So, this is what ‘student-centred’ education looks like

Opinion: Jenna Clarke-Molloy on the difficulties she faced trying to obtain necessary documentation from an Irish university

Photograph: iStockphoto

Photograph: iStockphoto

 

On my graduation day last November, I was ushered into the exam hall of Trinity College Dublin, and pointed towards a seat with my name on it. On that seat was a branded pen, a programme for the day, and a folded piece of card that informed me that I was now part of a global network of Trinity alumni.

At the time, this felt like a touching gesture, reminding me that although my time studying there was over, I was still a part of this community, that Trinity would still care for me and my fellow graduates as we followed our own paths. Now, I find myself questioning how well Trinity is caring for its students, let alone its alumni.

During my four years in Trinity, I was very involved in all aspects of student life. I studied, was on many different committees, held positions in the Students’ Union and at the student newspaper. I worked at open days, selling my wonderful university to prospective students. I met an incredible group of extremely dedicated people who wanted students at our college to have the best possible experience. We gave Trinity all we had. In return, I felt that Trinity had equipped me well to go on, be it to further study or to full-time employment.

I opted to take a year out to get some work experience, and then to pursue a master’s degree. I decided I would like to study abroad for this: both the fees and the rent would be lower, and the standard of teaching in my field was higher abroad than anything I could pursue in Ireland. My final choices were three universities in Sweden, one in Denmark and one in the Netherlands.

I eagerly applied for my transcripts - a detailed account of my course work - from Trinity in October, knowing that academic registry was notoriously slow. I didn’t mind, I just had to be on the ball and plan in advance. A month later, at the end of November, I got an email informing me that my transcript were ready for collection, and that they were enclosed in a Pdf attachment. I uploaded all of the relevant documents to the admissions websites, and was ready and prepared two weeks before the official deadline for the Swedish universities of February 1st.

A few days after the deadline I received an email telling me that my application was incomplete. There was an issue with my transcript. I rang university admissions in Sweden and asked what the issue was, when they informed me that what I had uploaded in place of a transcript was simply an “academic record”. It wasn’t a transcript at all. Insead of a full module-by-module breakdown with all of my marks, the academic record just gave me my yearly and overall grades.

I contacted my former departments and got the correct documentation and contacted the universities to which I had applied, where they told me that in the interest of fairness, they could not accept late documentation. Despite my pleading, they said it would not be possible at this time. Shocked and upset, I thought to contact Trinity. As this was an error with the document they provided, surely they would do something to rectify this?

I contacted the senior staff – lecturers, academic officers, registrars. Some never got back to me. Other refused to accept it was an issue to do with Trinity; if a Swedish college wanted something more detailed, they should have been more explicit.

I am not the only example of someone having these difficulties. A friend had the same issue this year, except that the university she was applying to were not as rigid and accepted more comprehensive documents after the fact. Another friend was accepted to his master’s abroad before he graduated, and was told to bring his transcripts with him when he moved over. When he presented his new university with the document from academic registry, they laughed at him.

I persisted in telling Trinity that this was an issue they created, and therefore that they should fix it. However, after many emails and phone calls, it became evident that Trinity simply didn’t care. This place to which I had given so much of my time, of whose community I was supposed to be still part, had washed their hands of me and would not offer to help, apologise or even acknowledge that they were in any way at fault. So, a year of my life hangs in the balance as a result.

For all the talk of a “student centred” education, Trinity’s treatment of some its students seems to be shoddy at best. Despite the students’ union’s vehement opposition , the college board recently chose to introduce supplemental exam fees from summer 2019, at a flat fee of €450. If you fail one exam: €450. If you fail 10: €450. Not only is this completely out of line with all other universities in the country, it sets a worrying precedent.

Following the occupation of the Dining Hall by students unhappy with this decision, the college board has pledged to consider other options when the university’s governing body next meets.

As we saw with the so-called “contribution charge”, once introduced it is very easy to increase year upon year. When originally introduced the contribution charge was €500 and now sits at a whopping six times that at €3,000, the second highest, and soon to be highest in the EU. The introduction of these fees would also allow the college to believe that any time there is a hole to be plugged in the college’s finances, they need look no further than the students.

As far as my application is concerned, I’m aware that I’m young. I’ve have lived a pretty charmed life so far. As I’ve been told about a hundred times recently, “what’s for (me) won’t pass (me)”. If I had made an error with the application myself, or some other obstacle had prevented me from applying or even attending next year, I would tend to agree. But this was not to do with me. It was not my fault, or any of my doing, it was beyond my control.

For the students of Trinity College, this is also not their doing, and they are doing their best to, as their slogan goes, “take back Trinity”. For the student who opts not to return to college next year because they cannot afford to fail an exam, that is not the student’s fault. For the students who work part-time in order to afford to live in Dublin to attend college, the college turning around and insisting that if they fail an exam they will have to somehow find the time to work an additional 45 hours at minimum wage and somehow find the time to study in order to pay for and pass these exams, that is not the fault of those students either.

As an alumnus Trinity failed me. I am shocked and hurt at this, but as I’m no longer a student, I feel a certain degree of understanding that they have washed their hands of me.

But now Trinity is failing some of its current students, and the most vulnerable of them at that. Is this what they imagine student-focused education looks like? Or are they simply trying to make as much money as possible to hold on to researchers and keep their global rankings?

I may - according to that piece of card at my graduation - be a part of a global network of alumni, but I will never participate in a community with such disregard for many of its students.

Jenna Clarke-Molloy is a recent graduate of TCD