'If society values third level education, we need to find a way to pay for it'

Friday Interview: Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, president of NUI Galway

 Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: “What defines a university is the quality of its students, the quality of its staff and the quality of the student experience. Some rankings measure those and some don’t.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: “What defines a university is the quality of its students, the quality of its staff and the quality of the student experience. Some rankings measure those and some don’t.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh is looking to make his mark. The 13th president of NUI Galway (National University of Ireland, Galway) has a legacy to leave in the city that first set him upon a path to becoming one of Ireland’s top academics.

Just over one year into his new job, Ó hÓgartaigh is embarking on a plan to develop a part of the university’s assets that is falling into disrepair, transforming it into an area that works for the city’s community as a whole.

And with the university making up between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of the city’s population (depending where one draws the boundary line), inviting the wider community in is a key plank of Ó hÓgartaigh’s vision for the redevelopment.

“You can do a certain number of things as president, and one of the things I’d like to leave behind is something that meets the concept that we have as a public space.”

His vision is, as yet, incomplete and an ongoing public consultation will inform the direction of the Nuns’ Island site in the city centre. Options include an innovation space for businesses or a cultural space that would tie both the community and the university.

Nonetheless, the project is undoubtedly an ambitious one, with a planned budget of €200 million that is set to transform Nuns’ Island. The regeneration of the land will provide around 8,000sq ft of new space on a site which is currently occupied primarily by dilapidated listed buildings but with excellent views of both streams of the river Corrib that flows around the island.

After walking around the site on a dreary Friday afternoon, we return to the president’s drawing room situated in the “quadrangle” – the original university building which opened its doors in 1849. There the (relatively) new president outlines his priorities for the remaining nine years of his 10-year reign.

Academic

And it quickly becomes clear Ó hÓgartaigh is a very ambitious academic – both personally and for the institution he serves. A Fulbright scholar in the early Noughties before becoming dean of UCD’s two business schools, he applied to become UCD’s president when Hugh Brady vacated the role. Ironically, given Ó hÓgartaigh is the first non-NUI Galway academic to be appointed to his current role, the UCD post was given to outsider Andrew Deeks.

And perhaps Ó hÓgartaigh is now counting his blessings. Not only is his pay packet slightly higher than that of Deeks – presumably reflecting the fact the UCD president is furnished with a rather impressive residence whereas the NUI Galway president must fend for themselves – but he takes over the reins at a more propitious stage in the economic cycle which could, eventually, see funding start to flow back to universities.

Indeed, he recalls saying even at the time back in 2013 that he was glad to have applied but also glad he didn’t get the job.

The NUI Galway role doesn’t come without its headaches. The university has long favoured men for promotion over women, a fact that resulted in it losing a landmark case in 2014 to Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington. The Equality Tribunal found the university had discriminated against the botanist for promotion because of her gender.

With women still holding just 19 per cent of professor posts in the university, NUI Galway has undoubtedly been a laggard on this front. If anyone’s likely to make notable inroads on the gender issue it is Ó hÓgartaigh, who, as dean of UCD’s business school, appointed women to around half of the professor roles that came up.

Gender imbalance

“I call it work as yet unfinished,” he says of the drive to change the university’s gender imbalance.

While the figure has yet to improve much from the 19 per cent assessment, 58 per cent of posts in the most recent round of lecturer promotions were awarded to women.

Gender diversity isn’t the only game in town, he adds, noting that Galway’s own diversities across race and cultures should be better reflected on the sprawling campus. In any event, he says the glacial progress on gender representation results in part from the State’s cap on permanent posts, introduced in response to the financial crisis.

Scars from the downturn remain across all Irish third-level institutions, and NUI Galway is no different. While student numbers have increased (to around 19,000) and research output continues to make tangible benefits to society, the entire sector has had to cope with decreased funding. However, Ó hÓgartaigh has spotted an opportunity to open up different income streams.

Nun’s Island in Galway city. Options include an innovation space for businesses or a cultural space that would tie both the community and the university
Nun’s Island in Galway city. Options include an innovation space for businesses or a cultural space that would tie both the community and the university

As he did successfully in UCD, the new president is considering how the institution can improve access to non-exchequer funding stream, including attracting non-EU students and those studying for a master’s degree.

And while Brexit has UK academics in a fluster, he believes it provides opportunity given the fact that the Republic will be the only English-speaking country in the EU, something he views as “significant”. “

We’re very strong in the North American market, and I think there’s a particular opportunity there to be a gateway to Europe, and we could be more than before.”

