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How universities can help Ireland recover

At this time of year, universities all over the country are welcoming new students onto their campuses to start their journey into third-level education. It's an exciting, demanding and often anxious time for the students and their parents. But it's also a challenging time for universities, who have taken on the responsibility to educate a new generation -- and a new workforce -- in difficult and uncertain times.

We owe it to the students to prepare them as best we can to compete effectively in a highly dynamic, global market-place but, as recipients of significant funding from Irish taxpayers, we also have a major responsibility to play a key role in Ireland's social and economic recovery.

We can achieve this through the quality and creative mindset of our graduates, through innovative research outputs, and through effective translation of these into economic and societal benefits.

How can we make that happen?

By changing the way we educate our students and shape our graduates.

We need to ensure that students are given a range of opportunities, both formal and informal, to prepare themselves effectively for the challenging and complex world that they will face when they graduate.

Specifically, we need to equip our graduates with a set of personal skills to enable them navigate the challenges of a dynamic, globalised society and an increasingly knowledge-based workplace. The paradigm of 'lifetime employment' has changed to one of 'lifetime employability' and our education system must adjust to reflect this.

DCU has conducted research among Irish and international employers into the current and future attributes required of our graduates. Arising from this process, we have identified a set of six generic attributes (such as leadership and creative problem-solving skills), underpinned by clusters of specific aptitudes and proficiencies. Our new Graduate Attributes programme, which will be introduced to students starting at DCU next week, will proactively foster the development of these attributes in our students, through formal academic means, informal learning processes and through full engagement in the wider university life.

We also need to address, in a constructive manner, the shortage of specific disciplinary skills in pivotal areas of our economy. The ICT sector, in particular, has highlighted a skills shortage -- employers cannot fill vacancies with Irish graduates and frequently have to pursue international recruitment strategies.

Universities can address this issue not only by adjusting their portfolio of degree programmes to reflect enterprise needs but also, with particular reference to the skills shortage in the ICT sector, playing a key role in solving the underlying problem of rapidly declining mathematical competency in our education system.

We need to contribute significantly to establishing a new culture of entrepreneurship in Ireland. We can do that most effectively by creating an environment that stimulates enterprising and innovative mindsets in our students and graduates -- graduates who can then create their own future. Such an environment can be created for our students by instilling an appreciation of the 'innovation process', by rewarding creativity, by regular exposure to 'role model entrepreneurs', and by experiential learning in the enterprise sector. We can, and must, develop a new economic base born and bred out of Irish innovation and entrepreneurial flair -- a base that is not excessively dependent on a multinational sector that may in the future be subject to pressures that are not in Ireland's best interest.

We also need to emphasise, in our students particular values which have importance and relevance in both society and the workplace. The integration of principles such as ethics and civic responsibility, for example, across all degree programmes results in graduates who can contribute positively wherever they end up.

At DCU, our recently established Institute of Ethics addresses issues from nano- medicine to corporate behaviour. Our students engage with lecturers who apart from teaching, are advising chief executives across Europe on the integration of ethical standards across their organisations.

By reflecting the needs of enterprise in our education agenda

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We need to engage more effectively with the national enterprise sector -- multinationals, SMEs and start-ups -- to our mutual benefit. Both worlds have a lot to learn from each other. Our recently formed DCU Enterprise Advisory Board allows us to create a close and dynamic dialogue with leaders in the world of business. Through this 'listening device', we benefit from real-time feedback on the 'enterprise relevance' of our degree programmes, our research and innovation agenda and much more.

The employability of PhD graduates can be enhanced significantly by embracing a so-called 'structured approach' whereby the traditional supervisor-student model is supplemented with taught modules in a range of skills of direct relevance to enterprise. More specifically, the industrial PhD model, which has already been pioneered successfully in Denmark, would be very valuable in the Irish context.

By acting as a catalyst to engage in civic engagement strategies

Universities are ideally positioned to act as forces for advancement in their regions. They should act as the local catalyst for social, regional and economic recovery by developing appropriate partnerships to effect these outcomes. The 'Triple Helix' collaboration of local government, academia and business has been shown to be powerful in this regard around the world.

Such a collaboration, involving Dublin City Council, Fingal County Council, DCU, DIT, Dublin Airport Authority, North Dublin Chamber of Commerce and Ballymun Regeneration Ltd, led to the establishment of an tSli Ghlas (The Green Way), Ireland's first Green Economic Zone which will exploit the massive economic potential of Clean Technology.

By contributing effectively to the national innovation ecosystem

Universities should play a key role in the national innovation ecosystem. This can be achieved effectively by initiatives such as the DCU Ryan Academy whose main focus is to catalyse entrepreneurship and an innovation focus among existing Irish businesses and start-ups through training, supports and finance.

Invent, DCU's Innovation and Enterprise Centre, continues to provide the critical link between the university campus and the market place. For the second year in a row, Invent is the leading Technology Transfer Office (TTO) in Ireland in terms of volume of licensing activity to both Irish companies and to overseas partners.

This is due to a dedicated TTO team who are constantly engaging with industry and actively showcasing the university's technologies. The Invent Centre, which celebrates 10 years of Entrepreneurship this year, is a hub of entrepreneurial activity with 17 innovative start-up companies on campus and 9 virtual client companies.

So can universities make a difference? Can we help our nation recover? Yes we can. At this critical time in our nation's history, we have a particular responsibility to focus our resources and our expertise on those areas that will be the building blocks of a new society, of a new economy, of a new Ireland.

Professor Brian MacCraith

is President of Dublin City University

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