Would you recommend UCD to future students?

Would you recommend UCD to future students? Nathan Young and Michael Bergin debate

YES – Nathan Young

There are a few criteria for recommending a University. What they want to study, what they want to get out of studying, where they currently live, and how much money they have all come to mind. This is all stated by way of disclaimer, that is to say - UCD is not inherently “better” than any other Higher Education institution in Ireland, merely that it is the best option for at least some people. UCD degrees look great for employers, so if improving one’s chances of getting a job is the aim, UCD is a good shout. University rankings published by organisations like Times Higher Education consistently put UCD near the top of Ireland’s rankings. TCD usually ranks higher, of course, but TCD also tends to have tougher entry requirements, so having UCD somewhere on the CAO form is not a poor shout. 

None of this is to dismiss the reasons current students may resent UCD. The University is poorly managed, the Library is underfunded, the PhD workers are underpaid and overworked, and the fundraising missions get far too much attention. Some claim this is because UCD has become too focused on profit. While it is the case that certain financial decisions in UCD are frankly stupid, such as the €7.5m office renovations for President Deeks’ office, the problem is in fact sector-wide. In 2014, The Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education was established “to identify and consider issues related to the long term sustainable funding of higher education in Ireland and to identify funding options for the future”. In 2016, the group's findings were published in what became known as the Cassells report. Without simply reprinting the entire document, the next best thing is to publish these points from the executive summary of what is needed:

Core Funding: Additional annual funding of €600 million by 2021 and €1 billion by 2030 to deliver higher quality outcomes and provide for increased demographics. This will allow an improvement in student:staff ratios, better engagement with students, and improved support services for teachers and students. This will underpin the quality of teaching and learning, the relevance of graduates’ competencies and abilities and improve completion rates.

Capital Funding: A capital investment programme of €5.5 billion is needed over the next 15 years to sufficiently cater for increased student numbers, capital upgrades, health and safety issues, equipment renewal and ongoing maintenance.

Student Support: An additional €100 million is needed to deliver a more effective system of student financial aid.

Since 2016, there has been an abject failure from the government to act on these findings or anything else in the report. In fact, in 2019 it was sent to the European Commission for consideration, as if kicking the can further down the road was a viable solution. That €5.5 billion capital investment is not only not on track to being funded, but the Pandemic has only added to the strain placed on the sector. Far more money is needed for Health and Safety than was originally foreseen.

Then, what about UCD’s unique nonsense with its own money? It was recently reported in this paper that the Library would need €200,000 to resume full operating hours under Covid-19 restrictions. This is money UCD has. Surely, then, UCD should cough up and open the libraries for longer? Perhaps. It’s also true that UCD hasn’t resumed funding the libraries to pre-’08 levels. However, almost every other university has closed their library for this lockdown. The opening and running of the libraries would also be achieved a lot easier if that core funding from the Cassells report was introduced, wouldn’t it?

The next point is that the issues in UCD may seem unique, but they are not. In NUIG, for example, the repeat fee is €295, well over UCD’s €230. This isn’t to say UCD is any better than NUIG, simply that once one looks outside of one’s own immediate surroundings might lead one to see that the grass is not always greener. Last year’s efforts to fight back against 4% year-on-year increases to on-campus rent were mirrored in NUIG, DCU, and UCC. UL was planning on combining its rent increases with a change from individual rooms to shared dormitories.

Then, there are simply aspects of UCD life that are brilliant. Very little to do with the administration of course, but they are nevertheless part of why one may pick their preferred university. For wannabe journalists, campus media has an excellent track record, with alumni of campus media dominating the country’s newspapers and broadcasters. UCD’s Student Advisors provide a world-class service that is not bested by any other university, and a nation-wide adoption of the Student Advisory services would benefit all students. While all other institutions have their Student Societies, it’s hard to deny that the facilities and activities of UCD are among the best also.

Ultimately, a student may well do better to pick a different college because it performs better at the course they want, or because it is closer to their home, or because Dublin rent in general is high. But to think of UCD as some uniquely dreadful college is to ignore not only the world-class teaching that happens here, but also the simple fact that the monetary issues are symptoms of years of sector underfunding. It is simply naïve to think otherwise.

Rebuttal – Michael Bergin

With regard to UCD’s suitability as a university that I would recommend to future students, I think the fact that the proposing argument raises just as many reasons not to go to UCD as I did, is all you need to know.

However, I had decided to take a comical approach, while my colleague decided to get some cold, hard facts. Boy, do they speak for themselves.

The financial mismanagement at the top of UCD seems to have extended to a level that even ex-FIFA Chief Sepp Blatter may call “a bit much”. €7.5 million for an office renovation? They don’t advertise that figure quite as much as they advertise being the second-best university in Dublin.

Though my colleague argues that this is nothing out of the ordinary, as other colleges in Ireland are just as shaky with their finances, I was still left wondering; Is that enough to warrant a recommendation? If UCD truly wanted to be worthy of recommending, it should clean up its act, and lead from the front, not tag along behind because 'well, everybody else is doing it'. This kind of ad populum embrace of structural problems is a joke, and a sick one at that.

Finally, while UCD shares some aspects of financial mismanagement with other colleges, my colleague argues that this does not make it a “uniquely dreadful college”. However, my colleague then goes on to examine UCD’s “Unique nonsense with its own money”. Forgive me if this sounds a little UCD-specific, or am I just being naïve?

To conclude, UCD has some enjoyable elements, though not enough to overpower its downsides. And not even nearly enough to warrant a recommendation to a poor, unsuspecting fresher.

