‘In terms of world profile, UCD is punching below its weight’

Six months into the top job at the university, Australian Andrew Deeks is thinking long-term funding, staff morale, the pursuit of excellence and a shot at the Top 100

Prof Andrew Deeks, UCD’s first external head since Cardinal John Henry Newman: “I don’t think the core role of the university is being chipped away.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Prof Andrew Deeks, UCD’s first external head since Cardinal John Henry Newman: “I don’t think the core role of the university is being chipped away.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

Andrew Deeks, the recently-installed president of University College Dublin, is far too polite to rain on Ruairí Quinn’s valedictory parade. But the departing Minister for Education has left behind a funding model for higher education that “is not sustainable” and is being propped up by a registration charge now hitting €3,000. As Deeks puts it mildly, this is “higher than what one would expect an administration charge to be”.

“From my observation, coming from Australia and the UK, Ireland has the worst of both worlds in the sense that we get the smallest amount of money per student compared to Australia the UK. But the student has to pay the biggest amount up-front. I’d see this as a barrier to higher education.”

Deeks is a novel addition to the Irish third-level landscape. Proudly Australian – though he was born in the UK and holds a British passport – he grew up in Perth and studied engineering at his local university. He stayed on to complete a PhD, gained a professorship and then “I got a tap on the shoulder to become the next head of school”.

Reluctantly, he abandoned his specialist field of computational mechanics, specifically “the scaled boundary finite element method”, and became an administrator. “I found I enjoyed that and was reasonably successful, and people appreciated the work I did in the role.”

In 2009, after a decade on the staff of the University of Western Australia, Deeks joined Durham University as vice pro-chancellor where he is credited with helping to lift the 250-year-old institution to 80th place in the Times Higher Education rankings. This weighed heavily on the mind of UCD’s interview panel when it offered him the job, although Deeks says he hasn’t a “specific target” to get the Dublin college into the Top 100.

“What we are aiming to do is pursue excellence in education and research, and being Ireland’s global university – engaging locally throughout Ireland and in the world – and delivering to students a holistic experience which prepares them to take their place in society. In doing that, I would see us moving up into the Top 100. So it would be a consequence, rather than a goal in itself.”

On the day Quinn announced his departure, Deeks was marking precisely his sixth month in Belfield. In that time, he has won over some internal sceptics and calmed fears that UCD’s first external head since Cardinal John Henry Newman will sell the university’s values down the river.

“I don’t think the core role of the university is being chipped away but perhaps there has been an expansion of the role of universities. . . Yes, there are a certain number of academics who think of the good old days, and that’s the case around the world. So in a number of discussions, what I’ve been indicating is that times have changed, and there is no choice but to move with the times. Personally I see it as a positive that universities now engage much more globally, engage with the local community, engage with industry, with governments, and partners internationally. I think that enriches the student experience.”

Building bridges with staff

Describing his first visit to UCD as a “pleasant surprise”, he says: “There are a few world-class universities that can boast the breath of subject mix that we have here, from a full engineering college to law, through business, through the veterinary sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities and a full medical school with attached hospitals. There are very few universities in the world that can boast the full house.”