Maynooth University brings a qualitative, multidisciplinary difference to students and industry partners

Maynooth University brings a qualitative, multidisciplinary difference to students and industry partners

Philip Nolan, President, Maynooth University, describes how the digital future cuts across all of the dynamic institution’s highly ranked education and research activities


Ireland has one of the best education systems in the world, with a number of highly ranked prestigious institutions, including Maynooth University, which is located 25 kilometers out of Dublin and is one of Ireland’s fastest growing universities. Overall, how competitive is the Irish higher education system in the global context?

It’s extremely competitive in a global context. Ireland is a young country that has been independent since 1921. It only had two universities until the late 1970s. It’s an old culture and people think of us as having a long path for development, but it’s only recently independent. It also hasn’t been a wealthy country until very recently, so, given the amount of resources the state had to invest in education, it’s remarkable how good the system is.

The reason for this is that it has always been a globally connected system: the advantage of its youth, the advantage of its newness. For a long time, in order to do any kind of advanced training, at doctoral or post-doctoral level, you needed to go abroad, so almost all of our academics were trained in the U.K. until very recently, or in the U.S., European, Australian or New Zealand systems. Our higher education system has always been immediately informed by practices and innovation internationally. That is its great strength. In biomedical sciences, for instance, there was always a very strong link between Ireland and the U.S., Canada and the UK. All of our academics would have trained in one of those systems and it’s the same in the health system.

To summarize, Ireland has as a very highly performing higher education system operating by international standards on very lean resources, and its strength is based on global connectedness. One of the risks of that is that this global connection is very Anglophone. The country, and even more so since Brexit, needs to build stronger links. The European Union (EU) has been transformative for Ireland. A lot of our success is based on the influence of EU membership and, at the same time, so many of our links have been through Britain or with the U.S. We need to recalibrate our global orientation, so that we basically become less Anglo centric or Anglo-American centric and more Eurocentric. It’s an important challenge for us in the coming years.


Maynooth University is quite young and is ranked at number 43 in the global top-100 universities under 50 years old by Times Higher Education. Can you give us an overview of the university and some of its key attributes?

In one sense, we are very new but we actually trace our history way back to 1795. The university grew inside a seminary for the education of Catholic priests and then became independent in 1997. Maynooth University now has about 13,000 students—small by international standards, but it has doubled in size in 10 years, so it has seen huge growth. Because of its history, it has great strength in the arts, humanities and social sciences, but also in science and engineering. Relatively recently, we’ve added schools of business and law to that. Ten years ago, our strengths were social sciences, science and engineering, and teacher education, like a very good normal school. Then we added schools in business and law, so we have quite a strong portfolio now.

In terms of research, we have extensive strength in the science and engineering area, climate change, sustainability and wireless communications—so, we have a strong sustainability and digital focus. In the social sciences, we are very interested in social inclusion, human rights and, on a related topic, the social impact of technical innovation. On the one hand, we can create expertise in what our digital future is going to be and then, with our social sciences expertise, what is it going to be like living in that digital future: so human rights, digital futures and disability inclusion. And then we also have very broad interest in humanities, in cultures and literatures, but again, it’s a digital humanities space that we’re interested in. Digital cuts right across our science, social sciences and humanities activities.


Maynooth University is also a university with ambition, vision and values. Can you disclose some of the main highlights of your strategic plan for 2018-2022, and how would you summarize your main goals and vision?

I would summarize it in three big spaces: research, postgraduate education and international. The growth of the university over the last decade has allowed us to hire really top-class research faculty. In our new business school, for instance, the faculty members have among the strongest research records in the country, because we’ve been able to go out and hire them just in the last five years. We weren’t carrying any deadweight there and we had the opportunity, as we expanded, to hire over two-thirds of our current faculty new. The growth of the university has allowed us to hire really excellent faculty.

Excellent faculty now allows us to plan for strategic enhancement in three areas, building even better research, particularly building interdisciplinary research across our strengths that address major societal challenges, like climate change and our digital future. Human rights, technology and disability are also an important specific research project for us. We are bringing those different strengths together: consolidating our research strength and using that research strength to build a whole new layer of postgraduate education at master’s and doctoral level, right across humanities, social sciences, science business and all fields.

At the same time, we are strengthening our international partnerships and our international recruitment. 16 percent of people working in Ireland right now were not born in Ireland, so our economy is enormously dependent on skilled migration. One of the things that universities can do is support that skilled migration by offering the opportunity to learn in Ireland, and then some of the people who come here to learn will stay, work and contribute.

Those are the three big components of our plan: research, postgraduate education and internationalization. All of them are focused on our core areas of competency and strength, and enabled by building partnerships with enterprise, government or international partners.


Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris recently announced an investment of €193 million in five Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Research Centers at Maynooth University. How are you planning to allocate these funds?

