18 Jan Universities foster Ireland’s dynamic and innovative knowledge society
Professor Kerstin Mey, Interim President, University of Limerick, describes high-quality education and research programs that focus heavily on industry and international collaboration
Ireland offers one of the best higher education systems in the world, with highly ranked and reputed universities. Challenges are not short in the sector though, including ones related funding and rising student demographics. How would you assess the performance and competitiveness of Irish higher education in the global context?
Irish universities have a very good reputation for the quality of their education overall, which is also observable at the University of Limerick (UL). The mid-west of Ireland, Limerick, has had considerable foreign direct investment, not least because of the talent pipeline produced by the university in the areas of pharma, finance and software. To give you an example, our education is also marked by block-based learning to create that real-life application early on for students. UL has work-based learning opportunities for all undergraduate students who spend up to eight months in industry as part of their bachelor’s degree. Ireland has also been very dynamic in terms of research. Universities, with support of the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Irish Research Council (IRC), have risen to the challenge and developed a range of cutting-edge research centers.
Limerick is unique in that it hosts three SFI multi-stakeholder research centers. The Irish Software Research Center, the Solid State Pharmaceutical Center, which is the Irish pharmaceutical research center, and the Mathematics and Statistics Research Center, which does a lot of industry modeling, with an SFI-funded doctoral training center and data science for 450 PhD students. Last but not least, we have just inaugurated Confirm, a smart manufacturing center, which brings together artificial intelligence data with manufacturing to enable smart solutions with automation. These university-industry collaborations, which are also present in other universities, have made Ireland a very dynamic and innovative country that has developed its knowledge society.
Another ingredient is that we have a very high participation rate in higher education and have also increased our participation rate in lifelong learning to support re- and upskilling. That has become particularly noticeable and important during the COVID-19 crisis, where government has been very proactive in making additional funding available to support that re- and upskilling, because of the shift that we will be seeing arising from the crisis in the professional landscape and in the employment situation.
UL is somewhat of a newer player in the sector. It was established in 1972 and you are celebrating your 50th anniversary next year. The university positions itself as a young, energetic and enterprising university, with about 16,500 students and approximately 1,700 staff. Can you give us a rapid overview of UL?
UL is one of the younger universities in Ireland. We have built a reputation as a pioneer since our foundation. For example, we have a high ratio of student industry placements, since we place over 2,100 students annually with industry, government and communities, nationally as well as internationally. We have the largest Erasmus-plus program in Ireland, with the highest student inward and outward mobility. We have been an early player and one of the foundation players in European Studies. Our foundation coincides with Ireland’s access to the European Union (EU). We also had, therefore, foreign modern languages very early on in our mix of disciplines.
Yet the strength of UL lies within science and engineering. There we have the Bernal Institute as the key research institute of the university, specializing in materials research, biomaterials, nanomaterials and composite materials with contributions to a range of innovations, be it for aeronautical industries through new lightweight composite materials or through the crystallography advanced by Professor Michael Zaworotko who won the SFI Future Innovator Prize. He has just developed an approach to a greenhouse that is self-sufficient, that doesn’t need water, doesn’t need energy; it reproduces all of that in a cyclical way. We are working on one of the biggest battery storage facilities to stabilize a national grid, which surges when you have wind energy. The excess wind energy being put into the grid has be counteracted and the battery storage will enable a much more efficient storage of energy.
We have significantly advanced research in software in the recent past, including for cybersecurity and data protection. We have a smart manufacturing research center where we bring together artificial intelligence and data science to support new automated mobile and personalized manufacturing solutions. It is a hallmark of the increasing inter- and transdisciplinary research that is taking place at UL. For instance, the development of nanomaterials found interest in the Kemmy Business School, where we have experts in risk management and insurance looking at issues arising from these new materials with regard to risk.
UL was the first Irish university to engage in apprenticeships. We have developed our apprenticeship scheme with the support of Skillnet up to level 10, which means we offer the first doctorate in principle engineering. Enrollments are open now. We have a wave of government initiatives to innovate our curriculum and develop human capital. We have been successful in building a number of programs to address digital skills needs from manufacturing, science, security and work features, providing an integrated program in collaboration with industry. We have a dual education model where students learn in university and are then placed in industry at postgraduate level to develop solutions to real-life problems. They engage with employers very early on and address national skills needs.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought major disruptions in all economies and countries all over the world. Higher education institutions have been impacted as well, having to interrupt their programs, close establishments, move to digital learning and so on. You have said that “sometimes it takes disruptions to drive change.” Reflecting on 2020, what would have been some of the major disruptions or permanent changes that you have implemented at the university that you are most proud of, aside, of course, from all the sanitary measures?
UL has a strong engagement in health as it had opened the first graduate entry medical school 10 years ago, offering medicine and surgery along with nursing and midwifery. The last months were very challenging for our staff and students, who have worked on the frontline in hospitals and in health provision to support the caring for patients and to protect public health. Rising out of that crisis, we are now offering a master’s of science, an MSc, in public health. It started in September and was preceded by a Masters of Science and Digital Health Transformation in conjunction with the National Health Services HSE.
UL had to transition into the digital space from March. We have done that very quickly as a campus community. We have innovated our programs, we have taken into consideration how we teach, we adopted more of a flipped classroom approach where we have put content online and have used face-to-face time in labs and in practice-based sessions, which we were able to maintain under the public health guidelines to focus on the very essential face-to-face teaching and practical professional competency-based learning in our campus environment and in professional environments.
