Impact & Opinions | Tionchar & Tuairimí

A Year of Change 

A Year of Change 

14 December 22
 | 40 MINS

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh became the 13th president of Ollscoil na Gaillimhe – University of Galway in January 2018. In December 2019 / January 2020, he launched the University’s Strategic Plan 2020–2025, ‘Shared Vision, Shaped by Values’, at the outset of what was to become a challenging period for third-level education, shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now approaching a halfway point in our value-based strategy, Ciarán reflects on our achievements and learnings thus far, exploring what it means for the University to be rooted in Galway, while always reaching outwards towards the horizon.

Bríd Seoige: We would like to congratulate you on the name change to University of Galway – Ollscoil na Gaillimhe. From your perspective as President, why was there a need for this renaming and what can we expect to gain from this change?

Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: Maidir leis an athrú go Ollscoil na Gaillimhe / University of Galway, is ollscoil muid agus táimid i nGaillimh. We’re a university and we’re in Galway.  

All the research in branding suggests that it’s a noisy world and simplicity is really important. We’ve concluded with a very simple naming of the university. We recognise that we have a long tradition going back to the mid-19th century, but at the same time, in the context of the 21st century, we’re re-energising the brand. Galway is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, we’re at the edge of things, but in the centre of things at the same time. I often quote JFK when he was in Galway in 1963; he said, “If the day was clear enough and you went down to the bay and you looked west, and your sight was good enough you would see Boston Massachusetts.” It’s actually Newfoundland that you can see but nonetheless, let’s leave Kennedy his poetry: we’re on the edge of Europe but in the middle of things, particularly with our FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), export orientation and sense of looking outward.

Whether it's from Salthill, Cois Fharraige, or the Claddagh, we see the horizon and wonder what's on the other side—that sense of curiosity that all great adventurers, researchers and poets have to push the boundaries.   

Secondly, every day, we see the horizon. Whether it’s from Salthill, Cois Fharraige, Ballyloughane or the Claddagh, we see the horizon and wonder what’s on the other side—that sense of curiosity that all great adventurers, researchers and poets have to push the boundaries. Thirdly, there is a [distinct] diversity in Galway that is captured in the University. The CSO (Central Statistics Office) tells us that about 19% of people living in Galway were not born in Ireland. That diversity brings in talent and we would like to also refer to that [in the name].

We’re a University and we’re in Galway, táimid an-shásta leis an athrú, táimid ar bhruach an Atlantaigh ach i lár cúrsaí mar an gcéanna.  Táimid idir an dá shaol más mian leat, agus sin an-tábhachtach, maidir leis an nGaeilge freisin ar ndóigh, mar tá muid ar bhruach na Gaeltachta agus lonnaithe sa Ghaeltacht. Tá ról tábhachtach againn mar sin, maidir leis an nGaeilge freisin. Agus tá Ollscoil na Gaillimhe chun cinn mar teideal nó ainm ar an ollscoil. Idir an dá shaol sin, tá sé tábhachtach dúinn freisin, (cifimid linnte spéire) chuile lá agus bíonn muid ag breathnú ar cad atá ar an taobh eile de.

Úsáidim go minic líne ón dán an tEarrach Thiar leis an bhfile Máirtín Ó Dhireáin, ‘Tá currach lán le éisc anseo ag teacht chun cladaigh’ agus tá sé tábhachtach dúinne go bhfuil muid i nGaillimh.  Tá súntas agus tairbhe ag baint le bheith i nGaillimh ar bhruach na Gaeltachta agus an Ghaeilge linn agus an tríú rud, ná go bhfuil rud éigin eisceachtúil faoi Ghaillimh, tá ilchineálacht ag baint leis, tá tairbhe ag baint leis ó thaobh cruthaíochta de freisin. Tá sé an-thábhachtach go mbeadh sé simplí, tá sé deacair agus bíonn an t-uafas torann sa saol. Mar sin, deireann an taighde ar mhargaíocht agus ar bhrandáil gur branda simplí agus an t-ainm simplí a oibríonn sa domhan atá againn faoi láthair. Mar sin tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuil an t-ainm simplí: is ollscoil muid agus táimid i nGaillimh, mar sin is Ollscoil na Gaillimhe muid. Sin é, lán stád.

