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Transformation in the higher education landscape: what are the drivers of change?

31 May 2021

Patrick Prendergast, President & Provost, Trinity College Dublin


This summer my 10 years in office as President/Provost of Trinity College Dublin ends. It has been a remarkable time. When change comes suddenly, we are forced to reflect, and I see a national and European higher education landscape that is very different compared to 2011. What are some of the key changes?

Three things stand out:

First, internationalism and globalisation. For Trinity this has accelerated and deepened and now goes well beyond international student recruitment – it means partnerships across the range of education, research, innovation and public engagement. Examples include our joint degree with Columbia University in New York and our joint awards with four other EU universities in the European University Alliance, CHARM-EU, which admits its first students this September. And in public engagement, we are now welcoming our 9th member, TU Berlin, to the international Science Gallery Network which goes across four continents (www.sciencegallery.org).

Second: innovation and entrepreneurship. Increasingly, European students are being trained to be innovative and entrepreneurial, and are getting the opportunity to test out their business ideas. Among universities I’m familiar with, many are involved with the EIT’s knowledge innovation communities (KICs). Universities are now recognised as powerhouses for innovation districts; international in reputation they are also working hand-in-hand with their local city industrial systems promoting research and talent. In Trinity, this is manifested by our student accelerator, LaunchBox, established in 2013, as a competitive forum enabling student teams to raise venture capital and market their business ideas. And we have launched a new campus, Trinity East, to catalyse the Grand Canal Innovation District of Dublin (https://www.tcd.ie/innovation-district/).

Third, for us, is philanthropy. In Ireland, as in other countries, funding to third level is diversifying – public funding remains essential but, in Ireland at least, it is reducing as a proportion of total revenues. In Trinity we have focussed on growing our philanthropic relationships. Launched publicly in May 2019, our first ever comprehensive philanthropic campaign, Inspiring Generations, has now reached its target of €400 million in donations and 150,000 hours of volunteering from alumni and friends. This enables us to deliver on key priority projects and, even more importantly, it has embedded philanthropy into the DNA of the university.

What are the drivers of change? Changing political priorities with regard to funding third level is an obvious driver. And much is happening organically, driven by students, who are well ahead of university leaderships in understanding that the world is changing and the old fixtures are on the wane. It is students who are pushing the exciting progression from traditional disciplinary-based approaches to challenge-based research and education. CHARM-EU showcases this new approach: students identify specific goals around the theme ‘reconciling humanity with the planet’ and they then construct their own curriculum by determining which modules and courses across the five partner universities will be most helpful in meeting their learning goals.

The transformation in the higher education landscape is spearheaded by universities, which is to say staff and students. Public policy at national and EU level needs to clear the way for rapid change. In this context, I really welcome the Higher Education Transformation Agenda, which is an important step towards an EU-wide strategy for higher education. We badly need such a strategy – the changes I’m talking about need to be facilitated and connected across Europe; if we remain too institution- and country-bound, we will not release the innovative, entrepreneurial and challenge-driven potential of our young people. However, any such strategy needs to be properly funded – ambition without funding only leads to frustration.