University’s estate

Born in Dublin, Ó hÓgartaigh’s family moved to Galway when he was two to an area called Newcastle, which straddles the university. As a child his walks into the city brought him through the university’s estate, although he never eyed up the corner office at that point in his life. Instead, he recalls fond memories of playing tennis in an area that is now a car park and squash in a campus handball alley.

His parents were conscious of the advantage of university education “for making your way in life”, and all of his siblings went on to third level. For Ó hÓgartaigh the plan wasn’t necessarily to pursue accounting, instead hoping to start down a path that would end with studies in company law. But those plans changed when he was “inspired” by two members of the accounting faculty at NUI Galway, who treated the subject as a social science.

The self-confessed “accidental accountant” subsequently worked for accounting firm Arthur Anderson – then one of the Big Five firms – for three years. He recalls Anderson’s as “the accounting firm to be in” at the time, and one that had a great reputation still at the time he left in 1992.

“One day I was walking into work, and I figured that if I had wanted to be an academic, which I had always wanted to be, I should apply,” he said of his subsequent move.

His ambition led him to DCU, the University of Leeds, the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and, prior to his current role, to a high-profile job with UCD at a time when business schools were unfavourably looked upon given the extent of the financial crash. Yet his time at UCD saw the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School brush off competitors to run up the rankings for its MBA programme.

Capital costs

Unusually, the business schools in UCD managed to increase revenues at a time when capital costs were going down. So he found himself in a position where investment was possible despite the recessionary spending constraints elsewhere.

He pauses to flag this as a lesson for the State’s investment in education. “If we don’t invest now in 10 years or 15 years’ time, when we look back, we’ll regret that we had the opportunity to do so and didn’t.”

Investment in third level is a theme that runs through our interview. The fundamental question, he believes, is whether society sees third level as being important and having value.

“It seems to because the demand for third-level education has risen more than second level...so that suggests that society places value on it, and if society does then we need to find a way to pay for it.”

That final clause is, of course, the difficult part. As student demonstrations around 2011 showed, there’s little appetite for a situation where full-blown fees are paid. Equally, the student loan scheme adopted in the UK would find little support here.

Ó hÓgartaigh sees a means-tested or tiered fees system as the way forward, adding that he considers it anomalous that there are private schools in which fees are higher than in third level. “My view is that there are people who can pay and they should, and there are people who can’t pay who shouldn’t even be asked.”

This is a delicate balancing act, however. If undergraduate fees become too high it’s likely that spending on post-graduate would take a hit. But investment is critical, he says, noting that multinationals come to the Republic not only for tax purposes but because we have a “really well educated workforce, and citizens who are really well equipped for their role in life”.

Investment

After a decade of underinvestment the statistics show that the sector is badly in need of a boost. As a percentage of GDP, Ireland lags the OECD average for investment on tertiary education.

And with a ratio of 20 students to one member of teaching staff, we are also a poor performer by that measure. The OECD average is 16, while in Norway and Sweden the ratio falls to as low as 10.

Ireland, alongside Iceland and Croatia, are viewed as “systems in danger” by a European University Association report published in 2017 given the fact that the number of students is rising while funding continues to drop.

The precarious funding situation is reflected in university rankings. Although Irish universities perform well when considered globally, there’s often a view that we should be doing better as a developed economy.

For hÓgartaigh, NUI Galway’s ranking will ultimately improve if he focuses on “doing the right things”.

“If you chase the rankings I think you potentially damage other parts of what you do. I’ve always said, in any role I’ve had, that what defines a university is the quality of its students, the quality of its staff and the quality of the student experience. Some rankings measure those and some don’t.”

And the quality of students and their experience appears a genuine concern for the new president. So much so that on his first day in the university he made it clear to students that they were the lifeblood of the place by meeting the Students Union president in “his place rather than mine”.

“That to me was symbolic, making the point that students are central to what we do.”

He has also taught tutorials for a first-year accounting module in the past semester to make the same point.

As he starts off on his second year with bold proposals to transform part of the university’s estate, this president clearly has his hands full. This year alone will see him set down plans for the first half of the next decade in “vision 2025” while continuing to manage the university’s day-to-day affairs.

“I think pacing yourself is really critical because you can run out of steam really quickly,” he says of the 10-year job.

FACTFILE: Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

Age: 51

Position: President of NUI Galway

Family: Married to Fiona

Background: NUI Galway graduate and a chartered accountant, he holds a PhD from the University of Leeds

Something you might expect: Ó hÓgartaigh is a Fulbright fellow, a prestigious award programme founded by US senator James William Fulbright to improve the “mutual understanding” between US citizens and those from other countries.

Something that might surprise: He is the first commerce graduate and the first business school dean to be appointed president of any of our universities.

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