In for the long haul


THE FRIDAY INTERVIEW:Gerry Muldowney,  Dublin Business School

ACADEMIC INTEGRITY is very important to Gerry Muldowney and to the third-level institution he runs. But so is meeting his return on investment targets. Now owned by Kaplan, the $3.5 billion education subsidiary of the Washington Post Company, the Dublin Business School (DBS) is poised to spread its brand of private education right throughout Europe.

More immediately, there is its share of CAO applicants to snatch when the first round offers of college places are made to Leaving Cert students on Monday week.

Both activities depend on credibility as much as they do on finance. And like a student who aces an exam and puts it all down to great teaching and fortuitous questions, Muldowney is modest enough to mention also the role played by luck.

It was lucky, he says, that he wasn't fired in his early days as a "sinking" auditing lecturer and director of professional training at what was then called the Accountancy and Business College. It was lucky, too, that his rag trade grandmother and mother encouraged him to become the first member of his family to go to college, even if this meant giving up on his dream of becoming a professional footballer.

It was fortunate that the college, not long after it moved into the business of providing degrees, gained an international reputation "in a roundabout way", by winning a contract from the Malaysian government to provide accountancy services and that, later, it was able to buy the name Dublin Business School from someone who was already using it, thereby saving the college from the ignominy of being lumped in the phone directory amid the ABC Taxis, ABC Takeways and ABC Waste Disposals.

For a private college that had struggled to be taken seriously by the education establishment, the acronym ABC "probably wasn't consistent with the sophistication of the business".

And when Lidl anonymously rang round the third-level colleges looking for information, it was lucky that it was a DBS receptionist and marketing folk who had the fastest fingers first. A few brochures and a mystery-shrouded visit out to Lidl's Newbridge HQ later and Muldowney had won DBS a valuable contract to provide the German retailer with the faculty, premises and accreditation it needed to create the Lidl degree.

This isn't, as it happens, a degree in how to annoy Tesco, but a BA in business with a specialisation in retail management. Lidl pays the fees and pays the students a salary and in return get an annual batch of recruits with all the skills necessary to manage its ever-expanding chain of bargain-crammed hypermarkets.

Similar marriages of corporations and colleges in Britain have been the subject of much sneering, usually involving the shorthand "McDegree" but, for Muldowney, having a discount supermarket sponsor doesn't mean a discount degree.

"I thought it was a great opportunity. It was reaching out to a target group of potential students who would not have gone to college otherwise because they probably wouldn't have been able to afford it," he says. DBS has run similar courses in conjunction with Eircom and Microsoft and believes these industry partnerships have a lot of potential - provided standards are maintained.

Muldowney is used to having to overcome preconceptions. When the college offered its first accredited degree programme in 1989, there was "a lot of resistance", he says. "A lot of people were, it's fair to say, negative toward the idea."

DBS now has a generation of graduates out in the workplace, acting as its business cards in human form. "The measure of the institution is all about the quality of the graduates you put out there into the marketplace," he says. Kaplan, which bought DBS from its four private shareholders in 2003, has one million students worldwide. With those numbers, it is harder to be sniffy.

About 6,000 of DBS's 9,000 students are now studying on programmes that are accredited by either the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC) or the Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), the former Liverpool polytechnic.

DBS's relationship with LJMU happily requires the occasional meeting in Liverpool, leading to "a conspiracy theory" in the DBS corridors that Muldowney, a lifelong supporter of Liverpool football club, likes to time these meetings to coincide with particularly appetising fixtures at Anfield.

Like a twitchy squad member anxious to get his place in the starting line-up, many of the students who come through DBS's doors need confidence as much as they do qualifications, according to Muldowney. In the highly- pressurised points race, school-leavers are sometimes labelled failures despite having good Leaving Certs.

After years of having a surplus of able candidates and too few third-level places, he believes it is healthy that students now have more choice.

UCD, he says, is as much of a competitor to DBS as Griffith College, another well-established private third-level operator. But for those who can afford to pay, the private end of the marketplace is about to get even more crowded. Among the ambitious new educators is Independent News Media's Independent Colleges, which plans to run degree programmes from next year.

"Competition is good," says Muldowney. But anyone can rent premises, put a sign up and call themselves a college, he adds. "That concerns me . . . There should be more formal barriers to preventing that."

In the days of the National Council for Education Awards (the predecessor to HETAC), a college had to become a designated institution and undergo a rigorous auditing of its facilities, faculties and support services before it could offer courses. "I think some sort of re-introduction of those criteria would protect the learner."

There are, he says, no short cuts in education. "If anyone is in this business for a quick buck, they are in the wrong place."

DBS, he points out, is not an overnight success story. It ran its first evening course in 1975 and has 30 years of investment behind it. Turnover in 2007 was €23 million, up 20 per cent on 2006, but it will be flat in 2008 as the college makes necessary investments.

Thanks to Kaplan, its resources have grown stronger and it has acquired Portobello College and the European Business School (EBS). Since 2005, it has spent €4.5 million on its infrastructure and is hoping to relocate the two Portobello buildings closer to the five buildings it maintains in Dublin city centre.

DBS is now looking internationally for both its acquisitions and its students. As far as the latter goes, Muldowney thinks the Government needs to urgently develop a visa-supported international student recruitment policy, emulating Australia and Britain.

This would naturally be good for DBS, but also for the economy at large - not least because international students spend more than tourists.

"We almost need somebody to step in, like in Star Trek, and say 'make it so'," he says.

Education is a commodity that will be much in demand during the downturn and Muldowney hopes DBS's brand of skills-based, industry-linked education, which brought home a profit of €2.2 million in 2007, will seem particularly attractive.

"In recessionary times, people are motivated individually to better themselves."

As well as "applying common sense" while other "more intellectually brilliant" faculty members do their thing in the lecture rooms, he says his job is to "manage the tension that exists between the academic integrity and the commercial objectives".

It sounds like a tricky task. He believes he can engage with everyone from students to corporate financiers thanks to the time he spent working in the family shop on Riddle's Row, on the site of what is now Dublin's Ilac shopping centre.

"I had to deal with a lot of smelly feet when I was a youngster, selling shoes. If you can put up with smelly feet, you can put up with most things in life."