Posted tagged ‘DCU’

What do employers want in graduates?

September 13, 2011

One of the recurring themes in public discussions about higher education in these islands over recent times has been the apparent dissatisfaction by employers with the attainments and skills of graduates. It is sometimes suggested that university graduates are not sufficiently literate and numerate and are often inadequate communicators.

An interesting initiative in response to this is the ‘Generation 21’ project recently launched by my former institution, Dublin City University (DCU). This is how the university describes the initiative:

‘Generation 21 is a culmination of extensive consultation with DCU staff, students and employers in Ireland and overseas on the attributes, skills and proficiencies they consider important in graduates today and in the future. A key element of Generation 21 includes the graduate attributes programme which identifies six key important attributes every DCU graduate will have after graduation and which are underpinned by proficiencies and skills that they will acquire in their university years, through full engagement in university life, both inside and outside the lecture theatre. The attributes which DCU will foster in each of its graduates are: Creative and Enterprising, Solution-Oriented, Effective Communicators, Globally Engaged, Active Leaders, Committed to Continuous Learning.’

DCU undertook this project in response to the findings of a survey of employers that it commissioned, and this has some interesting results. Asked to identify the attributes of graduates that are most important, respondents suggested they should be ‘hard-working’, ‘flexible’, and ‘results-driven’. On the other hand, attributes considered to be less of a priority were ‘globally aware’, ‘enterprising’ and ‘enquiring’.

This assessment of priorities might seem rather curious, because on the face of it these priorities suggest that the additional value typically provided by higher education is seen as less important, and that employers are not particularly looking for entrepreneurial talents. Indeed this may imply that employers are far from clear what it really is they want from universities, and that graduates with initiative may not particularly be what they are looking for.

I have no doubt that universities should take seriously the importance of providing students with key skills that will assist them in the labour market. I wholly support DCU’s initiative. However, it may be important for universities to realize that employers themselves are not often clear about what they are looking for, and this should inform discussions with them.


New DCU Chancellor

August 5, 2011

I am delighted that my former university, Dublin City University, has appointed Dr Martin McAleese to be its new Chancellor. His appointment will reinforce DCU’s status as an ambitious university that also attaches huge importance to educational values, economic development and social progress.

Martin McAleese is an honorary graduate of DCU, and the ceremony at which he and President McAleese were conferred a few years ago was one of the highlights of my presidency. Through this award we were able to recognise the extraordinary role that he played in promoting peace and reconciliation, often behind the scenes, in Northern Ireland.  Subsequently he initiated the Your Country Your Call project, designed to lift recession-bound Ireland out of the negativity and pessimism that was threatening the country’s recovery.

I am confident that, guided by its new Chancellor and led by my successor Brian MacCraith, DCU will go from strength to strength.

Sheep, robots and communicating science

July 25, 2011

A few years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, we sought planning permission to construct a building for DCU’s National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology. The Institute was (and is) working on some really significant health and life sciences issues, including treatment for cancer and diabetes. The building we were planning (which you can see here) was a pleasing design, and was to be placed well within the campus perimeter. It could not possibly have inconvenienced anyone. And yet we found a determined group of locals resisting the planning application. It took us a while to discover what was bothering them: for some bizarre reason they believed we were going to do research there on cloning humans. This was not too long after the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh cloned Dolly the sheep, and the good citizens in DCU’s neighbourhood had decided to believe that we were about to take all this a step further. And they weren’t going to let us.

Of course the Institute had no intention whatsoever of cloning anyone, but it took us a while to convince the residents of this – but when we did we were able to proceed with the building, at which point I took a direct role in getting the construction under way. Well, I didn’t actually drive the digger. But I digress.

Recently I heard a talk at which it was explained to me that some scientists and engineers believe they may not be too far off being able to build a robot that will be operated not with the help of en electronic motherboard, but with specially grown biological brain tissue. If this works, it may not be too long before such robots could become self-aware autonomous units. Does this bother you?

And what about the concerns expressed recently by a working group of the Academy of Medical Sciences about the potential impact of putting human brain cells into primates (monkeys), and the potential ‘humanising’ effects of such experiments? And of course the use of embryonic stem cells still causes heated debates.

But actually the list if potential ethical issues could stretch for miles, depending on whom you ask and what it is that keeps them awake at night. Equally, you may find people who simply cannot believe that we agonise over the ethics of research that could help millions, save lives and generate supplies of food.

