As the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, I'm often asked for advice about which university somebody's daughter or son should attend, or if they should attend university at all. The question is understandable but impossible to answer unless one knows the potential student well.
Universities may seem similar from the outside, but they differ considerably. Like every other aspect of life, ability and temperament play a large role in determining which institution is best suited to any individual. We all prosper in different environments and this is one reason why I think it is important that universities be allowed enough autonomy to be different from each another. There is no one size that fits all. Diverse approaches to teaching and research present students with a choice and allows many different types of people of flourish by picking the institution that’s right for them.
In my own university our stated aim is for students to think independently and act responsibly. This has recently been adopted by the University Council as the attributes we wish our graduates to have. Such attributes may seem self-evident but can be confusing for some students.
If we want to cultivate independence of mind, we should allow students to make their own choices based on personal circumstances
Recently, this philosophy caused a little concern among a minority of our students when we told them that it was their choice whether they should take up offers for Erasmus exchanges which allows students to take a semester or year abroad. Some students felt that we should have followed the lead of several other universities and cancelled Erasmus programmes in 2020.
However, if we want to cultivate independence of mind, we should allow students to make their own choices based on personal circumstances, the country they were going to study in, and their prior experience of travelling and living abroad. Do I think there is a risk in student exchanges during a pandemic? Of course there is, and there’s no right answer to the question whether or not to cancel exchanges. I can understand why other universities chose differently but it does present an opportunity for students to learn to think for themselves.
We take the same attitude to parents incidentally. Parents contact us from time to time to request that tutors or lecturers talk to their children about their progress in college. I’m afraid we don’t pay much attention to these sort of requests. Our students are adults and, except in extremis, it would be wrong to facilitate helicopter parenting. At some stage, students must be allowed to make their own mistakes, and learn from them. Parents and guardians can provide a kind of secure base and that is of great benefit to a young person, and but also students need to use their university years to learn to take responsibility for themselves.
Taking responsibility for oneself is not always easy in this country. Fees and accommodation costs in Ireland create an unfortunate dependency culture between adult children and parents which is unfair to both the young and the old. One of the things I like about countries where students pay very low fees and automatically qualify for grants or loans is that students are empowered early in life to stand on their own two feet. It is not healthy that our students' ability to attend college often hinges on the financial ups and downs of their parents or their parents' prejudices about certain courses.
Higher education institutions provide many supports for students but they are not bigger versions of secondary schools
Of course, third level is not the only sensible option for school leavers. The last few years have seen a welcome development in additional apprenticeships and traineeships. The Programme for Government commits to increasing the number of new apprentice registrations to 10,000 a year by 2025. The Further Education sector is coming into its own, steered by Solas, the State agency. The sector offers an incredible range of 25,000 courses for those looking for qualifications.
Yet the sector is often overlooked when Leaving Cert students are considering the future with their parents. We are obsessed with university degrees in this country. Yet university is not for everyone – that's not an elitist view but stems from a belief that students should consider all options on their merits. Convincing parents and students of this will be one task for Minister Simon Harris whose new department with its focus on further and higher education as well as science and innovation could yet be a game changer for this country.
To be clear, higher education institutions, including my own, provide many supports for students, especially in first year, but they are not bigger versions of secondary schools.
When I welcome this year’s intake of students to Trinity in September, I hope that they will see university as a place where they can develop their skills in organising study and free time, manage risk, deal with failure, develop resilience, learn the consequences of decisions and acquire greater independence of mind. Of course, this particular intake has faced a fair number of challenges over the past few months and many of them have already shown great resilience. There is every reason to think that they will be a fascinating and successful group and I look forward to meeting them and watching their progress in the years to come.