You can hardly turn on the news these days without hearing an academic expert explaining the latest developments in the global fight against Covid-19.
Some have become household names such as Prof Philip Nolan, Maynooth University; Prof Sam McConkey, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland; Prof Luke O'Neill, Trinity College Dublin; and Dr Cillian De Gascun, University College Dublin.
University campuses may be physically closed but it is clear that their staff are as busy as ever, delivering education online and contributing trusted expert opinion to the public.
Many academics are on the front line alongside their former students, who are the doctors, pharmacists and nurses working tirelessly for the health of the nation.
Many of the solutions to coronavirus-related problems will come from universities, which are repositories of great science and scholarship
University personnel are on all the key decision making committees advising the Government. Prof Nolan chairs the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, which is predicting the likely curve of the virus. Dr De Gascun chairs the Expert Advisory Group on coronavirus. There is also strong university representation on the Medical Leaders' Forum Committee established by the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan.
Everyone is doing what they can in this time of emergency. Universities haven’t had to be whipped into line to do this. They acted quickly, using their traditional autonomy and focusing on solutions.
Personal protection equipment, laboratory equipment and laboratory reagents have been donated by life science labs to the main teaching hospitals. Contact tracing centres have been established on many campuses.
The National Virus Reference Laboratory in UCD is doing sterling work. In Limerick, collaboration between the university and the University of Limerick Hospitals Group has seen the design and capacity created to manufacture 100,000 face visors for HSE staff. In excess of 5,000 bed spaces have been offered to the HSE as step-down facilities.
Within my own institution, staff from the school of dentistry have been redeployed to take swabs from patients at testing hubs. The school of nursing and midwifery is working with 30 Trinity volunteers at the contact tracing centre located in the newly opened Trinity Business School, and the business school will play a key role in driving the economic recovery. Students from the school of pharmacy have, meanwhile, been helping to keep pharmacies open. Parts of Trinity's city centre campus and our campus in St James's Hospital have been transformed to aid the national effort.
People increasingly see that many of the solutions to coronavirus-related problems will come from universities, which are repositories of great science and scholarship.
This is true at home and abroad. The sometimes derided experts and specialists are suddenly back in fashion, even in countries which have come under the spell of populist leaders. Simplistic solutions to complex global challenges, health or otherwise, are no longer acceptable – research and innovation are regarded as essential. Not before time.
In Ireland researchers will work with many of the international pharmaceutical and IT companies based in this country to address the new medical, social and economic challenges we are encountering.
Trinity has already been able to raise money in the shape of a €2.4 million philanthropic donation from AIB this month, which will be used to establish a research hub to help the fight the disease. This hub will make a real difference in global research efforts.
Notwithstanding these extraordinary contributions on so many fronts, universities have to prepare for operational and financial difficulties over the rest of the semester and during the next academic year.
A silent campus feels strange. It needs the voices and the interaction between students and staff but we know that things will not quickly return to the way they were before this pandemic. Lessons are being absorbed about incorporating digital teaching into our programmes as well as perhaps restructuring work to allow more to be done from home. This could have knock-on beneficial effects on traffic flows, pollution levels and quality of life.
Now that we have clarity about this year’s Leaving Certificate exams, we will work with the CAO to ensure that first years can begin their courses as soon as possible after the results are issued.
Lecturers have shown heroic flexibility in moving teaching and exams online, all done when working remotely from home. It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been perfect but existing students can now progress their studies.
Extensive planning has already begun in order to examine how best to protect the universities in what are sure to be constrained times.
Irish universities have not been found wanting in rising to the Covid-19 challenges. They have truly answered Ireland's call
The disruption caused by the virus has far reaching financial implications for universities. Trinity’s revenues could drop by as much as €40 million this year and €80 million next year. For universities overall, the drop in revenue will run to some hundreds of millions.
Universities have come to rely on fees income from international students. This helped in large measure to offset the decline in State funding during the financial recession. The Indecon report published by the Irish Universities Association showed that overseas students brought in €386 million to our universities in 2017. Covid-19 is likely to almost wipe out that income for this year and next at least. Universities will require support in order to avoid financial distress and play a key role in the post-crisis economic recovery.
Irish universities have shown themselves to be one of Ireland’s greatest assets in these tough times. They have not been found wanting in rising to the Covid-19 challenges. They have truly answered Ireland’s call. They will need strong support from the incoming government to continue their mission of creating new knowledge, helping to revive the economy and preparing the next generation of leaders and do-ers for Irish society.
Patrick Prendergast is Provost of Trinity College Dublin and chair of the Irish Universities Association