College takes on more staff as online learning booms
Teachers fear job cutbacks, but Sean Rowland believes education could be a thriving sector
It started a decade ago as a highly controversial online college that trained primary teachers. Now it has grown into a multinational business with over 7,000 students in 30 countries.
Hibernia College is now a fast-expanding part of the Irish education scene.
While other businesses are laying off employees, and in many cases struggling to survive, the Dublin-based private college recently announced that it was hiring 25 new staff.
When Dr Sean Rowland set up Hibernia as an internet-based training institution there was uproar in the teaching profession.
In a joint statement the heads of nine colleges of education said approval of the online college represented a dilution of academic standards and an attack on the professional status of teachers. The college heads even expressed fears about the well-being of primary schoolchildren.
Sean Rowland overcame these early reservations and Hibernia now trains more primary teachers than any other college.
Students at Hibernia are taught through "blended learning'', which is a combination of online and face-to-face education.
Course material is delivered over the web through downloadable lectures, live online tutorials and discussion forums. Students meet up at local education centres for live seminars.
Dr Rowland now hopes to offer online training for post-primary teachers and has received approval from HETAC (the Higher Education and Training Awards Council).
"We hope to go ahead with this. We will still have to get approval from the Teaching Council.''
While Hibernia's move into primary training attracted much rancour, its provision of online courses for the training of secondary teachers in England was much less controversial.
In cooperation with Canterbury Christ Church University in England, Hibernia provides online tuition for Math, Physics and Chemistry teachers.
So why is Hibernia able to increase its staff numbers when, on the face of it, job prospects for teachers look bleak?
"Our major growth areas would be in the United States, England and in other EU countries. There are three different types of staff in our business -- academic, administrative and technological. We are recruiting in all three areas.''
As well as teacher training Hibernia provides courses in Pharmaceutical Medicine and Financial Management. It is also involved in teacher training in Haiti.
While short-term job prospects for those hoping to work in Irish schools look poor, Sean Rowland says there is a huge global demand for teachers.
"You hear people say that we don't need any more teachers, but you have to look at it in a global context. It is estimated that there is a need for 16 million teachers worldwide.
"I don't want to be telling anyone to emigrate, but I would encourage young teachers to go abroad to get experience and then come back.''
So is Dr Rowland concerned that he is training teachers that are surplus to requirements in Ireland?
'The last thing we want to be doing is training teachers for unemployment. We keep a very close eye on demand for teachers, by looking at figures from the CSO [Central Statistics Office] and in discussion with the Department of Education.
"Nobody can predict precisely what the demand for teachers will be. You could have a certain number of children going into primary schools, but then there is a political decision to change the class sizes.''
Dr Rowland said Ireland could do a lot more to boost jobs through international education.
"Education is one of our greatest resources and we could bring in an income by attracting students abroad. There should be a specific agency to address this issue.''
Hibernia has offices in Dublin and Westport, the technological hub of the operation. The college's academic staff can put their lectures online from anywhere in the world with a good internet link.
Sean Rowland said the feasibility of e-learning has grown since the arrival of good broadband connections.
"Our courses are particularly popular among those who do not want to give up their jobs, because they can do the course from home. There are others who do the courses from home, because they have childcare commitments.''
Dr Rowland said he had put the early reservations about the online college behind him.
"The training that we do at Hibernia is very rigorous. Of those who come for interview for a place in our teacher training course, only one in four is selected.''
Dr Rowland's hope that Ireland could become an international education hub seemed to win endorsement at the highest level recently.
Towards the end of the election campaign, Enda Kenny visited the college run by Dr Rowland, who also hails from Castlebar.
The Fine Gael leader said Hibernia was "a perfect case study of how Ireland and technology can come together to provide jobs at home as we spread our global wings''.
Dr Rowland said he hoped the incoming Government would be extremely cautious about cutting education programmes.
"As a college doing business abroad it is in our interests that the reputation of Irish education is maintained.
"They will have to be extremely careful about what they cut, because if you cut back programmes in the wrong way they could take a generation to recover.''