The Battle of the Irish Colleges

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

It has been stated in a published letter, signed by "a Graduate of the University of Dublin," that this institution is a University in name only; and the statement is a correct representation of the reality. The Letters Patent of Queen Elizabeth incorporated a College as "the Mother of a University," and as a matter of fact the so-called University of Dublin only exists to subserve the purposes of Trinity College, and not to guide or stimulate it. There being no other Colleges to send in competitors to the University Examinations, there has been no public test of the standard of education kept up. Outsiders consequently have had to take its value on the word of those whose interest it was to praise it, and who, in truth, have never missed their opportunity. Monopoly here as elsewhere brought its usual train of evils, and for many years Trinity College merited its name of the "Silent Sister" in more ways than one.

Nothing, perhaps, gives a more striking illustration of this than the contrast which is recorded between the number of resident and the number of non-resident students. A College with a large staff of professors, with a great library, and many inducements, might naturally be expected to attract the larger portion of its enrolled students within its walls, especially when they almost all belong to the wealthier classes of the community.

But what is the fact as revealed by the Report of the Census Commissioners for 1861? They found that on the 17th of May, there were 147 resident, and 926 non-resident students! The resident students were composed of 132 members of the Established Church, 5 Catholics, 4 Presbyterians, and 6 members of other persuasions.

"The total of students for the year 1861," says the Commissioners, "as given by the University calendar, amounted to 1,073, from which if we deduct 147 residents, the remainder, 926, will represent with sufficient probability the number of non-residents."

Engaged in teaching as professors, lecturers, assistants, 58 persons are named in the Dublin Official Directory for last year, to which, if we add 11 preachers, 3 museum curators, and 1 professor, whose chair was then vacant, would give a total of 73. Dividing this number by the number of resident students, we should have as a result each member of the teaching body driving his chariot of education with a tandem team of two students. This would not be quite fair; for the students are not so apportioned, and there are many other considerations to be taken into account.

However, on referring to the tables showing the number of persons receiving instruction "at Colleges of Universities and other Colleges" in the City of Dublin, we find that the total number "attending colleges" during the week ending on the 13th of April was only 161; and if from this we deduct 14 students of a Catholic College, we find the remainder, 147, to correspond with the number of resident students of Trinity College Can there be a flaw proved against these figures? Of anything that would qualify them, and suggest the reasonableness of attributing a greater number of residents, we can find no hint; as the Chief Commissioner is both a Protestant and a graduate of the institution, it is impossible to suppose the existence of either ill-will or of ignorance.

In the Queen's Colleges attendance on lectures is compulsory: students do not reside in the Colleges, as in Trinity College, but lodge in the towns. Non-residence, however, in the sense in which it is understood there—non-attendance on lectures (the students presenting themselves merely at certain periodical examinations)—is not permitted by the regulations of the Queen's University. This, in part, accounts for the fact that the college which some have regarded as the most unprosperous of the three Queen's Colleges —that of Galway—returned 143 students as attending its lectures, a number almost identical with that of the resident students in Trinity College.

The number of persons named as engaged in teaching in the Queen's College, Galway, is only 18.

There are 4 deans of residences, indeed, but they are only nominally connected with the college. Setting aside 13 teachers and assistants in Trinity College as being connected with Divinity and Ecclesiastical History, and the 11 preachers, we should have a remainder of 49. Before a permanent settlement of the Irish University Question can be made, it must be determined whether 18 professors in the Queen's College, Galway, can actually do as much, or nearly as much, work as 49 in Trinity College; and, if so, whether it would not be better to reduce the number in the latter institution, and make a redistribution of salaries. The non-resident students could be affiliated directly to a reformed university, in a manner somewhat similar to that proposed with respect to others under the supplemental charter of the Queen's University.