Research ethics committees are now all over the higher education system, and their work is vitally important. But that’s not what I am addressing here. It’s not just about assessing ethical dilemmas, it is about communicating what these issues are really all about. Why would a group of concerned citizens in North Dublin get hot and bothered about human cloning? Surely it’s a sign that we are not explaining the role, potential and impact of science well enough. As scientific research gets closer to some really important solutions to health issues, we need to ensure that what the scientists are doing is understood by the wider population, because if that does not happen, what we’ll face is not considered judgement but populist knee-jerk reactions. And that will help nobody. In Britain there is an annual Science Communication Conference, and there are other initiatives to bring science to the people. The academic community needs to encourage and develop such initiatives.

Gaudeamus igitur

July 14, 2011

All this week Robert Gordon University is holding its summer graduation ceremonies. I have always enjoyed these events, in all of the universities at which I have worked. In Trinity College Dublin they were (and, I believe, are) entirely in Latin; and the Provost has no active role at all, and does not speak (in any language). The University of Hull matched TCD for formality, though in the vernacular; well, the sort-of vernacular, in the sense that there was no requirement to use the remarkably strange Hull accent.

The conferrings in DCU and RGU both have an interesting mix of the formal and informal, and both seem to me to work very well. Graduations are of course milestones in a student’s life, and should be celebrated in a dignified ceremony. But they should also reflect a sense of achievement and joy, and this is best expressed in some moments of informality and sheer good humour. It is n ot an easy balance to strike, but both universities do it well, and this is confirmed by unsolicited comments from graduates and their families and friends.

For those presiding (which in DCU was always me, and in RGU is either the Chancellor or me, taking it in turns), a key task is to shake avery graduating student’s hand. During my ten years as President of DCU, I believe I shook about 25,000 graduands’ hands. There is a slight physical strain involved, but some might wonder whether there is also a hygiene issue. On one occasion at a graduation a student being conferred refused to shake my hand, loudly explaining that he had hygiene-related concerns about doing so.

Did he have a point? Well – and I am grateful to this website for the reference – this has been the subject of some research in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The researcher in question ‘got the idea for the project after years of attending the Bloomberg School’s graduations and wondering what would be growing on the dean’s hand at the end of the day.’ This was what he found:

‘Our study indicates when shaking hands, the rate of hand contamination among graduating students to be 100 times lower than the 17 percent rate observed among health workers caring for patients known to be colonized with MRSA. Reasons for the lower rate of contamination at graduations include the much briefer and less-extensive contact in a handshake and what we presume is a lower prevalence of MRSA in graduating students compared to hospital patients. Another reason may be that subsequent handshakes could remove pathogens acquired in an earlier handshake.’

And this is his very reassuring conclusion:

‘With a lower bound estimate of one bacterial pathogen acquired in 5,209 handshakes, the study offers the politicians, preachers, principals, deans and even amateur hand shakers some reassurance that shaking hands with strangers is not as defiling as some might think.’

As a semi-professional handshaker, with four more graduations to come this week, I shall embark upon my task with renewed confidence.

University anniversary

January 13, 2011

Exactly 22 years ago today, on January 13 1989, the Irish government then led by Charles Haughey announced the establishment of Dublin City University and the University of Limerick. At the time both institutions were designated as ‘National Institutes of Higher Education’.

DCU and the University of Limerick had a massive influence on how universities operate. Unlike the established universities at the time, they had close links with industry, focused on particular areas of study and research, and allowed students to gather experience through work placements. Many of their innovations have now become standard across the sector. As young universities, they have had remarkable success in gaining international recognition. DCU became by far the youngest university to enter the global top 300 league table in 2006.

The presidents of the two universities at the time were Danny O’Hare (DCU) and Ed Walsh (Limerick). They should still be proud of their legacy.

Is there a national student movement?

November 14, 2010

DCU’s students – or those who voted in a referendum on the issue – have decided not to re-affiliate to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). The vote was decisive, with around 70 per cent rejecting the proposal.

Back in the 1970s when I was a student in Dublin, all students of all the universities were members of USI. Now, apart from DCU, two other major institutions are not affiliated. What are the implications, particularly as USI tries to construct an anti-fees campaign? Does it speak for the national student body? Is such a a voice needed today, or has the time for such things passed?

Introducing bonus points for mathematics

September 18, 2010

Readers of this blog will know that I have previously addressed the issue of whether students should receive bonus points for higher level mathematics in the Leaving Certificate. A number of universities, including DCU, had previously decided to award bonus points, and this week the same decision was also taken a little later by University College Dublin. A consensus is therefore beginning to emerge that it may be desirable, by way of an experiment, to assess whether such a step can improve the performance of Irish secondary students in mathematics and science and therefore improve the take-up of maths and science programmes at third level.