We are now ranked among the top 50 universities in the world for sustainability by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and in the World 100 Reputation Network for the first time because of that.

BS: 2022 has been another successful year for University of Galway, i.e., achievements in EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) and Sustainability, improvements in rankings, significant events on campus including the first alumni gathering of three years and launches such as FutureCare 2022–2025. Do you feel that the University has made a successful transition to a post-COVID-19 campus?

CÓhÓ: We’ve had lots of success, in EDI in particular [among other things]. We are now ranked among the top 50 universities in the world for sustainability by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and we’re in the World 100 Reputation Network for the first time because of that. We have also had lots of gatherings on campus that weren’t possible during COVID. Jim Breslin—Secretary General of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science—recently attended the launch of the FutureCare strategy for the College of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences. He left knowing that he now had case studies for how research works. So, we’re particularly impactful in our research—across various areas including sustainability, healthcare, wellbeing and particularly creativity. 50% of this year’s Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF) came to Galway, which is a phenomenal success given the number of locations and institutions eligible.

It’s been a challenging transition, I think it’s fair to say, from a virtual to an increasingly hybrid world. At this stage, we need to be conscious that we’re now almost three years into this new world, and it has been particularly challenging for students. We need to think about how we might give each other more space, kindness and flexibility. That challenging transition has been something we haven’t possibly recognised as much as we should. What COVID showed us, is that we, as a university, are more agile than we might have anticipated. Universities have a sense of permanence and presence, but at the same time, we move quickly. That was down to our people—our staff and our students. We need to recognise that as we transition to a post-COVID world.  

Universities have a sense of permanence and presence, but at the same time, we are very agile and we move very quickly to a different context. That was down to our people—our staff and our students. We need to recognise that as we transition to a post-COVID world.

BS: We have faced many challenges in adapting teaching and learning to COVID-19 restrictions, with technology playing a major role. Which of these adaptive behaviours should we leave behind and which are worth developing? Is the typical classroom structure a thing of the past?

CÓhÓ: My sense is that it’s best to leave it to colleagues and students to determine what now suits them best. I think we can move too quickly and say, “The traditional lecture is a thing of the past.” Part of the issue is that you can’t simply record the lecture and [use it in future situations]. We’re a research-led institution. So, the knowledge and expertise that we have is driven by research and therefore changing every year, but I think there is probably another way for us to encourage the use of technology.

Firstly, the new generation of students is more used to shorter videos, podcasts and presentations. So, we need to think about how we can present things in different ways. Secondly, how can we engage in discussion in a different context, for example, combining discussion among smaller groups using digital techniques with presentations in class, which can be more dynamic.

We need to be patient in thinking about how that evolves. Colleagues are stretched, and may think, “Well, this is more work.” We also need to think about the students that are finding this transition quite challenging. The transition was good in some ways. I would say to graduates, “You were prepared, not for rough seas, but in rough seas, and that is a powerful learning experience.” We do need to reflect on what we learned from COVID, but I would also stress that that was an emergency transition into a technology context. That context is not ideal for learning. So, we need to have patience and leave it to colleagues and students to find the way that’s best for them, while encouraging technology literacy and leadership with initiatives like CELT (Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching).

We have a democratic and civic society, and universities are civic movements. Investing in universities is not a cost for the taxpayer; it gives a return in so many ways—in how our students approach the world and their critical role in society, but also in the value we place on knowledge and what employment comes out of that.

BS: This year we have had a record spend of €71.3 million on research activity. Many of these activities employ creative and collaborative methods to address societal challenges. What does this investment mean for the university and the ways in which we conduct research?

CÓhÓ: Colleagues are competing at a high level internationally. In my view, there is a clear consistency between a regional remit and an international perspective. We would be selling the region short if we didn’t have those high standards. A lot of funding is now based on impact in areas like sustainability, healthcare, medical devices, and particularly creative industries—areas where you would expect Galway to do well. Arís ag dul ar ais ag an t-ainm, Ollscoil na Gaillimhe / University of  Galway. 