No – Michael Bergin

College, fundamentally, is a place that is fuelled by the asking of questions, the insatiable curiosity that young people possess for the world around them, and the desire to find answers to once-unanswerable problems. However, since arriving in UCD, one question seems to have played on my mind far more than any other.

Is that it?

Is this what all the excitement was for? Congratulations, you’ve arrived in UCD, a place so big you’re not even a small fish in a big pond, you’re a bottom feeder in the ocean. Get ready to give up your name for an eight-digit student number, cause there’s absolutely no chance any of your lecturers will know you by anything else. You’re in Dublin’s second-best degree-printing institution now, and an expensive one at that.

To begin with, UCD is probably the ugliest campus in Ireland. It must have been some sort of sick practical joke to locate an architecture department on a campus that looks like the Death Star, if the Death Star was constructed by the Soviet Union during an economic crisis. You will find there’s nothing more relaxing than a break overlooking our trademark square lake, with water so rancid falling in will earn you a tetanus shot. Still, at least it makes a decent, if somewhat disgusting, background for grad photos. Perhaps, if you’re more artistically inclined, you could visit UCD’s prime sculptural achievement, the massive egg outside the science building, or the pointless, multi-coloured squiggle outside the Student centre. Revolutionary stuff.

Alas, it is probably unfair to judge a book by its cover, even if the cover is extremely off-putting (the bloody logo says UCD Dublin). What UCD should pride itself on is the notable academics that have come from the University, and credit where credit is due, some of the greatest figures in Irish history have passed through the college. A fact you’ll find, UCD is only too aware of. 

Should you ever have the misfortune to be invited to an awards ceremony in UCD, brace yourself for a barrage of ceremonial pomp that would make even the royal family blush. The ridiculous robes, with different colours for different school heads, the floppy crown adorned by our dear President Deeks, even the string quartet that plays as these academic deities march into the O’Reilly hall. It all just smacks of self-aggrandisement rather than a genuine appreciation of academic achievement. It’s a congregation of teachers, not the council of Elrond.

Perhaps, though, teachers may be the wrong word. 'Lecturers' is probably far more suitable. It is quite likely that Google will teach you the vast majority of the material on your course. In most cases, however, the lack of a close engagement felt with course material and lecturers is not the fault of said lecturers. It is simply the sheer scale of the place. In a college of 30,000 people, it takes a very loud voice indeed to be heard.

And who have we to listen to our voices, then? Our Students’ Union, an institution that puts the bananas into Banana Republic. A glorified hoodie-ordering committee, they seem to have markedly more interest in carnal affairs (such as last week’s seminar on how BDSM works) than in college affairs. Not that they even have a mandate to challenge any decisions the powers that be in UCD make. At the last SU elections, the eye-wateringly low figure of 4% was given as the official turnout. The contest for president was unchallenged. All this means inadequate student representation when big decisions are made in UCD, which leads to farcical decrees such as the recent plan to hike fees by 12%.

This brings me nicely to my next point, the cost of the place. Dublin is one of the most expensive cities in Europe (somehow), and despite this, little or no effort is made to alleviate these costs. In fact, as the recent rate hike has shown, the powers that be in UCD actively couldn’t care less. And have fun trying to keep up your weekend job too. Most lecturers will expect you to care only for college work at the weekend, and if you can’t afford to go without a job, well that’s your fault for being poor I guess.

All told, UCD is a college of exclusivity, with a degree of self-importance that it has no right to hold. It does not rank within the top 100 Universities worldwide by most measures, and it also rarely even ranks as the best university in Dublin. Incessant bragging about being the biggest college in Ireland invites only ridicule and highlights the structural focus on quantity over quality.

Of course, UCD is not all bad. There are a plethora of student societies that can offer real friendships and meaningful connections. The problem is that UCD’s incompetent side, its administrative, bureaucratic, condescending, self-serving and over-confident side, very often seems to drown out the joys that these societies can offer. 

There are good people in UCD. Some of the finest friends you will ever meet, you will meet in UCD. But at an administrative level, at an institutional level, and ultimately as a college, it will leave many more questions frustratingly vague than it can ever hope to answer.

Rebuttal to No - Nathan Young

Well, there’s actually relatively little substance to disagree with here, although I don’t know if that means the argument is over or not.

A prospective student is almost certainly looking at going to college, and so a lot of the points are mute. Being given a student number is a pretty bog-standard practice, so that certainly isn’t a point against UCD. If not being recognised by your lecturers is an issue for any particular student, then perhaps said student should sit at the front and ask interesting questions. Everyone else seems to understand that first-year classes aren’t where academics make friends. Again, this is not unique to UCD, although it’s well worth adding that most undergraduates who care to engage have become at least acquainted with a few members of faculty by the time they leave.

As far as campus being ugly is concerned, brutalism is good. Actually, and one would do well to learn that a university is not measured by how closely it shares its aesthetic with Hogwarts.

The pomp and circumstance of the very start and very end of one’s degrees are quite ceremonious, but 1. no more so than any other University in Ireland and 2. happen twice a degree, once at the start and once at the end. If these two ceremonies are too much to bear for a prospective student, then they are dodging the bullets of tutorials, lectures, and essay deadlines by skipping on Higher Education.

Finally, the critique of UCDSU. A singular BDSM workshop does not an indictment make. There is plenty to criticise and plenty they do wrong, but again that’s no reason to avoid UCD in its entirety. The makeup and nature of the Students' Union change from year to year, and therefore the SU that will represent any prospective student will not be the current one anyway.

UCD is terrible in so many ways, but they are almost all systemic issues in Higher Education. Fight against those instead, because they will follow you to any and every college in Ireland.