It would be fair to say that while a consensus is emerging around this, it is not necessarily one that is supported with any great enthusiasm. There is a widespread feeling that a number of issues in secondary education need to be addressed, including the quality of mathematics and science teaching and the adequacy of teacher training in this area. Some academics fear that the introduction of bonus points will take the pressure off the education system to address these matters, which ultimately are much more significant. Nevertheless, it has been accepted that bonus points may make a contribution, and that they are worth a try. These and other issues have ben addressed in a previous discussion on this blog, and also more recently on the blog of UCD’s Geary Institute.

One other thing might be noted in passing. According to the Fine Gael website, the party’s spokesperson on innovation and research, Deirdre Clune TD, has ‘called on Education Minister Mary Coughlan to immediately extend similar schemes in other third level institutions so that all fifth year students can know where they stand’. In making this statement she seems not to be aware of what other universities have already decided, and moreover she seems to be under a misapprehension as to what the role of the Minister is in this regard. Whether bonus points are applied is entirely a matter for the universities, and the Minister has no role in the matter other than to raise it as an issue – which in fairness to her she has done.

Higher education diversity

July 29, 2010

One crucial issue facing Irish higher education over the next while will be institutional diversity. Broadly the question goes like this: we are a small country, so why do we need seven universities that cover more or less the same territory, and a dozen or so institutes with the same mission, and some other colleges? Why not identify a specialism for each and then ensure they are the best they could be in that area? Or maybe, why not identify one or two all-rounder institutions, with everyone else occupying a niche?

At one level this direction could only be travelled if we were to have a wholly dirigiste system of national strategic management of the sector. If we were to specialise in this way, someone would have to direct this process, because it is unlikely that bilateral or multilateral discussions between the institutions themselves would achieve this. On the other hand, if we all occupy the same space, it may be that we cannot achieve national critical mass at all in some key areas, because the expertise would be excessively diluted between colleges.

In some ways DCU might find this discussion easier than some, because it, alone of the Irish universities, has pursued niche status. It has not sought to have a presence across all the major disciplines, and does not address a number of key subject areas that other universities might find indispensable. But of course this position has been reached by an autonomous process of strategic planning within the university, rather than being an output of a national plan.

It is my view that the institutions should collaborate much more to distribute provision in areas where too much duplication does not seem sensible. But I have no faith that a better distribution can be worked out by national agencies, necessarily dominated by civil servants. In the end, autonomy has to trump all that, because it is the guarantor of excellence; but within that autonomy, the institutions should be looking much more openly at the possibilities of adjusting provision, and through that process, ensuring a level of diversity that will in fact be attractive to our external supporters.

The ex-President, and his successor

July 14, 2010

This blog will not normally feature such self-indulgent posts as this one will be. But yesterday (Tuesday, July 13) was a roller-coaster ride of ceremonial and emotion. I began it as President of Dublin City University, and ended it as one of its faculty, but on leave for the coming year. In between the university held an extraordinarily well planned hand-over ceremony, and the inauguration of my successor, Professor Brian MacCraith. I spoke one last time as President to the large group of people of well over 1,000 who had gathered in the Mahony Hall of the Helix performing arts centre, and received an extraordinarily warm response. And after that, Brian was formally confirmed in office and assumed the role of President. All of this was interspersed with music and short speeches by a number of friends, staff and supporters of DCU.

In his inaugural address, Brian MacCraith drew attention to the risks faced by universities due to financial constraints and funding cuts, but he also set out a strategic agenda for DCU as a university committed to enterprise, the translation of its knowledge for the country’s economic and social benefit, and the engagement by the university with the local, regional and national community. He announced the establishment of an enterprise advisory board (which will include Intel’s former chief Craig Barrett) and a lecture series given by Nobel Prize winners. Under his leadership, DCU will continue to pursue an ambitious and exciting agenda of change and development.

My role as DCU’s President and (often) its public face is now over, but I am confident that it will go from strength to strength. And while I may not be at the helm there any more, I may not fade away altogether from public visibility…

The blog will go on!

July 13, 2010

A number of readers have contacted me to ask whether this blog will continue after I leave office as President of DCU in approximately two hours time. The answer is yes. In fact, as indicated previously, I am hoping to develop it somewhat over the weeks ahead – more on that again shortly.

In the meantime, as my term of office finally comes to an end today, I want to express my warm thanks to all readers here, those from DCU and those from elsewhere in Ireland and abroad. It is hard to express how great a privilege it has been to be President of DCU, but I also look forward to new things in my life and to seeing how DCU will go on from strength to strength. As, I hope, will higher education more generally, here and everywhere.