In many ways, our university’s infrastructure is catching up and we need to possibly invest more, given our success. One thing that is really important for society, alumni, staff and students to recognise is that research is not a cost; it’s an investment in the future. For the taxpayer, this is really important. We have a democratic and civic society, and universities are civic movements. Investing in universities is not a cost for the taxpayer; it gives a return in so many ways—in how our students approach the world and their critical role in society, but also in the value we place on knowledge and what employment comes out of that.

The citizen is at the centre of impactful research. An important area in this regard is public and patient involvement, led out by Professor Sean Dinneen and the national PPI Ignite Network. Compared to other places I’ve been, I find that we at University of Galway are generally more focused on what matters to society, because we’re rooted in Galway. Sometimes you don’t realise, when you’re here and it’s part of your furniture.

BS: With increasing student numbers, capacity is a challenge that many third-level institutions are facing. How can we make sure that our vision of internationalisation is achievable?

CÓhÓ: Internationalisation is particularly important in my view, for a number of reasons—firstly and most importantly, the learning experience. Any student who comes out of Galway will have had the opportunity to be confronted with an international perspective. Even if you are working or living in in Ireland, because of the scale of the country and how we see ourselves in the world, inevitably we have an international perspective. A learning experience with an international dimension and diversity in the classroom is really important to us. Secondly, there is also a dimension of an international reputation, that we’re not insular but like the city of Galway itself, open to the world. We welcome a wide variety of diverse voices and perspectives.  

The third piece is the importance of investment; international students deserve a rich learning experience that reflects their needs. We are always conscious that when investing in activities or infrastructure, that it’s available to all students, and not solely one group. A particular challenge this year has been the accommodation crisis, not only in Ireland, but throughout Europe. I’ve come back from a meeting with ENLIGHT university partners (Bordeaux, the Basque Country, Comenius in Bratislava, Ghent, Goettingen, Groningen, Tarta, Uppsala) and they have similar issues in this regard. However, we are so dedicated to internationalisation that rather than closing the doors, we want to fix the problems. We are currently building a 674-bed student residence that will come into operation for September 2023. 

Early on [in the crisis], we worked with government to find ways for investment in student accommodation, and there were issues, they told, around State aid. The Students’ Union suggested that we focus on students in need, which I was also keen on. That particular group deserved attention; students who couldn’t afford accommodation, even if it was available on campus. So, the latest plan from government is to support universities, with University of Galway to the fore, in subsidising accommodation for students who need support through SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland) and The Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) and Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) grants.

That particular support may not available to international students but will take some pressure off the market more generally. We are providing different types of accommodation to international students; diverse provision is important. Thirdly, we expanded our Financial Aid Fund (FAF) to include international students for the first time. Sometimes, we can be under the impression that international students don’t have the same needs as other students—but they do. For me, it goes back to the philosophy that we are an open university; we welcome and embrace diverse perspectives, and if there are challenges, we address those challenges, rather than closing the door. 

We also set up the Student Pad. I remember going over to the Student Services colleagues on a bank holiday weekend early in the first Semester in order to thank them for the work they were doing. I didn’t interrupt them because they were busy. They had their list of students, and they were ringing them all to make sure they had a bed to sleep in that night. That was remarkable, that colleagues went the extra few miles in order to support our students. It was something that was quietly done, often in the background, but nonetheless significant. 

I went on radio during the summer, and appealed to Galway again to open up to students, particularly for bedsits, the Bean an Tí, to come back. There was a huge response, hundreds of offers. One of the things that came up on radio, was, “How would this affect my eligibility for SUSI and the medical card?” I rang the department and said, “There is an issue here.” Immediately, within about 10 days, they changed the policy so that the SUSI Grant wouldn’t be affected by that €14,000 tax-free income from renting to students. Medical cards was a more challenging issue as it involves a different department, but again, we were proactive in setting out a policy and engaging with policymakers in order to make those small but nonetheless significant changes for people.  

More generally, we are working closely with the Students’ Union—credit to them this year for the work they’re doing. Students are about a quarter of the population of Galway, a city of 83,456 people with 20-25% students, and therefore a really important part of the fabric of Galway. I think this year, Galway stood up. We had the same limitations as the rest of the country. It’s been a challenging time, but with some of the changes in accommodation coming through, 2023 will be a better year. 

