‘Going back to college is odd’: the institute that became a jobs-focused university

Pat O'Mahony, a former NIHE student visits Dublin City University. It’s bigger than it was in the 1980s, but the atmosphere is unchanged

Going back to the alma mater is always an odd experience. Four years of memories – three as a communications-studies student, one as the student union’s first full-time entertainments (and publications) manager – make for an interesting mix of emotional baggage.

It’s just shy of 25 years since DCU became a fully fledged university (one of only two established here since independence, in 1922, the other being the University of Limerick), and the place has changed almost beyond recognition since my time there in the mid 1980s, when it was the humble National Institute of Higher Education in Glasnevin.

Today, looking at the you-are-here display maps that dot the campus, I am struck by how insignificant the 1980s elements of the campus are now. In my time NIHE catered for 2,000 students in a small knot of buildings surrounded by a lot of greenery – mainly sports fields – on its 30-hectare campus 5km north of the middle of the capital.

Now about 12,000 students attend Dublin City University annually on a site that has a student-union hub, plentiful student accommodation, a standalone library, a busy sports complex, a multidenominational place of worship, a creche, numerous car parks (we had one), academic buildings and the Helix theatre.


I still visit. Recently I presented and coproduced You Couldn't Make It Up , a 10-week Newstalk comedy news panel series recorded at the Helix. I also mentor students as part of the university's mentorship programme. And every so often I'm asked out to chat about working in the media. By now I take the size of Dublin City University for granted.

But while there has been a huge physical transformation, the attitude of the place hasn’t really changed at all. It may well be, as its website proudly says, “a young, dynamic and ambitious university with a distinctive mission to transform lives and societies through education, research and innovation”, but from where I’m standing it’s still a conservative institution whose primary objective is to feed the employment requirements of Irish industry.

From what I can tell, DCU fulfils this role very well. But it’s not the place to be if ancient history, modern philosophy or the performing arts are your bag.

On this visit I catch up with the college’s current entertainments manager, Shea McNelis. When I was a student there was usually a disco in one of the larger classrooms once a week. There might be a live gig, either in the only (very small) lecture theatre or in the restaurant, where strapped-together tables acted as a makeshift stage, once a month.

For freshers’ and rag week we had to go off campus for a venue large enough to accommodate the “balls”. And perish the thought that anyone might want a pint. The nearest pub was on the other side of the campus, bordering Ballymun Road.

Today McNelis has the student-union hub at his disposal, with its 1,000-capacity performance venue and two bars. If he’s feeling ambitious he’s also got access to the Helix. And he says he has well-attended events every night of the week, even in the summer, when international students replace the home-grown variety in the accommodation blocks. I kind of envy him.

In truth, though, while I enjoy my occasional visits, I have no real emotional links to the place. When I was graduating, in 1986, a lecturer suggested I might want to hang around and do some postgrad study. When I stopped laughing I told him I couldn’t wait to get out of the place and was only hanging around to work there because I’d had no other offers.

Now when I go back I see it for what it is: a highly efficient academic hothouse geared towards the needs of business and industry. Which is fine, but I think too long in its environs would test what little sanity I have left.