Software engineering is one area that we’re heavily engaged in: data science and wireless networks. We are planning on making a big contribution to SFI-funded research in those particular areas. We have a specific expertise, for instance, in the actual wireless part of the wireless network. In other words, how you would send those radio signals efficiently. A lot of our work on social sciences and our interdisciplinary work is also funded by the European Union (EU), so we do also make some important contributions to the SFI around societal adaptation of new technologies, what drives people toward or away from a given new technology. A fourth area we are highly involved in is the societal impact and societal adaptation to digital technologies.

Obviously the funds are invested in doing the research, but the human capital outcomes are also quite important for us. We’ve prioritized investment in doctoral studentships, for people to do their PhDs or their postdoctoral training. For a country like Ireland, what matters is highly trained people who can apply technologies in industry, who can absorb new ways of doing things in society or who are sufficiently highly trained that they can make these new things work in our world. If you train somebody as a doctoral graduate at 30, they’re productive for 35-40 years as a highly trained individual. So we are focused on that space, the digital space, and focused on investment in people and their training, as much as investment in the conduct of research and the new findings.


How has the university contributed to the global response to COVID-19?

There has been an extraordinary academic mobilization across the university system around COVID. Maynooth University has been doing work on the psychological disruption and distress resulting COVID: how patients are feeling. The focus of that project was the psychological impact on vulnerable people. We’ve been also looking at the treatment of COVID and people with liver disease, a very specific project. We’ve done a lot of work around disease modeling and forecasting. We have a beautiful piece of research that was profiled in the New York Times: our colleague Elisa Fadda has been looking at the structure of the spike protein on the coronavirus, in particular the sugar molecules that form part of the structure and that will be important for vaccine design.

This researcher is Sardinian—there’s a flow of people who come and work in our institutions. We get Irish people who train internationally and people trained internationally who come to Ireland. It’s a real feature of our system. If you go into any university department in Ireland, almost everybody has either trained outside Ireland or is from outside Ireland. 60-70 percent of faculty members are Irish but they’re all trained outside Ireland, while 30-40 percent of faculty members are not Irish. That dynamism is really important to us.

So, overall we have engaged in diverse research on COVID: psychology, immunology and liver disease, mathematical modeling and statistics have been a big part of what we do: mapping the pandemic. And then, there is that chemical work that we’re very proud of on the spike protein and its characteristics.


How does Maynooth University cooperate with the local industry ecosystem and how are you working to take advantage of the many multinational corporations that are in Ireland?

We’re literally 5 kilometers from a very large Intel fabrication facility, so we literally have some of these multinationals on our doorstep. Maynooth is 25 kilometers from the center of Dublin city and, as is typical for a city, some of the major enterprises are located on the edge of it, right next to us. We’ve got very strong connections with Intel, Microsoft and a number of the major pharmaceutical companies. Kerry Group is an Irish multinational in the food sector and, again, has a major facility right next door to us. We have strong research links with all of these.

You could divide our partnerships into three components: a research component, an education component—so for a group like Intel, our physics and data science graduates would go there—but the third and hidden component is the importance to those enterprises of our business and law graduates for management regulation. Technology partners need not only technology research and technology graduates, but also business and strategy research, and legal graduates.

As example: we have two partnerships with Microsoft. One is in the area of how technology can be used to enhance science learning at elementary and high school levels, and the other, completely different, is about how to map parts of the country in very great detail using drones. With a tech company, you can span the full range from the social science and the sociological aspect, to how people use technologies for society, hardcore analytics and technological problems like mapping land use from on-land vehicles—it’s everything from using technology in the classroom to huge data sets in drones.

We’re looking at research for high-end manufacturing on one hand, and research on business innovation and business processes on the other—the whole spectrum, from traditional engineering research out to strategy, innovation and technology impact.


Maynooth University has 13,000 students from more than 90 countries. How is it working to further increase its global reach, and to appeal to more international students, researchers and professors?

Internationalization is about simply building our reputation in the traditional sense. Our research is a big brand builder for us. Our position in the university rankings has been strengthened over time. We are in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings top 400 and for a decade we have been in the top 200 for international outlook, top 200 in Europe and top 100 under 50 years of age. Presence and maintaining that presence is really important to us.

Another thing we’re doing is to strongly grow our presence in parts of the world where we want to build stronger links. Our approach within the Europe is to build strong links with partner universities through the EU, building on Erasmus and trying to strengthen our teaching partnerships with research partnerships. In the U.S., it’s similar: we bring a lot of students from the U.S. and Canada. In China, again, it’s a question of partnership with really good universities. A very big step forward for us was to establish a joint college with Fuzhou University. We’ll have somewhere around 2,000 students in China and Chinese students here studying joint degrees between Maynooth and Fuzhou. We were already at 900 on that campus. China is a huge partner and having a presence on the ground there makes a large difference to your visibility in terms of attracting not just students but faculty.