…we expanded our Financial Aid Fund (FAF) to include international students for the first time. Sometimes, we can be under the impression that international students don't have the same needs as other students—and they do. For me, it goes back to the philosophy that we are an open university, [..] and if there are challenges, we address those challenges, rather than closing the door.

BS: Openness is one of the University’s key values. Can you tell us more about the University’s efforts to respond to ongoing crises such as the invasion of Ukraine?

CÓhÓ: When I came here first and sent a video out to staff for the first week of the semester, I used the word ‘kindness’. I could have said nothing else because when I went on my listening tour, that word came back all the time. It captured a mood in the place; the call for a response and outpouring of support among the University community for, not just Ukraine, but others in crisis situations internationally. Our community demands that, and it’s remarkable. This institution is different in that regard. We accommodated Ukrainian refugees in campus residences and worked with the Department of Integration in order to make sure that when they left us, the department gave good advanced warning. We worked with them in order to facilitate what we hoped was a smooth transition.  

We also have scholarships and open days for Ukrainian students, and we are a part of Scholars at Risk. Importantly, we make sure that this kindness is pervasive, in the work we do as a University of Sanctuary and in our commitment to EDI. We have lots of scholarships, including the EU-PASSWORLD Scholarship with UNHCR for students from sub-Saharan Africa through the College of Science and Engineering. We need to respond to [diverse] needs and adapt from our own failings sometimes. 

There are two elements to [openness]; one is the kindness and openness of the institution and secondly the willingness to learn. We are a learning institution, meaning that we not only teach, but also learn.  

There is a high wall at the back of the Quadrangle, running along Newcastle Road. There are issues with preservation that we need to respect but something simple that we did quietly last summer, is to open the door in the wall. Now, people can see into the back of the Quadrangle and to me, that is really important. Growing up in Moyola Park, I used to walk through the campus on my way “into town” (as we called it), and this was part of my furniture. There were others who did not walk through the campus—they would take the long route—because they felt that this wasn’t their place. I think that opening that door in the wall has been a small signal that this is everybody’s university and they can walk through. So, there is also that symbolic sense of openness; I hope we present ourselves as a university with no gates.  

Things like University of Sanctuary and the research that our colleagues are doing in human rights, public and patient involvement and community engagement in a creative context, means that we also “go out” to the community. For example, Baboró [International Arts Festival for Children] was on campus again this year. The likes of Baboró, Druid, Macnas, an Taibhdhearc started here at University of Galway; people come in through the gates but we also go out from the gates and engage with our community. Again, not just in Galway, we are of Galway, but this engagement and openness extends beyond Galway, which is key to internationalisation. 

I think there is real importance in articulating that we’re here to serve our society, our students and our planet. There is a strength in that service. People think of service as subsidiary, and it's not. There is impact in service, and there is strong literature in management research on the importance of service leadership.

BS: We’re coming up to the halfway point of our value-based University strategy. How do you think we’re doing so far?

CÓhÓ: From the beginning, I have said that  we are here for the public good and that is an important aspect of our identity. I mentioned earlier the impact of our research on policy making, as well as the impact of teaching and community engagement. I think there is real importance in articulating that we’re here to serve our society, our students and our planet. There is a strength in that service. People think of service as subservient, but it’s not. There is impact and strength in service, and there is strong literature in management research on the importance of service leadership. As a University, we lead through that sense of service.  

We launched the strategy in December 2019 / January 2020; then COVID came in March. COVID interrupted a lot of the formalities of our strategy, but I think we actually lived the values throughout the pandemic. I hope we did. Even though our campus closed, the University didn’t, and our laboratories and research facilities stayed open. We maintained a standard of excellence, and I hope we did that with respect. It was often very difficult at a distance to have a sense of how everybody was feeling, and it was a challenging and frustrating time for people. I hope that we carried through that period by living the values, which are more important than the formalities. One of the challenges I have is that I talk about the values, but sometimes, lived experiences in the University are not consistent with those values. So, we need to find ways to give voice to people, and find ways learn from and to address issues as or before they arise.

