On the edge of Europe but central to its education and research networks

On the edge of Europe but central to its education and research networks

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, President, National University of Ireland Galway, introduces a university whose strength in research, particularly medtech, was demonstrated in 2020


Ireland boasts one of the best higher education systems in the world, with a number of highly ranked and prestigious universities. The National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway itself is ranked 238 in the world, according to the QS university rankings. However, challenges are not short in the sector and universities are faced with increasing pressure after a state funding cut, rising demographics in the student population, and around research and innovation. How would you assess the performance and the competitiveness of the Irish higher education system, and what are some of the key strengths and weaknesses that you see in the sector?

In spite of the challenges we face currently the system is very strong. Even during COVID, we have managed to attract a very strong population of international students, which is a benchmark of our success, and particularly in research. In the context of COVID, we are part of a very strong medical technologies hub in Galway, and have built good connections with both the industry and with the clinical areas. NUI Galway has been very strong in research in this particular space as well as in developing responses to COVID, whether it is in areas like ventilators or other ways of addressing issues arising from COVID. We have a number of colleagues leading out in the area of public-patient involvement in research as well as in clinical trials and this public engagement, crucially at this time, characterises our research.

As the crisis evolved, other issues became more important, such as reimagining our humanity. Our research and social science, in particular in those broader areas, has also been very important in the context of COVID. We have, for example, a very strong interest in research and impact on empathy through our UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre. NUI Galway’s research record is very strong in this regard and our strength in research defines us a university.

The fact that we are now the only English-speaking country in the European Union (EU), bar Malta, makes Ireland’s setting even more attractive. More than just language, Ireland also offers worldview, perspective and a dynamic economy. The attitude in Ireland is very open to the world. Galway, for example, is seen as a very friendly city and has been voted as one of the friendliest cities in the world to visit. There is a lot, not only around infrastructure, but also around the experience and that makes a very important, very strong education infrastructure.

Education has always been seen as the way for a small country like Ireland and its people to develop—and even more so now if you look at the competitive advantages we have. Taxation is obviously dissipating as an advantage and may dissipate overtime. Access to Europe, however, is very strong, but the strongest and most sustainable advantage is our education. There is a particular focus on education in Ireland as a way to progress and that means a very strong positive attitude toward education among the population in general: a very high participation rate in third-level education, a very strong focus on education in the media and public discourse, and also recognition of the strength of research.

Ireland—and Galway even more so—being between mainland Europe and North America is in a sense a gateway, not only for industry, for foreign direct investment, but also for students. It offers a setting where students can connect, because both geographically and in our frame of mind, we are open to that view of the world. When John F. Kennedy visited Galway in 1963, he commented that if your eyesight is good enough and the weather is clear enough, you could see Boston from here. Galway has that sense of being at the edge and being in the center of things. I think that is a particularly important mentality for us here and that is a strength of the system generally.


NUI Galway is one of Ireland’s oldest and largest universities: it has been operating for 175 years and currently boasts 19,000 students. Could you give us an overview of the university and some of its key activities?

Sitting at the edge but also in the middle gives us a particular advantage in perspective. We do serve the largest geographical area in Ireland—our most northerly campus in Donegal in the north of the country is 350 kilometers from our campus beside Shannon airport in County Clare—and we have a very strong regional footprint and regional impact. Yet we also compete internationally, because we can’t serve the region well if we don’t also compete internationally. NUI Galway has a very interesting mix of being locally focused, while having also a very strong international profile in our areas of expertise. Being on the edge also gives us this sense of curiosity around what’s happening next and what’s over the horizon. Being in the center, we are very much part of the world, we are not remote from the world. We are actually very much integrated and very much active in that broader perspective.

Our strategy that we developed last year was very much value-based: respect, openness, excellence and sustainability. These values are particularly important in education, but also in the world itself and how we develop our students, how we engage with the world more generally. We have committed ourselves to the public, of being in and for the world. That is an important strength of ours as well in the context of how we position ourselves. We have strong links in medical technologies, biomedical engineering in the environmental area, in particular in marine and environmental research because of our location, but also in the arts and humanities, because Galway is very well known for its creativity, hosting the Druid Theatre Company, the Galway International Arts Festival, the Macnas Theatre Company and there is a lot of vibrancy in Galway, traditionally in the arts. We are close to the Gaeltacht, the Irish-language speaking area, which also means that we are in between worlds as well. That creates particular vibrancy to the education here that is different from elsewhere.


NUI Galway’s 2020-2025 strategy includes substantial investments in infrastructure and plans to implement a new innovation district, new performance space, a library and a new sports complex as well. Beside these, what would be some of the highlights of this strategy? How would you summarize the main focuses that you are addressing in your strategic investment?

We have identified five key research themes that the university is focusing on: enhancing public policy, creativity and innovation, the use of technology and analytics for understanding the world, human health and wellbeing, and sustaining our people and talent. Those five themes are reflected in our strategy.

