Modelling citizen: Prof Philip Nolan and the battle against Covid-19

President of Maynooth University talks about public health role and has advice for CAO applicants

Life is long. As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us, it’s full of unexpected obstacles. And while we’ve all been thrown off-course by the virus, few have been swept out to sea as much as Leaving Cert students.

For Prof Philip Nolan, President of Maynooth University, life before Covid-19 was running along familiar lines. He chaired the Irish Universities Association's task group on reform of university selection and entry, which changed how the Leaving Cert was graded. In his own institution, he introduced major changes that allowed students to mix and match subjects from very different areas, such as studying arts and science together. He also strengthened research links between the various different research institutions at Maynooth and forged a path towards an interdisciplinary approach.

Covid-19 fundamentally changed Nolan's day-to-day work. The university, like all third-level institutions, had to close its doors while still trying to provide an education for its students. Nolan's particular expertise became vital for the entire national effort against the virus, as he chaired the National Public Health Emergency Team's Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group. All that talk of flattening curves and R-rates (the virus's reproduction rate among the population) became part of our everyday vocabulary. Nolan was at the centre of it all.

“As an academic, you sometimes wonder if the eclectic set of skills you built up will be of use to anyone,” he says. “I originally trained in medicine and then became a medical researcher where my work involved handling large data sets. Then I moved into leadership and administration roles in university [including a stint as registrar in UCD].


“Advising NPHET and the chief medical officer involves the medical understanding and being able to assimilate and extract meaning from complex data sets. It also involves understanding how the public service and public health works. Across the world, we are seeing how important it is to have a strong public sector, especially in a crisis.”

All of a sudden, a global pandemic had brought Nolan back to his original learning pathway. “Learning does not end with your degree – it begins,” he says. “You build your skills and your capacity over a career of working and learning. This pandemic has really highlighted the value of expertise: in Maynooth University and at NPHET, colleagues have been doing extraordinary jobs. In the university, our academic and administration colleagues have been working hard to do their very best for students.”

This year, perhaps more than any other, the Leaving Cert has been to the forefront of the news headlines, with students, parents and teachers divided on whether it should go ahead or whether some form of continuous assessment could be carried out. The CAO and college applications, however, are also weighing on students' minds. But how can a student consider their future at a time of such global uncertainty. With so many people having suffered so much stress and anxiety over the last few months, and when getting out of bed and getting dressed is a big achievement for many, how can we expect students to focus on the CAO Change of Mind? When so many of us have been getting through each day as it comes, how can students be expected to look ahead to their future college courses and careers?


“I think it is very difficult,” Nolan says. “The short-term system is going to be generous and accommodating. This is a very unusual circumstance for students; while the switch to online has enabled some learning to happen, it falls far short of the actual educational experience. The more disadvantaged students won’t do as well under this system, but the education system – including higher education – understands this and will adapt and change.”

That might be reassuring for some in the short-term, but how can students manage to focus on the long-term implications of their CAO choices?

Don't be guided by the world or the labour market now. What you choose will stay with you for the rest of your life

“Try to set aside some time and space,” says Nolan. “Get out for a walk and try to imagine a future where we are close to being back to normal. What’s happening now is early of the lifetime of Leaving Cert students, but we hope it will be history when they are older.”

Nolan advises students not to be too influenced by the current circumstances when making their choices. “Put the short-term to one side. In making a choice about what degree you do, you’re equipping yourself with the skills you may use for 50-60 years. People are working well into their 70s these days, often in a voluntary capacity [beyond retirement age]. The pandemic may last one or two years on and off, but there is a long life ahead of us all when we get through on it”

Have confidence in your abilities, he says. “A lot of people may be the first in their family or community to go to [third level]. I personally lacked the confidence at times earlier in my life to say I could be good at this.”

Follow your interests, Nolan adds. “Don’t be guided by the world or the labour market now. What you choose will stay with you for the rest of your life. But different degrees – even apparently specialist ones like medicine or law – teach you to think in ways that can be applied in so many scenarios. You often see engineers, for instance, in a wide variety of careers, and it comes back to how they learned to think in their engineering degree.”

Nolan, always a calm and reassuring presence, has become one of the country’s most prominent figures in recent months. Just as Leaving Cert students have faced scrutiny and pressure, so has he. How is he managing?

"Badly," he says, self-deprecating. "It has been tough-going at times but I am doing my best to look after myself. I have spent time with family on Zoom. I'm exercising – indoors where lockdown applies – and taking time to write my diary and to read. It has been really tough on everyone including older people isolating, people who have lost jobs and those who have had their education interrupted. I'm really inspired by the ability, work ethic and dedication of the people around me in the university sector and at the Department of Health. They are getting us through this."