number 1 College Green, this is my neighbourhood.

Gavin Stapleton, one of the student volunteers tells me that “it has come full circle and that pupils who benefited years ago have since gone to Trinity and are now doing their bit as volunteer tutors in their turn”. As part of the activity, complete with volunteering t-shirts, we’re painting a montage: the Helping Hands Tree.


Today is a so-called day of rest. I go swimming with my family. My second daughter is faster than me now by 50 metres. Following the morning’s recreational activities, I do some work and read a UCC student’s Master’s thesis on which I am an external examiner. On taking up my position as provost of Trinity, I was intent on maintaining some of my academic duties on a reduced scale, in both lecturing our undergraduate students and supervising postgraduate students.


I start the week with a lecture to bioengineering students. There are 100 students attending the lecture drawn from mechanical, electrical and computer engineering. Bioengineering is my area of expertise. It involves the design of highly specialised medical devices such as orthopaedic implants or vascular stents and other life-changing biomedical devices. It is also a major national and global industry. The new state-of-the-art, Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, is home to the university’s Centre for Bioengineering and that will benefit from its multi-disciplinary environment. As part of today’s lecture I discuss bone mechanics where cells in the tissue activate repair and remodelling processes in response to micro-cracking in bones.

I then go on to give a talk to new members of staff, both academic and administrative, as part of their induction day. With 2,800 members of staff across all its functions, it is important that new staff can feel part of the College community from the outset. In the afternoon I have a series of meetings. I meet with the ambassador of Spain to discuss the growth of Spanish studies worldwide and Trinity’s role within that. This is followed by a meeting with the director of the National Library of Ireland in which we discuss collaboration in relation to the digital humanities, followed by a meeting with the head of IADT in relation to a partnership in the creative arts.

In the evening, there is a public interview organised by the Students’ Union and its publication, the University Times. Moderated by the Ronan Costello of the Students Union, I take questions in relation to all types of issues. They include university finances, maintaining the quality of education, the exam system, as well as the issue of a dedicated Irish language conversation room, Seomra na Gaeilge. My views concerning the balance between public and private funding in higher education are well known. It is important to have this direct dialogue with the students and I hope that by outlining the difficult funding issues that they understand the challenges we face.


This is a day of continuous meetings. The first is with the director of buildings and the dean of research to discuss the proposal of a new building on campus which will house a number of new schools. The project is critical for their future and needs careful strategic planning. The aim is that the schools will benefit from a multidisciplinary environment and that the maximum impact of the new build is achieved. Other meetings include financial matters for the college which I discuss with the treasurer ahead of next week’s board meeting. I also meet with the chair of the audit committee. Philanthropic proposals, a new professorship, archeology and conservation matters for the college and international student recruitment in India are subjects of additional meetings.

The day concludes with the launch of Dublin Contemporary 2011 at Trinity in the public theatre, at which I give an opening address. Promoting creativity, by collaborating with cultural institutions and initiatives in the city, is very much part of Trinity’s mission. As part of the city-wide, visual arts festival, Trinity is hosting a series of events in the university and it also features an international artwork on its front facade by the artist Braco Dimitrijevic. It is a striking image of “Casual Passer-by I met at 3.46pm in Dublin 2011”. It is unprecedented for the front facade to be given over to any such display.


I meet with the senior dean and dean of students to discuss the student debating society, the Philosophical Society’s invitation to the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, to participate in a debate later this month. The issue has received considerable media coverage, but more importantly there are objections from our own college community. Freedom of speech is an important principle as is that of self-governance of student societies. We agree to meet with the Philosophical Society and consider this serious matter further.

Other meetings follow, with several heads of school, to discuss academic developments including pharmacy education, the creative arts and linking with the teaching hospitals.

Later that day there is a roundtable discussion between industry and university presidents. It’s a lively dialogue and important for Ireland that both industry and the university sector understand their respective roles. Occasions such as these enable that process. Our primary responsibility in Trinity is to our students and the quality of their education. Industry needs us to deliver on the inherent talent of young people if Ireland is to compete globally.

I then head out to DCU for the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) “Silicon Valley Comes to Ireland” event, where presentations are made by young entrepreneurs from Irish universities pitching for venture capital. The presentations are dynamic and show Ireland at its best: creative, energetic, young and vibrant, and most importantly, a global country.


Another busy day, and I am out at Tallaght Hospital, discussing the challenges of providing medical research alongside the delivery of clinical care at a time of contracting funding for both education and healthcare delivery relative to demand.

Not a great news day – today the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011were published which saw a decrease in Trinity’s ranking to 117th position. There was a similar drop among all of the Irish universities. A decrease in our overall position was to be expected, especially given the decrease in funding levels. For Trinity, the rankings reflect a high performing world-class university, with increasingly high levels of internationalisation as demonstrated by its high scores in this respect. It has been let down, however, by reduced income, falling staffing levels and a decreasing staff to student ratio.

Trinity has demonstrated its ability to rise to 43rd in the world in 2009. The university is a great Irish success story, indeed the whole higher education sector is a great Irish success story. Irish graduates are appreciated the world over. Trinity needs the resources and conditions to function to the best of its ability. In the downturn, generating public resources will pose a problem, which makes it all the more important to try and find innovative solutions. Universities need to have the opportunity and mechanisms in place to do this.

This week I was . . .

Reading: Translations into English in Best European Fiction 2011, Edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2010.

Listening to:Tom Waits compilation, Asylum Years

Browsing:Issues in Science and Technology,

Watching: The Wind that Shakes the Barleyon DVD