New NUI Galway President Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh believes that Ireland is “selling students short” by not investing enough into third-level education.
The former Dean of UCD College of Business commenced his term as President this semester and told SIN that he is “banging the drum” for more funding for Irish universities, rather than focusing on ongoing debate on the cost of university fees.
His predecessor Dr James Browne was in favour of a loan system for students and deemed the idea of “free” or subsidised fees as “naïve”, while USI organised a protest against the introduction of student loans in October last year.
“I am inclined to think that the issue is funding if we talk about fees … if we think universities are important for society, which they are, then they need to be properly funded. On an international level, universities here are less funded and therefore I think we are selling students short. Compared to other universities that we are internationally competing with I think we should be fair to the current generation and invest in the future,” said Professor Ó hÓgartaigh.
“I don’t know if fees are the answer because I think there are other ways such as state funding, which is done in other countries internationally, philanthropy, and other means.”
“I’m not necessarily banging the drum for fees – I’m banging the drum for better funding. And I think students have been quite vocal here on the issue. “
He questioned whether graduates had a role to play in funding current students, as a means of repaying institutions for the education they received.
“I am struck by the idea that there has been twenty years of university graduates out there … how will that group of people pay back, as undoubtedly university gives you better opportunity for employment and better earning opportunities. And I think that is another question, how do that group pay back to the university, through philanthropy or otherwise?” he said.
The new university chief was very positive regarding the progress made in the institution regarding gender equality, saying current policies in NUI Galway were “more proactive than any other institution I have been in before.”
Pressed on whether gender quotas were a fair system to have in place, he said he believed that a quota was a short-term corrective measure to “change mentalities” and did not put gender before merit. He also pointed out that in the last round of promotion in the university, 58pc of promotions to senior lecturer had gone to female staff members.
“I think the system is based on merit, by its nature you will have equal opportunities for men and women. Quotas are sometimes necessary to change mentalities, so very often when people are going through a process thinking of a quota they are mindful of it,” he said.
“My own sense is, if you have open competition, that there is merit across the university in different backgrounds and different genders, and ultimately that will come to the fore so there isn’t any distinction or necessarily any inconsistency between merit and equality.”
Diversity and internationality were other key components of Prof Ó hÓgartaigh’s vision for his term in office, and he said that he would be encouraging the notion that not only diversity but respect was very important for the university to be at its best.
“One of the things I’m thinking about for the conversation when meeting the students council on Monday, is the notion of diversity being very important – the diverse voice, diverse perspectives, that is what characterises a university, and NUI Galway in particular with its setting in Galway, a very diverse place,” he said.
“So I would say diverse voices and perspectives are important; we may not always agree with each other but the other side of that is respect is also important, respectful debate and respecting each other’s views.”
Ultimately he envisions international acclaim for the university, as well as a growth in popularity for the university among international students.
He said the main focus for him was answering the question of why someone from “Boston, Beijing, or Ballina” would come to Galway to study, explaining that the city offers many opportunities for its students including MedTech, the cultural aspect of Galway, and in the IT and Environmental sectors.
However, no stranger to NUI Galway as a former student of the university and a fluent Irish-speaker, he was also aware of how integral the Irish language was to life on campus, saying he wants Galway to become the go-to place to learn the language due to the city’s strong Irish-speaking community and “cultural richness”.
“The Irish language is a strength that we have, and Galway should be the place to go to study Irish and Irish studies, internationally and not just in Ireland,” he said.
And for anyone hoping to see more of the man in charge, Professor Ó hÓgartaigh said if there are ways that he can engage with students “in seminars or events that are ongoing”, he would be “very pleased to do so”.
By Sorcha O’Connor