Trinity College would thus be delivered from that factitious importance it derives from its long roll of absent men. By judicious regulations these men—who seem to dislike going to the Dublin College—might be induced to withdraw from their private "cramming" and attend lectures in some one of the provincial colleges of the new University. If such a scheme as this were adopted, the Catholic University would rank with Trinity College as a denominational establishment, and each could be recognized as the directing head of the superior schools of its own denomination. The mixed system and the denominational system could thus be put on a footing of equality, and be allowed to prove themselves in free and fair competition. This is the plan which finds favour with those who, like Mr. Gladstone, do not think that a multiplication of universities tends to raise or keep up the standard of education. It would of course be easy to make such alterations compatible with a scheme of three universities, and there cannot be a doubt that whilst over multiplication would degrade the standard, a certain amount of competition generally proves wholesome, and hinders education from becoming the victim of an unprogressive and rigid routine.

Supposing the contemplation of a plan which would give the governing councils of Trinity College, the Queen's Colleges, and the Catholic University, directing powers over the secondary colleges or high-schools appropriated to each,—the next question is of their relations to each other in a common university; would there not be too much disproportion between them to permit of their being thus brought together as equals? All inequality would soon sink into insignificance when the non-resident students of Trinity College would be abstracted either by direct affiliation to the university or by being induced to distribute themselves amongst convenient provincial colleges. Indeed taking Trinity College as it is, with the number of resident students given it by the Census Commissioners, and comparing it with the Queen's Colleges, it does not appear to stand even first in numbers. It might of course differ in the future, and the Census Commissioners may have wronged it somehow, but taking their computations we can construct the following table, showing the distribution of students in the year named:—

of the
Catholics Presbyterians Other
Trinity College 132 5 4 6
Queen's College, Belfast 56 22 191 43
Queen's College, Cork 32 40 1 4
Queen's College, Galway 33 84 19 7

Thus the Belfast College, with 312 students, would precede Trinity College, which had but 147—or less than half as many. Galway would follow close upon it, and then Cork, which, however, usually has a larger number of students than Galway. In the Sessions 1864-5 the number of matriculated students attending the Colleges of Belfast, Cork, and Galway was respectively 354, 249, 157, according to the Official Directory. The number of students attending lectures in the Northern College owes part, at least, of its superiority to the fact of many Presbyterian divinity students attending some of their secular lectures there. But, if we deducted the Church of England divinity students from the class-roll of residents in Trinity College, their numbers would be seriously reduced. The Belfast College has only a dozen and a half professors against the four dozen of Trinity; and yet, to believe official figures, it had more than twice as many students at its lectures. Surely there is reason for enquiry here. And to these contrasts must be added the fact that at Trinity College the highest salaries are given to those who do next to nothing. Cleansed and pruned, with its staff reduced and salaries redistributed, there is no reason to fear that the ability of its professors would be cramped or its halls scantily furnished with real students.

It would be most unwise, however, to carry the pruning process to the extreme to which it is now being extended in the Queen's Colleges. To some of the chairs there, totally inadequate salaries have been attached; and in order to enable the professors to live respectably, it has been decided — not to increase those salaries but — to compel one professor to teach three or four subjects; so that by thus occupying several chairs he may collect a sufficient income. Such a system tends directly, and of necessity, to prevent scientific men from assisting in the progress of science.

There was a third institution in Dublin which Sir Robert Peel thought might have been converted into a Metropolitan Queen's College, and which it has been proposed to affiliate to the Dublin University together with the Catholic College. This was the Museum of Irish Industry, which has since been constituted an Irish College of Science. The foundation of this Museum, as well as that of the Queen's University, gave a wholesome shock to the monopolists of the University of Dublin. Their first thought in both instances was to attack, and absorb if possible; and when it was found that that could not well be done they strained their influence to make their supposed rivals "safe." The overwhelming disproportion between Catholic and Protestant professors in colleges destined for a population so largely Catholic, is a testimony to the success of their shrewd foresight with respect to the Queen's University. Happily for them, perhaps, but unhappily for the prospective popularity of the new College of Science, their Conservative friends have taken up the plan for it in the same spirit. In addition to the college complication, we have been given another, and the public will quickly appreciate this new example of the skill of Conservative politicians in building ruins. But, as in the question of Reform, these tricks and stratagems will precipitate, rather than delay, a more radical revision of the whole question.