A lot of work has been put into digital pedagogies, which are very different from our analog pedagogies. It isn’t just putting content online; you have to rethink what you teach, how you teach it and how you create the interactivity that lies at the core of learning as a social experience. That included a significant effort in staff development and co-creation with the students to make the programs interesting, engaging and maintain participation rates in our programs’ progression and potential.
The COVID-19 crisis has enabled opportunities to accelerate our trans- and interdisciplinary research, and the community in UL has come together very quickly to address issues that have arisen from the pandemic. Research from the development of Covigilant, a transdisciplinary project to provide the most effective solution for contact tracing; to COVIDWatch, a platform that provides health guidance to practitioners in the field; to the analysis of the health and economic impact of COVID-19. We have been working with the government. Staff have contributed to the effort in providing advice on epistemological modeling as well as on behavior change. These capabilities of working across disciplines and working with different stakeholders, as government and industry, are going forward. And last but not least, a crisis like that also focuses you on your work processes and procedures, and we will take the learning forward in order to develop our services in more effective and efficient ways, using digital technologies as well as face-to-face engagement.
Going back to research, development and innovation, how is the university working with industry partners and increasing its cooperation with the private sector at large, not only in Ireland, but also abroad?
We have strong existing networks and are working closely with the employers in our region. Many of them are multinational corporations like Regeneron, Pfizer, Stryker, Dell and Analog Devices. Very recently, we launched a remote learning device for engineering students so that they can experiment with circuit building at home, rather than having to use lab space. We have been working with the government in the area of law and justice; we accredit the Applied Policing BA that all Irish police force trainees have to undergo when they join the force and we have developed new programs in that area, with the Department of Justice and the policing services in Ireland.
We also have a number of high-rating programs abroad with partners. We have had successes in Marie Curie research fellowships. And I would like to mention that important research also takes place in the area of community-engaged research—that is, working with communities on developing approaches and solutions to problems. This is so that multi-dimensional complex problems can be addressed in a dynamic way and in a sustainable way, working with government and other players. And again, our connections to the Department of Justice and to the Department of Children and Youth have been vital in creating research strands for the Research Evidence Policy Programmes and Practice project.
Going forward, our vision is to strengthen our existing networks and build new connections internationally, including in Europe, to work both in the area of research and education in a collaborative way in order to support the making of knowledge at the cutting edges of inquiry and use our research strengths to develop advanced programs. We had the first artificial-intelligence postgraduate program and now master’s in Ireland, and we want to continue to stay at the forefront in that way.
About 15 percent of your student body comes from outside of Ireland from a total of 100 countries. Your Erasmus program was voted best Irish Erasmus program last year. How important are international students within the university and how are you working to further internationalize UL its appeal to global students, professors, researchers and talents?
International students and international staff have always been important to support the diversity of knowledge horizons, cultural diversity and promote exchange. We welcome 140 PhD students from Algeria, for example, and have been a university that the Algerian government works with, as they are moving from French as official language toward English, so we are supporting that venture.
Our focus is on internationalization at a 360-degree angle. It’s not just about student and staff recruitment to the university, but it’s about exchange of ideas and mobility. We have to rethink mobility, with regard to not only the pandemic, but to climate change as a whole and environmental pollution through travel. At the same time, we have to give consideration to mobility in terms of access to education, to support those students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, to take full advantage of mobility options for them.
When we speak about internationalization, it is about internationalization of the curriculum to increase the diversity of perspectives in the curriculum of exchange opportunities, virtually as well as in real life, with other partners through European university networks and exchange opportunities, and also to continue to support the ability of our academic and academic support staff to learn from other best practices in another context, to bring that knowledge back to the university.
Internationalization also means ongoing work with our communities to promote diversity. We have, for instance, the Limerick inside-out practicum, where we work with communities in Limerick, bringing our international students into these communities and working on projects that are important to these communities, whether it is an improvement of the environment or learning projects and so on.
We want to continue to strengthen and grow in order to make a lasting contribution to the regeneration of our city and the region, but also to develop our reputation and visibility internationally.
Ireland is now the only English-speaking country in the EU besides Malta. How do you view the impact of Brexit and how is UL positioning itself to reap the benefits of it?
Brexit has now become a reality. We will continue to work with our U.K. partners within a different framework—we have a number of strong links in research as well as in learning and teaching, and we want to maintain these.
There are opportunities also. We are looking to strengthen our collaboration in the EU, that is on our agenda. Our joining of the young European research universities is one step in that direction. Maintaining our strong Erasmus programs is another. But closer to home, of course, we have Northern Ireland as part of the island of Ireland, and I’m very pleased about the Taoiseach’s initiative for a Shared Island. We are participating in the All Ireland Universities Initiative to look for close collaboration in terms of research, learning and teaching with universities in Northern Ireland, to strengthen our connections, not just in terms of student and staff mobility but in terms of focused strategic research projects and learning initiatives. With focus and dedication, but also investment, we can harness significant opportunities with key players in Europe.
What would be your final message to conclude this interview?
Ireland is one of the most dynamic and innovative countries in Europe and further afield that places significant value on high-quality education and research. It is a valuable partner for Europe and internationally. Universities, including UL, play a key part in fostering the knowledge society and in supporting a societal and economic transformation through their learning offer and through their research.