We are a group of individuals, each with their own personality and way of doing things. Because of that, nothing is ever perfect. We need to work together to improve over time by respecting one another and being our best selves. There is a great line from Abraham Lincoln about “finding the better angels of our nature”. During the COVID pandemic, it was sometimes challenging and at other times easier to find the better angels of our nature in ourselves and in each other. That is something we need to work on because it’s an imperfect world and there is work still to do.  

The public good manifests in a variety of ways. There is a sense at University of Galway when approaching issues, whether that’s in research or teaching, that we are not doing this simply for ourselves. And that has garnered great respect amongst policy makers.

We’ve had many successes. We didn’t have Athena SWAN in 2018. Now the majority of our Schools have awards and our School of Engineering is the first engineering school to receive a Silver in Ireland. In sustainability, we are in the top 50 universities in the world, and programmes like BioInnovate are really making a difference. Around this time of year, we can get stuck in what didn’t happen, but we can take great pride in all that we did. One of my hope as President is that we have pride in ourselves in this University, although we’re not perfect. 

One of the challenges I have is that I talk about the values, but sometimes, lived experiences in the University are not consistent with those values. So, we need to find ways to give voice to those people, and find ways to address those issues.

BS: Is there anything else you would like to discuss that we haven’t touched on here?

CÓhÓ: Ba mhaith liom an Gaeilge a lua. Tá stráitéis na Gaeilge seolta againn, tá oifigeach Gaeilge ceaptha againn agus tá oifigeach Gaeilge do na mic léinn nach raibh ann cheana. Is muid an chéad ollscoil a rinne sin agus tá Barry Ó Siochrú ansin anois agus tá an-jab á dhéanamh ag Barry agus sin gné tábhachtach. Arís tá rudaí le déanamh agus níl sé foirfe ach tá roinnt mhaith obair déanta againn. 

…tá seod againn sa nGaeilge, agus ní haon uallach é sin ach is luach é dúinn agus is rud é a dhéanaimid difiriúil. Níl aon ollscoil eile in Éirinn, nó sa domhan más mian leat ar bhruach na Gaeltachta agus is rud tairbheach é sin, ní míbhuntáiste ach is buntáiste é agus caithfimid tógáil ar sin.

Tá an-obair á dhéanamh ag an Acadamh agus táimid ag iarraidh a bheith níos lárnaigh, má’s mian leat, nó na daoine atá ag obair ann, go n-aireoidh siadsan níos lárnaigh san Ollscoil.  Ach go háithrithe, rud ba mhaith liomsa a bheith ann i gconaí ó thaobh na hOllscoile de, mar gur dhúradh go minic go bhfuil dualgas orainn maidir leis an nGaeilge agus uaireanta tagann uallach le dualgas, ach ní hé go bhfuil dualgas orainn ach tá seod againn sa nGaeilge, agus ní haon uallach é sin ach is luach é dúinn agus is rud é a dhéanaimid difiriúil.  Níl aon ollscoil eile in Éirinn (nó sa domhan más mian leat!) ar bhruach agus i gcroílár na Gaeltachta mar atáimidne agus is rud tairbheach é sin, ní míbhuntáiste ach is buntáiste é agus caithfimid tógáil ar sin. Tá sé sin an-tábhachtach, mar sin tá stráitéis na Gaeilge an-thábhachtach dúinn agus bhí roinnt mhaith ionchur as lasmuigh ann, ó chomhluadar na Gaeilge sa gcathair, go réigiúnda agus go náisiúnta, sin rud eile ar mhaith liom cur leis. 

Tofinish, I’ll just say that in March 2020, I stood here and announced that the campus was closed, but the University wasn’t closing. We thought it would only be one semester but it turned out to be another, then another, then the cyber-attack which failed but was nonetheless very disruptive. We had four to five semesters of uncertainty and disruption, and I would like to say thank you to all of those who carried us through. There was such a sense of responsibility and care for the mission of the institution, that people continued, but we can’t take that for granted. We need to remain conscious that this has been a very challenging time and give each other space as we come into a new dispensation. We are now back on campus and there is a real sense that the place is alive again. The ongoing engagement with research, the re-engagement with clubs, societies and the teaching mission—that enthusiasm and energy—is what makes our campus distinctive. That’s why it’s so important that we’re back and back with the buzz you’d expect in Galway … and at Ollscoil na Gaillimhe/University of Galway! 


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