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Smurfit Business School: UCD’s history of contributing to Ireland’s growth

An international perspective is key to the global view of commerce-focused campuses

The UCD College of Business marked a significant milestone during 2021 with the 30th anniversary of the Smurfit School's opening on the Carysfort Campus. UCD has been delivering high-quality business education for over a century and the College of Business today comprises the Quinn School of Business undergraduate school on the Belfield campus; the Smurfit Graduate Business School at Carysfort; Smurfit Executive Development, also located at Carysfort; and UCD Business International campuses in Singapore, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.

Business education at UCD goes back to 1909 with the establishment of the commerce faculty, but the key moment in the development of Smurfit School came half a century later. "Michael MacCormac, who was dean of the Business School, was sent by the minister for industry and commerce on a tour of American business schools to find out how business education was done there," says Anthony Brabazon, dean of the UCD College of Business. "When he came back, he wrote up what would become the curriculum for UCD's MBA programme which was launched in 1964 as one of the first MBA programmes in Europe. That was the very early stage in the school's development of its postgraduate portfolio."

Twenty-five years later, the school had ambitions to grow that portfolio still further, as Aidan Kelly, who was dean of UCD College of Business in 1991 at the launch of UCD Smurfit School, recalls.

"The College of Business had no real image or identity of its own and we wanted to do something about that. Paddy Masterson was the first UCD president to appoint an external advisory board and he asked every faculty to think about aspirations. We came up with the idea for a separate business school on the campus."


Engagement with the private sector led to an approach to Michael Smurfit to provide funding to jump-start the project. "He agreed and we were on our way. We decided to appoint someone from outside to run the school. Laurence Crowley accepted the position and it worked out very well."

Fortuitous timing

Fate intervened when Carysfort College came on the market in 1989. After much lobbying, the government backed the plan for UCD to purchase the college and set up a new graduate business school there.

The timing was fortuitous. “It was a good time to recruit students,” Kelly points out. “The economy was going nowhere, and emigration was rising. Third-level education was in high demand. We grew our postgraduate numbers very quickly. We had 40 or 50 postgraduate students in Belfield and within a few years at Carysfort we had had grown that number to over 1,000.”

The faculty grew as well. “We were able to attract very good staff and most of our faculty members are now from overseas,” he adds. “Thirty years ago, we had no overseas staff at all. You can’t be an international school delivering an international agenda if don’t have an international faculty and student body.”

Brabazon agrees. "As the school developed and matured, it gained an international reputation and approximately half our students in any year are from overseas, coming from 70 different countries around the world. In the early years our students were predominantly from Ireland. Today we have two schools on the Carysfort campus. Smurfit Graduate Business School is part of the UCD College of Business and offers a range of MSc specialist programmes and MBAs. We have 1,600-1,700 students coming through our doors every year. Smurfit Executive Education offers a broad range of accredited and non-accredited executive education and training. We have over 2,000 participants in executive education programmes in a normal year. Our new strategy envisages doubling that over the next five years."

The Smurfit School’s international reputation has been built over many years. “Laurence Crowley, Michael Smurfit and Aidan Kelly shared a global mindset and wanted to open up the school to the wider world. We began to participate in international accreditations.”

Attractor of talent

That saw the school accredited to the highly prestigious Association of MBAs (AMBA); the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the world’s largest business education network; and the Equis international quality improvement system.

“We got all three in the 1990s and this makes us one of an elite group of business schools around the world to hold the triple crown of accreditations,” Brabazon notes. “This benchmarks our standards of education, research, and processes against the very best in the world.”

The influx of international students and faculty is important for other reasons, he adds. “UCD is an important attractor of talent into the country. We are not only training and educating future business leaders but helping to create an important pipeline of talent coming in and contributing to Ireland’s growth story. They bring their own networks from their home countries along with their ambition and energy.”

He sums up the Smurfit School in three words. “Empower, connect and create. We are developing and empowering the next generation of business leaders. We are connected globally. We connect the past and future, academic theory and practice, students and faculty, and alumni and business community. And we create. Co-creation is a really important theme for me. The Smurfit School is not just tuition-led. Most important is the co-creation between students, faculty, industry partners and other leading business schools around the world.”

Looking to the future, Brabazon says the school has been on a development journey for several decades. “We will continue to build on our heritage as a full-service business college with the Quinn School providing undergraduate education, Smurfit Executive Development delivering for people who are already on their career journeys, and the Smurfit School offering postgraduate education. We see ourselves as being in the very front rank of European business schools, globally connected and known for our excellence in business education and research. And we will continue to be an engine of growth for the Irish economy.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times