Old-school tie: Trinity vs UCD


This week a report advocating a merger of Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin emerged. But even the colleges' debating societies agree it's a bad idea, writes PATRICK FREYNE

SOME TRIBAL DISTINCTIONS are hard to explain to outsiders: Blur and Oasis; Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael; UCD and Trinity. This week The Irish Times reported a study, undertaken by international experts at the behest of the Higher Education Authority, that advocated the merger of the latter two institutions.

It’s not the first time the idea has been floated. In the late 1960s, as minister for education, Donogh O’Malley pursued the idea, but according to the UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter, in his new book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, there was “opposition from both institutions as they feared absorption by the other”. It’s unsurprising that the idea has re-emerged, with some arguing a merger of the two colleges is the best way to ensure we have a world-class university in Dublin and the best way to stall the descent of both universities in the international rankings. (The Times Higher Education rankings are, incidentally, due out next week.)

Others disagree. “If you take the two colleges and merge them, you wouldn’t get a higher rank; you’d get something in between,” says Steve Hadley, a University College Cork law professor who has written about the issue.

The Trinity College Dublin economist Brian Lucey maintains the two universities are at their best when both collaborating and competing. “I believe in competition,” he says. “What I find astonishing is that the people who are the most fervent advocates of competition seem to have a blockage when it comes to educational competition.”

Anyway, it’s not going to happen. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn was quick to proclaim any such merger “neither feasible nor desirable”, and other sources suggested the circulation of the report had been “delayed”. (For what this means in real terms, recall the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the artefact is stored away in a vast building.) It’s an emotive issue. Many with an axe to grind feel strongly affiliated to one university or the other, and students seemingly want a choice between the two.

“In general I would say that amalgamation isn’t the best idea,” says John Engle, a Hawaiian-born politics and economics student and the auditor of Trinity College’s Historical Society, or the Hist. “These are two colleges that each have a very distinct history and identity. That’s very advantageous to both. I don’t know if those identities could be retained under a single governing structure. For so long student life has been guided by organisations like the Hist in Trinity and the LH [Literary Historical Society] in UCD. I think when students choose between the colleges they’re making a real choice and would prefer to have that choice to simply going to one superuniversity.”

Engle rejects the notion that such a merger would improve the international rankings, as does Emer Sugrue, editor of UCD’s University Observer. “There have been budget cuts, and services have been cut, and I think that’s what’s really reflected in the lower rankings,” she says.

Daisy Onubugu, UCD law student and auditor of the LH, the university’s debating union, also says merging the two colleges would be a mistake. “They’re very different campuses and very different ways of life, and very different people go to both . . . That’s a good thing. I don’t think that it would be good if going to university in the capital meant you had to go to this one massive conglomerate. Both universities have so much to offer. If there’s anything holding them back it’s not that they need to be bigger, it’s that they need more money. And a merger would also mean that the administration would be bigger and more faceless and even further away from the students on the ground.”

All of these students feel a strong sense of connection to their alma maters. Once upon a time this connection might have had some sectarian basis. TCD was, after all, established by a Protestant queen, in 1592, and UCD was established by a Catholic cardinal, in 1854.

“When I was elected president of the students’ union, in 1979, the headline in the Irish Independent was ‘Catholic from Ballyfermot elected president of Trinity Student Union’,” says Joe Duffy, the Liveline presenter. He also recalls that one academic dismissed his election as “a popish plot”. Nowadays, explaining the appeal of one university over another is less fraught by real differences of class and religion.

“I think that there are some actual demographic differences between the two,” says Rónán Burtenshaw, editor of Trinity News. He proceeds carefully. “The TCD population is probably more Dublin-based than UCD. Part of that is that UCD just has better facilities for students coming up from the country . . . There’s probably an attitude among students who’ve chosen to go to UCD that Trinity is very Dublincentric in its outlook, is quite insular and associated with private-school pupils, and isn’t as friendly to those who don’t come from those backgrounds. I’m not sure that’s true.”

Onubugu stresses the friendliness of UCD. “There’s something wonderful about Trinity,” she says. “There’s an air of history and prestige, and even just walking around the campus you’re slightly in awe of it. On campus in UCD you’re not in awe of any of the architecture” – she laughs – “but you do get a vibrant sense of community. Someone explained it to me once that UCD campus is like a giant warm hug that you walk into.” UCD students are unfairly stereotyped as “tanned and rich southside kids and D4s with far too much money and not enough sense”, she says.

According to Sugrue, the prevailing stereotypes are that “Trinity students are snobby and that UCD students are culchies”. She also says that “because for some subjects the points are lower”, sometimes “UCD students are a bit insecure and think that TCD students look down on them”.

This has been a bone of contention since Duffy’s day. “I remember at one point in my time there was some dispute and we were occupying the JCR [Junior Common Room], the building over the front gate in Trinity. It was UCD rag week, and all these UCD students gathered outside, shouting up at us, ‘Oxford rejects! Oxford rejects!’ ” he says. “We shouted back at them, ‘Trinity rejects! Trinity rejects!’ ” They were “silly tribal loyalties,” he says, “Elizabethan garden-party nonsense from a different era.”

The current crop of students cling to their minor differences with a spirit of fun. Recently Trinity’s Hist and UCD’s LH had their annual Colours debate: the topic, last used in 2002, was that “this house would rather iron its genitals than go to Trinity”.

There are pragmatic arguments for and against merging TCD and UCD, but for many it’s really an emotional issue.

“Which is a pity,” says Duffy. “Anyone from outside coming into this country would look at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and say that they should merge. It’s the same with Trinity and UCD. But if you seriously advocate a merger you’ll end up being in this surreal debate about tradition . . . “Anyone who argues otherwise proves that there really is life on Mars – they’re that out of touch. It’s never going to happen.”

The arguments for a merger

Closer ties would “offer an end to the ‘insidious partition’ and ‘truceless cold war’ which have heretofore been a blot on our higher education”This is how the HEA saw things in 1970, as quoted in Diarmaid Ferriter’s Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s. Things are arguably a bit less sectarian these days, and there’s already a lot of collaboration between UCD and TCD.

Economies of scaleThe former attorney general Peter Sutherland caused a furore in 2010 by saying: “Ireland cannot afford to keep seven universities at world-class research, education and training levels.” He, and the writers of the new report, say that by stopping unnecessary duplication of departments and facilities, a better outcome could be achieved. It’s claimed that a TCD-UCD union could improve their overall rankings, which help attract both high-fee-paying foreign students and international funding. Others say that this would not happen and that many universities at the top of the international rankings are quite small.

It would create a hybrid form of stereotypeA West Brit superculchie, probably wearing a cravat and a hurling jersey, doused in fake tan and smoking a pipe.

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