Irish universities set global standards in education, research and industrial collaborations

Irish universities set global standards in education, research and industrial collaborations

Andrew J. Deeks, President, University College Dublin, an institution that is focused on building a sustainable and healthy world, digital transformation and empowering humanity


University College Dublin (UCD) is Ireland’s largest university; it is one of Europe’s leading research-intensive universities and ranks within the top 1 percent of higher education institutions worldwide. As its president and the first Australian national to lead an Irish university, you must have an interesting point of view on Ireland’s higher education system. How competitive is it in the global context?

I think the Irish higher education system can stand head and shoulders with any of the best higher education systems in the world. Certainly, the quality of the education that students receive and the quality of the student experience is right up there with the best. We have a quality control system that is equivalent to the quality control system in the U.K. The U.K. and Ireland probably set the standard in terms of quality control in higher education, with things like the external examiner system across all subject areas, with an external quality control check on the procedures that the universities have, as well as the standard internal check. So I think that the quality of the education is right up there, amongst the best.

At the same time, we have research that is world class and you can see the impact of some of our research over this period of pandemic. Many of the researchers that we have in Irish universities are attracted from some of the best research groups around the world. Ireland is a great place to work, it’s a great place to raise a family and, of course, it’s an English-speaking environment, which is welcoming for people from all around the world—people such as myself, who come from the other side of the world.


What are some of the key issues at stake in the sector at the moment?

The funding of higher education tends to be an issue around the world, and is also one in Ireland. Participation rates in higher education have gone up everywhere and Ireland has the highest participation rate in Europe, so it’s not surprising that the public funding of higher education has come under significant pressure.

At UCD, we’ve worked hard to bring in non-exchequer income, so that the direct funding at the university over the last 10 years or so has gone from a situation where two-thirds of the university’s operating budget came from government grants, to the situation now where two-thirds of our income comes through other sources, such as student fees, commercial activities and so on. We have been able to expand the university, in terms of faculty numbers and in terms of income, despite significant cuts in direct government funding. Looking to our own resources and welcoming students from around the world are clearly part of the improvements we have made.


UCD has a history spanning 160 years and currently counts over 30,000 students. How does it stand out in the Irish and global academic landscape?

UCD is a comprehensive university, with expertise across all of the major subject areas. We’re strong in the sciences and health sciences, but also in the arts, humanities and social sciences, in business, law, engineering and architecture—so we have this broad range of expertise where students within their learning journeys can take electives from outside of their main discipline area to complement their majors, and to ensure that they can follow their interests at the same time as being instructed by leading academics in a discipline area.

We also have a fantastic campus, with 133 hectares of parkland and playing pitches, alongside great student facilities such as a 50-meter indoor swimming pool, high performance gyms, theater and cinema. The whole student experience can be enjoyed on the main campus. We have great on-campus residences and our new student residence master plan is adding not just 3,000 extra bed spaces, but also a village hub. There will be retail activity, there’ll be restaurants, bars, gyms and places for students to meet and socialize. The campus is more of a village or even a city than just a university campus for learning.


How has the university contributed to the global response to COVID-19 and how have its activities been impacted by the pandemic?

In terms of helping society respond to the virus, UCD hosts the National Virus Reference Laboratory, which did all of the early testing for the virus here in Ireland and continues to oversee the testing program for the government. The first contact-tracing center in the country was established within our facilities on the campus. That has continued throughout the pandemic.

As our College of Health Sciences has a network of acute hospitals, our researchers have been conducting a range of studies including genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome to learn about the transmission routes of the virus, analysis of patients with severe acute respiratory infection and clinical trials of specific drugs used to treat COVID-19 patients that all feed into the international body of research tackling the pandemic. There is a whole range of research projects going on and I’ve just touched on a couple of them here.

From the students’ perspective, the university reacted very quickly to move teaching and learning online to the greatest extent possible. We were able to do that very effectively when the initial restrictions were placed on us and have accompanied our students on their learning journeys without any significant interruption. Students down to graduate during the summer were able to graduate in online ceremonies. In particular, we facilitated the early graduation of doctors and nurses, so they could go out and take their place in the frontline in the battle against the virus.

Generally, we were able to continue all of our students on their learning journeys. During this academic year, we’ve been able to have some students back in laboratories, clinics and studios, doing practical classes on campus, but the majority of the teaching has remained at distance to preserve the safety of our students and our broader university community. We still have a good number of students residing on the university campus, and we’ve been looking after them. We’ve ensured that there haven’t been any major outbreaks of COVID-19 within the resident community on the campus.


UCD has released its strategic plan for 2020-2024. Can you disclose some of the main goals and elements of this plan?

Our new strategic plan for the period 2020-2024 is called “Rising to the Future.” It was launched in early December 2019, prior to the pandemic hitting. There are four strategic pillars around which we intend to shape everything that we do as a university: the teaching and learning, the research and innovation, and the way we function as an institution. These four strategic pillars are: creating a sustainable global society, transforming through digital technology, building a healthy world and empowering humanity. We have just gone through a process of reexamining that strategy, in light of learnings over the last year, and we see that those strategic themes are probably even more relevant now than they were prior to the pandemic—particularly building a healthy world, where the health of all living things on the planet matters. The experience that we’ve had over the last year is showing just how true that is. We see that, from the university perspective, we’re well placed to take forward our activities along each of those theme areas post pandemic.

The themes also support the objectives of increasing the quality, quantity and impact of our research. That’s being supported by research funding. The number of research grants we’ve been winning both within the country and within the European context has been increasing over the last few years, and there’s been a boost over the last two years in particular. There is a passion within the university to ensure that those are not just things we’re researching, not just things we’re teaching about, but things that we’re actually living.

