ATU set to be one of Ireland’s largest multi-campus universities

Atlantic Technological University incorporates eight campuses across wide area

The new technological university for the west and northwest of the country is set to be one of the largest multi-campus universities in Ireland.

Merging Galway-Mayo IT (GMIT), Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT) and IT Sligo, the Atlantic Technological University (ATU) opened its doors in its new format on April 1st, meaning students graduating in the current academic year will do so with university-level qualifications.

Current president of GMIT Dr Orla Flynn, who has been designated the new president of the ATU, said the new entity will be geographically dispersed.

There are eight campuses: Galway City, Connemara, Mountbellew, Mayo, Sligo, Letterkenny and Killybegs. It is envisaged St Angela's college in Galway will also be amalgamated into the TU before the summer.

"In terms of landmass, it's larger than Wales, actually. We're a region that is under-served in terms of university provision. The only other university with a footprint in that area would be NUI Galway so that's one aspect that makes us a little bit different," Dr Flynn said.

There will be 20,400 students, making it one of the biggest universities in the State. Of those, about 63 per cent will be full-time, 11 per cent will be part-time and 26 per cent will be online and remote. Some 1,397 international students are also enrolled in the ATU, coming from 93 different countries.

Dr Flynn said the impact institutes of technology have had on employment in the country has been obvious for decades. However, now society is changing, so too must the sector.

"You can trace back the growth of the Celtic Tiger to the technicians that were coming out of the regional training colleges in the early days of the 1980s and fuelling the growth of the multinational sector in Ireland," she said.

“Whether it’s the art colleges, which traditionally tended to be placed in our sector, whether it’s through our applied courses and our strong, practical and professional practice focus in science and engineering, we produce many graduates who are able to hit the ground running when it comes to the workplace. I think you can see the trajectory over the past 10 to 15 years has been towards the high-value  employee industry needs right now.”

Importance of research

As a result of this trajectory, institutes of education have been producing graduates with “much more awareness” of the importance of research.

Furthermore, she believes changing these institutes to TUs will help to further dissipate the already decreasing perception that education in an IoT is lesser than that of a university.

“I would say people who are informed are already well aware that the presumption is very out of date. Our sector typically has embedded a very strong commitment to practice in our programme,” she said.

“The idea being that we would have slightly smaller classes, we would have a lot of practical work, a lot of project work, and we would embed placement in most of our courses. That has really been the strength of our sector.”

Following the official designation in April, Dr Flynn said the focus will be to merge the three separate entities into one larger, homogenous unit.

“Our big challenge will be to harness the strengths that we have across a wide range of campuses and discipline areas and really bring those strengths to bear on the needs of the wider region, but to do that in an integrated and coherent manner,” she said.

“That’s our big challenge: to take three separate organisations and work together as one. That will take a bit of time, but we’ve been working very, very well together for the last couple of years.”

The ATU offers a vast array of courses, covering all disciplines, across the three partnered entities.

Remote learning

In fact, it offers 590 different programmes, and has a particular emphasis on remote or online learning, with IT Sligo having led the way in that regard in recent years.

“With the awareness of our region, and our cultural base in the region, the idea of the arts and the idea of making, with a look of culture, heritage and archaeology, we have a strong interest in those, right across all of the partners,” she said.

“Tourism-related industries would be very strong for our region. It would be particularly strong in terms of programme provision in Killybegs and Galway city. We would be very keen to ensure we support the region in which we sit by having access to those offerings.”

Outside of the more traditional offerings, there are also specialised areas of study that really make the institute stand out.

The focus on education in agriculture, in particular, is very prominent, particularly on the Mountbellew campus, which is a working farm.

“We run a first-year programme there so if you wanted to study agri-business or science and engineering, then you would typically do a common programme and after that you can move on into whatever discipline you want,” she said.

“Typically, students will get that experience of being on a working farm.”

Another selling point in terms of academic offering is furniture design and manufacture, in which a course is available on the Letterfrack campus in Connemara.

