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In Conversation: Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, MRIA, Deputy President and Registrar, University of Galway 

In Conversation: Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, MRIA, Deputy President and Registrar, University of Galway 

13 December 22
 | 20 MINS

“We have one of the highest participation rates in the world in third-level education, but we are a long way off being one of the highest investors in that education. For the sake of this country and its young people we need to stop trying to do this on the cheap,”  says Deputy President and Registrar of University of Galway, Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh.

You grew up in Belfast in the 1970s. Would you say that your upbringing has had a strong influence on your career path, your passion for language and your cultural identity?  

Absolutely. In terms of cultural identity, my parents and grandparents were a mixed bunch from Antrim, Tyrone, Westmeath and Inverness-shire. My parents were also a religiously mixed marriage. My cultural identity, as long as I can remember, has always been Irish with a strong sympathy for Scotland. And I despise sectarianism, as a consequence of which I have always been deeply opposed to partition. 

Hurling was part of that upbringing, but the Irish language played only a small part in it, for we didn’t have it in the family, though my father’s best friend and his wife, Liam and Cris Broderick, were one of the five founding couples of the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht and the first Irish-medium primary school in Belfast. But I hated Irish in school and couldn’t wait to drop it when I was sixteen. Yet within a few months I found that something was missing. It was about my personal sense of identity. I eventually came back to the language in my thirties, did an A Level, short courses in Glencolmcille with Oideas Gael, and took a degree part-time at Ulster while working as a lecturer there. Part of the motivation was that if I ever had children I wanted them to be bilingual. My daughters are now growing up beautifully bilingual here in Galway. 

But my first love was German. I fell in love with the sound of the language on a school trip to Austria when I was ten. I didn’t know it then, but that was a life-changing event. Later, I gave up a degree in Maths and Computer Science to follow my heart, and I became a lecturer and then a professor in German. To this day I love the sound of German, and reading German literature and history.

Your remit is broad, from responsibility for the University academic strategy, promotions and quality to chairing many boards, including Sustainability Advisory Board and until very recently, the Board of the Central Admissions Office. You are also a member of the  IUA Registrars’ Group and the Royal Irish Academy. How have you managed to find balance and succeed in these various areas? 

It is broad, but not one of the things you mention isn’t worth it. Sustainability is about our very existence as a species. Academic strategy, quality and the CAO are all about the value of our young people (and some not so young) and their future. Academic promotions are about recognising achievement among academic colleagues and doing so in a way that is rooted in equality. The IUA and the RIA are about engaging across the country for mutual learning and improvement. 

I am passionate about education and doing all to ensure that others succeed. That passion was instilled by my parents, but you have to want it yourself, too. Long hours are part of it, but bringing teams along also, consulting, recognising not only what’s needed but also what’s possible with a bit of imagination. We have had some significant successes in the areas you just mentioned, sure enough. All these successes are built on the work of teams, teams that are led, challenged and listened to in equal measure. An occasional bit of levity helps, too!

You have talked about the correlation between inflated accredited grades and increasing requirements for CAO points. Does the current entry system for domestic students support equal educational opportunities? What kind of new routes can we develop for prospective students to access University? 

Equality is a massive word. It’s not just about systems. On one level the CAO entry system could not be fairer, since it is about the points and the points alone, unlike the UK system, for example, which introduces statements about interests etc that have been shown to influence University selectors in biased ways and have also spawned an industry in writing such statements for applicants, if parents can afford to pay. I’m glad we don’t have that.

"Missed opportunities for those who could have gone (to university) are a loss not just for those individuals, but for all of society.

But, leaving aside the significant unfairness created by Leaving Cert grade inflation during Covid-19, there is another issue that is at the core of equality – equality of opportunity. Many youngsters have parents who are well-educated and who are determined to pass that on. They have the opportunities. Many do not, however, and for too many of those youngsters third level is simply not on their or their parents’ horizons, it is regarded as somehow above them or beyond their reach. Real social equality would remove the mental barriers to the direct route, or offer alternative pathways, through FE, apprenticeships or a return to education later in life for those who missed it the first time round. It will never be for everybody – there isn’t a country in the world that sends 100% of its 18-year-olds to University – but missed opportunities for those who could have gone are a loss not just for those individuals, but for all of society. 

