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Bringing students from the North back to Trinity can help build a shared future


Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College Dublin

Earlier this year, at the inauguration of Northern Irish judge Donnell Deeny as Pro-Chancellor of Trinity College, I was gobsmacked to learn of the sharp decline in student numbers from the North at Trinity.

In 2012 there were only 85 entrants from the North out of a total of 3,755 first-years. On taking office in 2011 new provost Patrick Prendergast made recruitment from the North one of his priority issues. Trinity, since its foundation in 1592, was "a university for the whole of Ireland" and he wanted to return to that position.

In my Trinity college days, nearly a third of the students were from the North, greatly adding to the social religious and cultural mix of the college experience. For one thing, they always had money thanks to NI grants, while those of us from the Republic survived on parental support or part-time menial jobs.

As a result, great parties were thrown when grant monies came in, usually in the coveted "rooms" in College. In my year, of the 44 law students a third were from the North of both denominations. Inevitably, many cross-border relationships - and, indeed, marriages - followed as a result. Trinity was unique in having such diversity and at times the College acted as a bridge between both sides of the border during difficult times.

So where have all the Northerners gone? The declining numbers are a source of dismay to the College authorities and the extensive alumni from the North.

Over the centuries Trinity played a unique role in diversity by attracting those with British and Irish allegiance; a centre of excellence where students accessed a progressive liberal education.

Although banned by the Catholic hierarchy until the 1970s, thousands of Catholics like myself have had the privilege of a Trinity education. In the repressive decades of the '70s and 80s, Trinity was an oasis of progressive liberal values and debate.

During the Troubles many students from the North stayed following graduation and entered the various professions here in the Republic and excelled in all sectors, ranging from the arts to academia and the law.

The Provost's mission to reverse the decline involved an ambitious and intensive engagement programme. He and his team visited dozens of schools and careers fairs across the North, reconnecting with schools, parents, teachers and alumni.

From this engagement emerged the main culprit for the declining numbers: the fact that only one in seven students in the North takes four A-levels, which is the standard required for entrance to Trinity. But there were other reasons, such as a lack of familiarity with the CAO application process and a general lack of information about universities in other jurisdictions.

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Trinity has now developed an initiative which means that from September 2015 they will admit a number of students from the North looking purely at the best three A-levels of the applicant. This is part of a feasibility study to enhance the admission of A-level students from across the EU.

Students from the North are also eligible for all the regular places, which will be filled in the usual CAO way.

This collaborative initiative was welcomed by the Irish Government and the Minister of Education in the North, Mr John O'Dowd

Student mobility between the Republic and the North is clearly politically desirable, and in line with the spirit and intent of the peace process and aspirations for a shared future.

But the Provost stressed he was also keen to support cross-border student mobility.

As President of the Irish Universities Association, he is working with his counterpart in the Institutes of Technology Ireland, President Paul Hannigan, and colleagues in the North to that end.

The intention is to ensure that the numbers return to at least 300 students a year from the North, which is in line with the proportions from other counties, the EU and international students. Already the initiative and advocacy in the North has resulted in an increase in numbers per year of 80 to 90.

In this year of centenaries and commemoration of our shared war past and British heritage, which thankfully can now be honoured without fear, efforts such as this by Trinity should be welcomed and built upon by other universities.

The essential compromise in the Good Friday Agreement was that although the North remained part of the United Kingdom until the majority decide otherwise, the border would be perforated or blurred by cross-border institutions and cooperation, enabling friendly cultural and political relationships to thrive in peace.

Trinity has long provided that shared British/Irish academic and cultural space in Dublin; it should be treasured.