“In fact, the national centre of excellence in furniture design is based out in Letterfrack. That’s a beautiful campus, quite niche and unique in Ireland,” she said.

President Michael D Higgins previously donated timber from Áras an Uachtaráin, which was then used in projects by students, Dr Flynn added.

And while there are many elements of the institutions they are proud of, there are others in which they are hoping to improve and build on.

Student accommodation

Increasing the availability of student accommodation, for example, will be a key priority as the years progress.

The ATU has near-campus accommodation for almost 3,000 students across its eight campuses. Although the ATU has no on-campus accommodation, there are a number of purpose-built apartments for students located close to the campuses.

This situation with accommodation has been a “hindering” factor for growth up until now, Dr Flynn said.

"From Galway, right the way up to Donegal, there are issues around access to student accommodation. Even in Mayo, where you think there shouldn't be an issue, there is," she said.

“The pandemic potentially has exacerbated some of that because families that might have taken in students were not doing that during the pandemic, but nevertheless student accommodation is a big issue for us.”

They are hopeful that the new technological university will have access to the borrowing framework, enabling them to partner with the private sector and provide student accommodation either adjacent to or on the campuses.

The north and northwest of the country were among those most affected by Covid-19 restrictions due to lack of access to broadband and other remote working infrastructure. Addressing this accessibility is a key priority for the new TU, its president said.

“We will have a role to play in ensuring our region is as well served as others. We are a region in transition so we’re not a developed region,” she said.

“There are opportunities for our region in terms of being able to access European funding. We will be better positioned, but it is also a commentary on how under-served this region has been historically.”

What sets ATU apart

Working farm As an institution with a significant focus on agriculture, the Mountbellew campus is a reason many would seek to pursue study here as it is a working farm.

Students benefit greatly from the practical experience gained on the working farm, which comprises a dairy herd of more than 80 cows, dry stock, 20 hectares of forestry, a milking parlour, a state-of-the-art grain store and sheep and cattle housing facilities.

Furniture design The Letterfrack campus in Connemara is renowned for its furniture design and manufacture courses, which have a 100 per cent graduate employment rate for those wanting to enter the industry.

All students are given the opportunity of undertaking a year-long work placement in a furniture company as part of their programmes.

Shared Ireland Located right near the border, the ATU is in a unique position that allows it to facilitate cross-Border co-operation between the North and South.

There are currently a number of Shared Ireland initiatives the ATU is involved with, including a health-related project between Letterkenny and the University of Ulster.

Supporting SMEs lot of the industry in the region is driven by small to medium enterprises and micro enterprises. ATU will have a very close connection to these SMEs, in order to support them, and will work with Science Foundation Ireland centres and NUI Galway to do so.

Online learning Online courses have been a defining feature of Sligo's offering for the past 20 years, with a dedicated centre for online learning. There are over 150 part-time, online courses, and there have been over 35,000 graduates.

Key Stats

Total student number 20,273
Study Options 593 courses
Undergrad/Postgrad breakdown 88 per cent undergraduate, 12 per cent postgraduate
Full-time/Part-time 64 per cent full-time, 10 per cent part-time and 26 per cent online
Campus locations Galway City; Connemara; Mountbellew; Mayo; Sligo; Donegal, Letterkenny; Donegal, Killybegs
Fees Standard €3,000 fees
Bursaries and scholarships 1916 Bursary Fund; Access scholarships; Special Sports and Cultural Achievement (SSCA) scheme; Non-EU scholarships; University – Higher Education Scholarships for Adult Learners; Sanctuary Scholarships; Academic Scholarships; REACH Scholarships; DCIL Independent Living; Pushing Boundaries Scholarships; Optum Healthcare Scholarships; Mature Student Scholarships; Sports Scholarships; and Galway Wind Park Scholarships
Accommodation None on campus, some available close to the eight campuses
Contact details info@atu.ie atu.ie