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A reflection on renewing the undergraduate curriculum and the influence of globalisation on higher education

04 December 2017

by Patrick Prendergast
Provost & President Trinity College Dublin

Ego Mundi Civis Esse Cupio – ‘I long to be a citizen of the world’. This very Renaissance sentiment, as expressed by Erasmus in the 16th century, has been turning round in my mind ever since I first heard it. I used it in my inaugural address, when I was elected Provost in 2011, to encapsulate what I wished for our students.

The ‘internationalisation of the curriculum’ was the theme of the recent highlevel Coimbra Group Seminar, which Trinity College Dublin hosted on 13th and 14th of November. That we were convening in the 30th anniversary year of the foundation of the Erasmus Programme added impetus to discussion. There was great cause for celebration because student and staff mobility has been transformed over the past three decades – not just in Europe but globally, and our universities are feeling the benefits.

When the Erasmus Programme was created in the late 1980s it was a symbol of European enthusiasm for the breaking down of borders. But now the borders are going up again. Today groups across Europe are rejecting principles of free movement. In some cases, their opposition strikes at the heart of the European project; in other cases, they are raising justifiable concerns. All vital initiatives need constant monitoring or, to put it another way, ‘the price of peace is eternal vigilance’ (first coined by a Trinity graduate, John Philpot Curran, in 1790).

So, let’s listen to those who warn about the unintended consequences of globalisation, but let’s also be vigilant in defending the liberty of free movement and speak up for the benefits it brings in higher education. There should be no returning to borders, ivory towers, silo-ed disciplines, protectionism and parochialism, nor indeed an entrenched nationalism that emphasizes differences ahead of our common humanity. Countries or universities that try will suffer the fate of all those who seek to turn the clock back: atrophy and corrosion.

With our undergraduate curriculum, we should be educating students for the world they will face – which is not the one we faced. This means preparing them for the changing workplace and more flexible career paths, and it means inculcating a sense of civic and environmental responsibility towards the world, people and resources. Most of us in the Coimbra Group have in place curricula which are working well for us and our students. But in this period of transformative global change, all curricula need to be renewed. Ways of learning are changing fundamentally – tweaks and adjustments to teaching and assessment are not enough.

In Trinity, we are in the middle of a renewal of the undergraduate curriculum which we’re calling the Trinity Education Project. We will implement the first changes in the next academic year. It hasn’t been easy – Trinity is a university with 425 years of venerable traditions and no major change can be implemented without the assent of the Fellows, of whom there are about 250. But the whole university has been involved in the Project and in debating why curricular renewal is necessary, and there is now significant buy-in.

With the changes, we are making to the curriculum, we are saying that we expect the world to continue developing in a way that makes it beneficial for our graduates to be creative, entrepreneurial, flexible, adaptive, multi-lingual, well-travelled, communicative and socially responsible. We are saying that we do not expect narrow, rigid, protectionist mindsets to flourish.

That is our gamble on the future, if you like. But because education is a weapon to change the world, we are also influencing the future: our graduates will help to create and shape the world they live in.