It really is about visibility. About what can you do to establish that visibility. For us, in parts of the world that we’re better known in, it’s done through building academic collaborations. And further afield like China, it’s about having a physical presence on the ground and being visibly there.


Brexit will probably have a mostly negative impact on Ireland this year. In the long run, Ireland could gain benefits in the higher education field as the only de-facto English-speaking country in the EU. How has Maynooth University prepared for Brexit?

Brexit is a permanent negative for Ireland. It’s a real shame. It’ll cause short-term economic damage and it is a long-term disadvantage to have your neighboring island outside a partnership that has been working very effectively since 1973. Given the damage it’s going to do, and the pain it’s going to cause, we should make the most of any opportunities. We were already creating a distinctive brand for Ireland. Again it’s a question of building that brand and visibility.

Before Brexit became a reality, our colleagues across Ireland and at the ministry were doing a great deal of work to make it clear to international students and enterprises that Ireland has some unique advantages, such as its great connection to North America, to Europe and to the U.K.; it’s young, dynamic, innovative, safe and friendly, with a very strong cultural mix, which is also one of the reasons that major international enterprises settle in Dublin. Ireland is a very comfortable place for Europeans to live: it’s quite a cosmopolitan country and city. Multinationals find that their international workforces are very comfortable here, and they’ve got access to talent, some of which is homegrown, but an increasing proportion of which is people from across Europe and the world who’ve chosen to live in Ireland.

The opportunities for us are sort of an amplification of that. We are marketing ourselves, for instance, to Chinese, Indian and South American students as exactly that: an English-speaking country, on the edge of Europe and part of the EU—so as a young student or enterprise in those countries, by coming here you gain access to that union, not just access to the holy grail of an English-language education that is so important to everybody, which is certainly an advantage for us. The opportunity is to be a destination for those people who seek either to complete their education in an English-speaking country that’s part of the EU or to businesses that seek to establish a base in the EU that has these very strong historical connections to North America.

The challenge is that, as a society, we have always been very Anglo centric or Anglo-American centric and membership of the EU has been transformative because it has made us cosmopolitan. The sense of innovation and dynamism in the country results from our emergence from a very agrarian strict catholic past, where everybody was told what to think and had no money, to now being open to the world. We don’t have just our perspective, we have the perspective of all of the European member nations and different cultures, different languages.

It’s a very different country to the one I grew up in: this sense of excitement, diversity and diversity of thoughts wasn’t there when I was a child in the 1970s. It really changes the way people think, it changes the way people act and it creates this enormous creativity. All of that came to us as we began to become part of the EU and realized there are other ways of working and other ways of thinking.

Yet we also realized that we haven’t paid sufficient attention to building strong relationships with each of the European member nations, aside from the U.K. We’ve got a big piece of recalibration to do around our attention, for instance, to Erasmus networks and encouraging more of our students to learn in Europe, to learn modern European languages, to become familiar with going directly and engaging directly without the support of our big and wealthy neighbor. It has exposed a little weakness.

Our education system should have a more global outlook and less focus on the British Isles and our lost cousins in North America who emigrated there in the 1800s. We need to open up the scope of our curriculum, so that we think more about Europe and we think more about its diversity and our links to it.


2021 marks your 10th anniversary as president of the university. What would you most like to accomplish during the remainder of your term?

I’m very proud of what I have achieved over the last 10 years. The doubling in size of the university and the expansion of its scope to include business and law has enabled us to grow and strengthen, particularly to grow the quality and importance of our research. The next period is one of consolidation: now that we have this powerful engine of innovation that can look at a problem from a technical perspective, from a social perspective and from a human perspective, how can we really invest in research capacity and skills that cut across.

In everybody we hire and every investment into the future, we’re thinking not only about what does that person bring as an individual, but what links can be built across disciplines, what new questions can they help us answer. My ambition for the university from here would be about it being able to be different in its perspective, more genuine and interdisciplinary in its perspective, with strong reputation for quality research. Therefore, for every particular graduate and every particular partnership with enterprise, we bring a multidisciplinary team to the question, to the partnership and that gives us the answer or our partner something qualitatively different.


What’s your final message to conclude this interview?

The Irish higher education system has made a very special contribution to the development of Ireland as a country and it brought us to the position where we are now: a strong and highly creative member of the EU. The big question for me is how are we going to maximize the value of our newfound position. Ireland in 2021 is totally different to Ireland in 1971, more so than many of our partners across Europe, We have this extraordinary opportunity now as a young, highly developed country to work with our European partners, to bring something really specific and special to the table. My key concern is: at this point in our membership of the European family, how are we going to really bring something particular to the table that reflects our culture and our capacities? That’s my final thought.


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