Irish tech university revamps its stance on education

Irish tech university revamps its stance on education

David FitzPatrick, President, and Mary Meaney, Registrar and Deputy President, TU Dublin, outline their plans to transform the role of education in students’ lives and the importance of directly tying education to industry


Can you give us an overview of the significance of the university in Ireland’s education sector?

DF: TU Dublin is the largest technological university and arguably the largest university in the country. We have nearly 30,000 students. Within English-speaking universities, TU Dublin has the largest intake in Europe, with around 6,000 foreign students each year. Courtesy of Brexit, we are arguably the largest English-speaking university in the EU. Our three campuses cover the Dublin greater region and are close to centers of industry and business activity. Engagement with industrial centers is pivotal to our remit. Our school is engaged with more than 400 different companies. Practice- and skills-based education is evident within our curricular models and will be a main part of curriculum development in the coming years.

Historically, Ireland has shown an appetite for change and leadership in key areas of economic development. TU Dublin is the next wave of that. We are embarking on a process that will radically change our educational offerings. We are updating the way we engage with industry and imbed our students both regionally and internationally. It is going to be new. It is going to be innovative. It is going to be different.


TU Dublin’s new city campus is the largest higher education development project in Europe. Can you describe what is being developed and its impact on the school and the community?

DF: The $610-million investment is the largest investment within the 100-year history of the Irish state, and the largest investment in higher education as a single project. Our goal is to gather faculties that are currently spread around the city center and bring them under a single campus, the Grangegorman campus. Our Tallaght and Blanchardstown campuses will remain and be developed in time. The east quad of our new campus is where the performing arts and conservatoire building will be based. This includes a 400-seat professional theater. We are hoping the development will turn the campus into a destination where external companies take advantage of the theater space to put on music, drama or other professional activities, for exmple. The next phase will include a new library and learning center. The following phase will include the new business building. At the end of the project, we will have brought all faculties–business, science, engineering, creative and performing arts and humanities–onto a single campus so these communities can interact to drive research and opportunities in education.

Historically the area has had a lot of socio-economic issues; it has been one of the poorer parts of Dublin. Grangegorman was originally a penitentiary jail before becoming a mental hospital. Historically nobody wanted it to be here. Those in Grangegorman were either mentally ill or a prisoner. The cultural change is dramatic and quite significant. The project will regenerate and revitalize the whole area around the campus. We are already seeing some positive impacts.


Q: What is TU Dublin’s strategy plan for developing its inner mechanisms and curriculum?

DF: We launched our 2030 strategic plan in 2020 around the UN sustainable development goals. We are concentrating on the three following pillars: people, planet and partnership. In terms of the planet, sustainability is our main focus. Apart from being a sustainable entity ourselves, we need to influence the next generation of leaders who will inform and develop sustainable practices. Our tagline is, ‘Creating a better world together.’ We want people to come into our community and learn how to have an impact in the wider world. Educationally we want to provide a pathway for students to engage in higher education in a way that has not been done previously; we want to provide an institution that students and later leaders can come back to–not just be something one does at 18 or 19 years old for four or five years. Nowhere has yet to deliver on proper lifelong learning, and we have an opportunity to do that.

 MM: TU Dublin’s history is three institutes of technology coming together. The university is a huge transformation project within Irish education and will change the agenda associated with technological universities. We are designing a new university that will deliver on equality of access and provide a more agile and flexible education as opposed to a greater cohort of students, which has traditionally been the case within the Irish context.


What new approaches is TU Dublin taking with its interactions with industry?

DF: Our research is done in close collaboration with industry. We have amongst the highest levels of output in terms of high-potential startups and spin outs. The innovation space is one that we have an excellent track record with. One of our current projects is a capital development project around the design and construction of infrastructure, particularly buildings. It has generated huge industry engagement. It intends to bring together the practice of designing and constructing with the research that underpins it. Because of the school’s breadth of subject areas, we can bring together the digital and the physical; we can include information modeling, future analytics and other information-technology-based approaches and combine them with the traditional construction sector. This is something leading companies want to be part of. These types of engagements are a core part of our future research portfolios.


How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way the university operates?

DF: We changed significantly in what we do and how we do it over the pandemic. Programs changed overnight to being remotely delivered, which is quite challenging for a university that has a long heritage in skill- and practice-based learning. We set ourselves a target of putting as much as possible online, but still having the key practice-based foundational elements face to face, albeit in smaller groups and in more restricted environments. We managed quite well, and most changes will be reversed as we become less restrictive in our activities. The biggest challenge has been with remote delivery. How do you prepare and develop content and make it accessible and engaging for students in a virtual setting? How do you support students and learning communities in an isolated space where they do not have their peer groups readily at hand? We put a lot of focus on supporting and mentoring students and providing access to services and facilities.

All three campuses are in areas of socio-economic deprivation. We became aware that some of our students were lacking in core facilities during the first lockdown. We supported them by providing library access for study and government loans. We helped administer a national campaign to provide laptops as loans for students. These types of support will continue to be important in the future. Once you see the level of need, we must meet it to develop the individual in the long term. We need to ensure that younger students stay engaged and maintain their trajectory.


MM: Many of our other student services–ranging from counseling to our health services–have moved to an online model. We have learned a lot from the change. The opportunity to support students 24/7 is possible and is a far stronger system. We are engaging with guidance counselors and future students online around the country through virtual open days to enable them to get a sense of TU Dublin before they consider studying here. Additionally, we had our graduations online and are looking to similarly engage with our new alumni. We are using several platforms to promote lifelong learning.


What kind of global footprint does TU Dublin have, and how are you using it to attract students and staff to your university?

DF: We have a strong track record of collaborating on program development internationally. For example, we have a 10-year history collaborating on developing engineering programs with Nanjing Technical University in China. Although we have strong international engagement, we are looking to grow. We want to develop more collaborations with key partners in the international community.

Although the number of students coming to study in Ireland dropped this year because of COVID, they did not drop to zero and only fell to 60 percent of what we expected. The fact that we can attract undergraduate and graduate students from Asian markets shows that Ireland is a strong venue and a destination for study, particularly for people who work in technological spaces. The brand recognition of our country is solid. In terms of staff, we are strongly engaged with European mobility programs. We host European researchers, and our researchers travel. We have high European staff membership. The Erasmus modes of engagement is something that we will continue to invest in and develop our capacity for. It is a good way of beginning a relationship with a region or country.