We’re looking at how we can reduce the carbon footprint of the university and are investigating putting in a deep geothermal well to help us sustainably heat the campus. We look at reducing the power we use and we’ve been transforming the lighting throughout the university to move to low-power LED lights. We are looking at how we move our employees and students to using more sustainable modes of transport. We’ve been able to very significantly increase the number of students and employees who are cycling, walking or using public transport, as opposed to driving cars. Within those people still using cars, we’re looking at how we can move them toward electric vehicles. There are a whole range of initiatives to ensure that we have a truly green campus and a truly sustainable university community.


The Irish government allocated an estimated €870 million to research and development activities last year in an effort to make Ireland a global innovation leader. How does UCD contribute to boosting national research input and what are some highlights of your recent research programs that you’d like to share with our readers?

We have a program for developing major strategic partnerships with industry partners, businesses like Microsoft, Intel and Huawei; banks like the Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks; some of the big accounting firms; some of the medtech companies; and so on. We have major strategic partnerships, where we have senior leaders from both sides—often myself and the CEO or country vice president from the other side. We have teams that look at what’s being done, at what can be done in collaboration between the company and the university, and we are able to identify opportunities. When there are funding opportunities that come up, say through the Higher Education Authority, then we’re already well placed to put in proposals together with our industry partners.

There’s a lot of activity that happens under those partnerships, on the research side, and on the teaching and learning side, where companies may sponsor either programs or scholarships for students to become involved in programs. Those programs may include internships with the companies, for example, so it’s a holistic engagement with some of these major multinationals. It’s a real advantage that Ireland has that those companies based here. Ireland is a small place, in three hours from Dublin you can drive to anywhere in the country, so it makes engagement with the multinationals—be they based in Dublin, Galway or anywhere else—very accessible for our students.


UCD has an impressive proportion of international students at close to 30 percent. It positions itself as a global university, and the university of choice for international students coming to Ireland. What is your strategy for promoting the university internationally?

UCD is very much Ireland’s global university and we welcome students from all around the world. The largest proportion of our international students come from the U.S., then China and India follow that. In normal years, our Chinese students plus Indian students together are about the same in number as those coming from the U.S. Then we have 40 percent of our international students coming from other European countries.

Overall, we attract students from 144 countries right around the world and are not just dominated by one nationality. That means that we’re effectively able to bring the best of the world to Ireland, and the best of Ireland to the world—we send our students out through exchange programs right around Europe and the world. Almost 20 percent of undergraduates have some form of international study-abroad experience with us. That’s a big part of our strategy.

Those connections also allow to have research collaborations with universities around the world—universities in Europe obviously giving us access in terms of putting together large proposals for European Union (EU) funding—but also broader collaborations that take our research all the way around the world. In terms of promoting that, we do have global centers located in Delhi, Beijing and New York, with satellites in Chicago, San Francisco, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. Those global centers allow us to both recruit students from those regions, to facilitate our students to go out to those regions and build partnerships more generally. That’s proved extremely effective during this particular period of time where it’s been difficult to have our staff members traveling overseas. Our global centers are still there and functioning on the ground in the different countries, and so we have those global centers to facilitate our interaction with each of those regions.

We also have three joint international colleges in China, which has allowed us to continue teaching students on the ground in China right through this pandemic. Those three colleges are located in different regions of China and they cover different disciplines, so there is a diversity of our connection there.


Some have suggested that, as the EU’s only remaining totally English-speaking country, Ireland’s higher education and research will gain from Brexit and the nation can become the top Erasmus destination. Would you agree with this proposition and what impact will Brexit have on UCD specifically?

Brexit is very much an opportunity for Irish higher education. We haven’t historically taken large numbers of students from the U.K. so, from that perspective, we’re not going to be affected negatively. We will now be the largest English-speaking university within the EU and are uniquely positioned, particularly in terms of the Erasmus program but also with Horizon Europe coming up. The U.K. has bought into some strands of that program but not all of it, so we’re very well positioned to take a leadership role in those particular schemes. From the point of view of engagement with Europe, we see this as being a positive.

I think the negative part in terms of disruption of goods traveling from mainland U.K. to Ireland is an annoyance rather than anything else, but it’s not impacting us to be honest. From the university perspective, we see Brexit as being mostly opportunity, although we very much regret the U.K.’s decision. We see the EU as being a very positive thing for Ireland.


This is your eighth year at the helm of UCD. What would you most like to accomplish during the remainder of your term?

Over the last seven years, we’ve really been able to move from a situation that was the result of the global financial crisis, which had really strong negative economic effects on Ireland. There were very significant cutbacks in terms of funding of higher education as part of a general reduction in public services. When I came to Dublin at the beginning of 2014, there were no cranes anywhere on the Dublin horizon, building sites had been shut down and abandoned, and the country was in a pretty dire situation. The cuts to university funding continued for a couple of years after I came but, despite that, we’ve been able to see positive growth throughout everything we’ve done as a university.

We’ve be able to increase our research output by more than 30 percent over the past seven years and we’ve been able to build our employee numbers up to a higher level than they were at the peak of the “Celtic-tiger” years. The university is now in a more robust and better place than it was at the height of that period, in terms of research product, in terms of the experience of the students, from a teaching and learning perspective, and in terms of its overall trajectory. We’ve been able to build back from the damage that was done through the age of austerity so that the university is very well positioned now to contribute to the major global challenges going forward, and to provide students with a world-class educational experience.


Do you have a final message for our readers?

Ireland remains a country of opportunity. It’s open, flexible and engaged, it welcomes people from all around the world. The Irish people are well educated, hardworking and ready to get on with the job. As the world rebuilds from the COVID-19 pandemic, you will see Ireland flourish again and lead that recovery.


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