Part of our strategy is to identify our distinctive strengths, particularly in the context of the country’s sustainable development goals. Part of it is investment in infrastructure, North Ireland, the innovation district at Nun’s Island—again, committing ourselves to integrating with the region, being a part of rather than apart from the region.

The particular challenge we have is also to invest in our people. Often people see strategies as developing new plans and new capital projects. But for me, our biggest resources are people, investing in our people and finding that opportunity to invest in bringing in our new colleagues. Investing in the colleagues we already have in those areas of interest that we have is one of the challenges that faces the sector in general, and then Galway in particular.


The COVID-19 crisis has brought disruptions to economies around the world and higher education institutions have had to interrupt programs, close establishments, introduce sanitary protocols of all kinds and transition to online learning. Aside from the sanitary and social challenges, how has NUI Galway been affected by the pandemic?

First, we found that the experience with technology for students was better than we expected. The real issue for students was more the sense of isolation, of absence of community. The actual learning experience was well received, we had positive feedback around engagement and student participation. That has been better than we expected and it has probably accelerated some of the updated capacity for doing work online. My opinion is that online will never replace in-person teaching. It may supplement it, it may make it better, it may make it more flexible, more agile, but we’ve seen during the pandemic that students want to be together on a campus and want to have the experience of a society of students or a community of students. They want to have that broader experience, not only in the classroom, but outside. Galway is particularly well known for clubs, societies and engagement beyond the walls of the university.

Secondly, we found that the connection with the medical healthcare system in Galway and the regional hospital system worked very well. I think this will embed that relationship in working together on finding solutions for patients. We have a particular focus on public patient initiatives, and we work very closely with the public and patients in designing research. That’s something that will continue: finding patient needs and focusing our research on those—rather than finding a problem in search of a solution. That has been particularly accelerated in the context of COVID.

Thirdly, we understood that COVID is not just a medical emergency, but a social one as well. Hence the importance of social science, of broader perspectives and of finding solutions in more than one discipline. Challenges such as loneliness, mental health engagement, have come through as well. I hope coming out of this that we will understand better the broader perspective that research can provide in areas like humanity, social science, literature or languages.


NUI Galway is a research-led university, covering a wide range of teaching and research areas, from sciences, social sciences and humanities, as you mentioned. You have five research institutes and are known for being strong in medtech, for instance. Are there any breakthroughs or innovations that have emerged from the university that you are particularly proud recently?

There have been many and we are proud of all our contributions equally! For example, early on in the pandemic, we had colleagues working in the area of ventilators and they very quickly found flexibility in the use of ventilators, which means that you could use ventilators for more than one patient. That was a very important breakthrough very early on in the pandemic. Secondly, there has been very good work on infection control, for example, through one of our spinouts, Acquila Bioscience, as well as through our leadership of a major EU-funded €10-million research project on managing pandemics (PANDAM II). Thirdly, there has been really good research on evidence. There is a group that does work on evidence synthesis, which in the context of information on COVID-19 has been particularly important.

In the medical devices area, foreign direct investment (FDI) has been really important in Galway but there are also a lot of indigenous industries that came about through that FDI expertise. We’ve got a program called bio innovate for instance. Ireland is very strong in attracting FDI, but we are now also looking to develop and scale the entrepreneurship that worked well in the medtech industry. We have a lot of local companies that have developed medical technologies, marrying that FDI experience, people coming maybe out of the FDI companies and setting up their own companies, but also working with research in the university, which is quite significant too.

We are also very proud of our research on environmental sustainability. Because of our location on the edge of Europe, we have unique insights and evidence to offer, informed, for example, by NUI Galway’s Atmospheric Research Station at Mace Head, on the very western edge of the Europe, an unrivalled location in which to measure air quality coming in from and going out onto the Atlantic.


How are you working to continue to expand your reach by partnering with local industries and corporations as well as through international collaborations?

We have very strong international programs in areas like analytics, medicine and business more generally. We have also very strong meetings with North America Study Abroad programs in the arts and humanities. We are a member of one of the new European university alliances called ENLIGHT. That has been a very important platform for us and for building alliances internationally. We also have extremely strong international links and research with colleagues collaborating in research across a number of institutions. We have very strong links again with some of those universities, but with others more generally.

Internationalization has been a very important part of the university, firstly because we can’t rely on our hinterland alone, so if we are to expand in quality, almost like a company or business, we need to do so through international markets. The local market isn’t big enough. Secondly, it also enhances the quality of what we do and if we collaborate internationally, we work together, we have ideas coming from different perspectives. And, thirdly, in Ireland most people will work with an international company or in an international context. It is a very open economy. Galway has a very significant population from outside of Galway, outside of Ireland, so people working in companies will work with people not just from Galway. It is an export-led economy and our students need that international perspective as well when they’re graduating. That’s an important part of what the third-level system in Ireland does: it gives that international experience.