Then there is a third group of youngsters. I will always be in deep, deep awe of those parents, like my own, who never got the opportunity themselves but who ensured that higher education was possible for their children.

Galway is a unique region, home to Ireland’s most international city and largest Gaeltacht. Can you tell us about the value of the Irish language strategy and its key aims for the future? 

Galway is the bee’s knees, which is just one reason why we put the city front and centre when we adopted our new name this year, rebranding as: Ollscoil na Gaillimhe – University of Galway. It could so easily be just another mid-sized town by the sea but it isn’t. It is culturally vibrant, international, a safe place for children to grow up in and a place full of multicultural variety across both city and county, and our language is at the heart of that. 

Cheap muid an chéad Oifigeach Gaeilge agus sheol muid an chéad Straitéis Gaeilge riamh don Ollscoil seo breis is bliain ó shin, agus is léir ón straitéis sin cé chomh tábhachtach is atá an teanga dúinn. I measc na gcéimeanna sa straitéis tá scéim chónaitheach do mhic léinn, agus tá an chéad slua de mhic léinn le Gaeilge lonnaithe sna h-árasáin anois. Mar chuid den straitéis tá orainn cinntiú go mbeidh daoine ag obair i ngach oifig laistigh den Ollscoil atá ábalta  an gnó a dhéanamh i nGaeilge, agus pléitear gach post nua sa chomhthéacs sin sula bhfógraítear é. 

We can take various measures in support of the language, but the most important one is that we create an atmosphere that resonates bilingually and in which we are seen to be clearly supportive of the language and those who speak it, in the University, in the city and in our region. Some people are wary of this – we have a long colonial history that still influences some mindsets – because they think it puts international students off. Au contraire, the evidence is that it is an added point of attraction.

Teaching and learning has adapted rapidly to the challenges brought about by COVID-19 and its aftermath. Many are predicting a shift of focus in education to a more rounded approach, based on creativity, collaborative skills and adaptability. Do you agree? What kind of learning environments can students expect in the future? 

Covid-19 was a curse and a challenge, and I both deeply admire and am grateful to colleagues for the ways in which they rose to that challenge while facing real adversity. Our campuses closed on that evening in March 2020 but colleagues across the piece made sure that the University did not. 

Teaching changed and some of these changes will stay, but not all. We are a campus university, not an online one, and that is what we should be, for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the socialisation of our young people, the learning to debate and dispute and be collaborative and creative that will not be done nearly as effectively on computer screens in bedrooms as it will be in classrooms, labs, lecture theatres and field trips. 

We have one of the highest participation rates in the world in third-level education, but we are a long way off being one of the highest investors in that education. For the sake of this country and its young people we need to stop trying to do this on the cheap.

Yet there are technologies out there now that can significantly enhance the learning experience, and our own staff as well as the students will need to develop their capabilities in order to maximise the use of those technologies. We are not going back to pre-Covid-19 teaching. We are moving towards new, enhanced ways of teaching and learning that will, if anything, require more engagement than before. New posts in learning technologies and academic staff development and, to face the downside of recent years, academic integrity, will help us all to embrace the developing learning experience with confidence. 

It is important that government supports those developments by investing far more in higher education than it has ever done. We have one of the highest participation rates in the world in third-level education, but we are a long way off being one of the highest investors in that education. For the sake of this country and its young people we need to stop trying to do this on the cheap. 

You are an avid reader. What book or books have made an impression on you? 

There isn’t a single one, but there are a few that have left a lasting impression on me, including Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Brian Friel’s Translations, Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Jurek Becker’s Holocaust novel, Jakob der Lügner. Heinrich Böll’s Und sagte kein einziges Wort is a moving story of a young Catholic couple struggling in post-War Cologne that is told in alternate chapters through the eyes of the wife and the husband. Another motivation for coming back to Irish was a desire to read Myles na Gopaleen’s An Béal Bocht in the original. Sorley MacLean’s poetry is, with all due respect to great Irish poets Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and others, the most inspiring and beautiful 20th-century poetry in any branch of the Gaelic/Irish language. Recent finds include Chester Himes’ 1965 novel Cotton Comes to Harlem and a brilliant new Irish writer, Co. Antrim woman Jan Carson. Oh, and I’m a Tolkien fan. 


Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh

MRIA, Deputy President and Registrar, University of Galway


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