NUI Galway has some 3,300 international students and quite an international staff that comes from a wide range of countries. What is your strategy in terms of marketing and communication for attracting further international students, professors, researchers and talent to the university, or for growing your global alliance and partnership network?

We are a member of the ENLIGHT program, which is an important platform for us in building deeper meaningful alliances. Student recruitment and faculty recruitment may be two different things. Student recruitment depends on country by country; each country has its best paths to market and we work with local intelligence or local expertise very often to develop those paths to market. Faculty is more about the individual; faculty is more based on links or connections we already have. Relationships that we have established, particularly through our research, attracts collaborations and new colleagues in research.

For me, the most important question is: if a student from Boston, Berlin or Beijing wants to make a decision about coming to study, why would they come to Galway? There are things we need to be really good at, including those five research areas where we have particular expertise. Galway is and needs to be different. Galway has its own mentality and particular view of the world. The location is attractive to international students. Using social media to get those messages out, particularly for students, is important for us. Yet every market has its own path to market. It is not just about student recruitment, but the student experience: students in some countries are very good at sharing their experience in their home country. The student’s experience needs to be really good when they come and that is something we’ve been investing in heavily, pre-COVID in particular. We are very mindful of our students’ wellbeing. COVID has made that challenging currently, but pre-COVID it was something we have invested in very heavily.


According to some economists, Ireland, could gain some benefits from Brexit in the long run, and perhaps higher education and research could be one of the areas where those benefits could begin. How do you view the impact of Brexit on higher education and how has the university been preparing for it?

The U.K. withdrawing from Erasmus has a potential impact on incoming Erasmus students. The research agenda will also change. Our connections to European research funding will make us attractive to international faculty in particular. In recent times, we have recruited quite a number of leading faculty out of the U.K., some of whom are Irish, some of whom are not. The feeling is that Ireland is a welcoming place in contrast to some other jurisdictions. That is an important aspect that will serve us well into the future. Now we’re beginning to develop those links as people are starting to realize what Brexit actually looks like. Because of this, institutions are contacting us to connect on exchanges, or researchers, students and faculty members are beginning to wonder where they rather be—in the U.K. or Ireland or elsewhere.

Not only is Ireland an EU country, but it is also a common law country in the EU, which is quite unusual. There is something to offer there around legal practice, business practices and so on. We are different, but within the EU at same time. Besides, the economy is doing well currently: in fact, the economy grew by 0.5 percent or so in 2020, which was a complete surprise. The feeling is that there is a K-shaped recovery: the export economy is doing very well, but retail and hospitality have done not so well. There is a real challenge for us in the economy in that way: hospitality is the lowest paid, while exporting is the highest paid area of the economy. Universities have a role in mending that K-shape recovery and reskilling.

Our economy has been particularly resilient, surprisingly. Tax revenues have been quite healthy and better than expected. The employment rates have not been as badly affected as thought—they have obviously particularly traumatic for those affected, but in general the economy has done better than we thought last March. There is a resilience in the Irish economy that we can also teach something about: that sense of adaptability, of agility in crisis that we are experiencing yet again.


How would you summarize your plans and ambitions for 2021, and what’s your outlook for the year?

It’s disheartening that the year is starting as last year finished. The hope of the vaccine in December probably gave us gave us a false expectation. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program—who is a graduate of our university—commented that people are celebrating the vaccination program as if we’ve climbed Everest, when in fact we are still at base camp. There is a lot of work still ahead.

We’re trying to see the big picture. With the pandemic, we have been understandably focused on the detail on dealing with COVID. The issues arising for students and staff have been very profound. Now we are thinking for 2021: what is the big picture? We want to reengage with our values, respect, openness, excellence and sustainability. Those were very important for us during the COVID crisis, but how do we now formalize them? What do we do next in the innovation district? How are we going to progress this?

It’s very important for us now that we see the opportunities that we had before COVID and pursue them again. The world may be different, and we have learned a lot. To me, there is an opportunity for us to think again about our research, to reengage to learn in those areas of research that matter to us, and to redouble our efforts on that big picture, recognizing a number of things—such as, firstly, the K-shaped recovery, the importance of access to education and reskilling for the economy; secondly, recognizing the importance of those industries that have done really well in the context of COVID, particularly healthcare; thirdly, a broader perspective on the world, which is going to be very important for us and, again, we can offer Galway as a university that has expertise across all those areas. These would be things we would be bringing out of COVID and hoping to build, understanding the challenges that hopefully will be left behind.


What would be your final message to our readers?

Both Ireland and Galway are on the edge and in the middle. That has particular value to us: being on the edge, we push the envelope, we look over the horizon; but being in the middle means we’re very connected and not remote. The opportunity for education, for investment and for being in Ireland is a very important part of how we see ourselves in the world. We are curious and have a history of change and adaptability and, at the same time, we are in the middle of things, we connect very well and are very good at networking. That sense of being on the edge but also being in the middle is a very important part of the Irish identity, which would serve us well in the context of our position in the world as we face into 2021.




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