Wednesday 24 July 2019

How Dublin's 'young' university expanded by fostering 700 tech jobs

Dublin City University is the fastest-growing college in Ireland, despite a tough funding climate. President Brian MacCraith tells Adrian Weckler that it cannot rely on the State for a boost

Door-opener: DCU president Professor Brian MacCraith says senior company leaders understand its consistently high worldwide ranking. Photo by Adrian Weckler
Door-opener: DCU president Professor Brian MacCraith says senior company leaders understand its consistently high worldwide ranking. Photo by Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

What is Dublin City University? Is it a business college? A technology-focused one? This is one of the first questions I put to Professor Brian MacCraith, the university's energetic president.

"Believe it or not, our biggest faculty is now humanities and social sciences," he says. Humanities? DCU?

"Yes. It was a deficit. We've always been close to the enterprise sector. And I'm happy we still are. But we listened to the messages we were getting from schools and we now have a decent reputation in arts and culture. It's the highest points entry for any BA in the country."

MacCraith is bursting with things to talk about. DCU, he says, is the country's fastest-growing university. It's ranked in the top 50 in the world for major 'young' universities. One of its new ventures, the 12-acre Alpha campus, now has 70 companies with 700 jobs after being "effectively purchased for a euro".

And the college has physically grown to a massive degree, taking in larger and larger chunks of the Glasnevin-Drumcondra portion of Dublin 9.

Its expansion has not gone unnoticed by tech titans. The day before our interview, MacCraith had hosted Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who invested a further €1m at the college, upping Facebook's involvement in online safety programmes run there. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also chose DCU as his third-level visit when he was last here.

Yet DCU is sometimes not spoken of in the same context as Trinity, or University College Dublin. For one thing, it's relatively new. It's also on Dublin's northside which, for large numbers of south Dublin students whose parents don't know any better, hits its social rank.

Is there a snob factor at work for students considering their options?

"I don't think so," says MacCraith. "Take a private school like Belvedere. We get more students from that school than UCD does. It used to be just 5pc."

MacCraith says that geography is "strongly" mixed up in university choice.

"In Ireland, some 60pc of students go to their nearest university," he says. "To the north of us is Fingal, a region with the fastest-growing population in Europe."

If MacCraith's regional population rationale is correct, it partially explains DCU's growth in the last decade to 17,000 students and a much bigger land footprint.

On paper, Ireland might be one of Europe's education centres. It has the highest third-level participation rate in the EU. It also has a disproportionate number of large multinationals with huge research and development budgets, which traditionally favour financially intensive university hook-ups.

Yet Irish universities are not only stuck on a mid-tier plateau, they're declining. Or so say the prevailing international ranking scores. Two of the most influential international adjudicators, QS and Times, both have our colleges slipping down the international tables.

What gives?

"More than 50pc of the ranking number given to any university is based on two things," says MacCraith. "One is reputation, which is like a taxi driver test name. And the second is your student-staff ratio, which is meant to be a proxy for education quality. In Ireland we're operating at about 22 students to one staff member. Go to a mid-range UK university you've never heard of and it's 16 to one. And in the world class universities it's less than 10 to one. We can't remotely change that."

Why not? "Funding. We have had to reduce staff at the same time that student numbers have grown by over 30pc."

A cap on salaries is another limitation. Irish third-level institutions mostly aren't allowed to pay lecturers or faculty more than an entry-level six-figure sum. For most of us, earning €100,000 or €140,000 would be a massive boost. But to attract elite, famous professors that act as a magnet for international students, it's not competitive. Such academics can make double or triple what an Irish university offers at a relatively unknown US, Asian or European institution. "Unfortunately, it's an easy choice for them," says MacCraith. "You can't attract Premier League footballers if you're offering Division Three salaries. It just doesn't work. So we have one arm tied behind our back."

Higher-than-average class sizes and a lack of star lecturers means a tougher sell to a constituency that can quickly boost a university's coffers - higher-paying non-EU students. Irish colleges are allowed to charge such students far more than EU kids. For example, most of the three- and four-year degrees offered by DCU cost around €15,000 a year, compared to just €3,000 a year for Irish students or €6,000 for EU students. The more money you charge, the more facilities and reputational kudos you'll be expected to offer. This is one reason why institutions like the University of Chicago can charge €40,000 to €50,000 per year: it has produced 89 Nobel laureates (it wins one for economics on average every three years for the last 30 years).

MacCraith has long believed that Ireland has gotten itself into a bind on this. The State won't let universities charge fees, even for very wealthy kids, that reflect what it costs to produce the material and staffing. At the same time, it has reduced by half the per-student subsidies.

"There's a disconnect here," he says. "But it's a very difficult conversation to have, politically. My focus for the coming year is not going to be on that, because I don't think it's going to shift."

In the tech industry, the Government's policy is poorly regarded. Universities are regarded as a magnet for the richest, biggest-spending companies. A central reason why companies like Microsoft and Google maintain substantial bases in Britain as it goes through Brexit is because the universities around London. They cannot afford not to have a meaningful presence in Cambridge and Oxford, two of the world's top 10 universities. These colleges are massive wealth-generators for the UK.

But Irish politics is less concerned about medium- to long-term economic infrastructure than avoiding the reintroduction of college fees for voters, even from those that can easily afford them.

"I don't think it's going to happen in the short- to medium-term," says MacCraith. "If the Government can admit that, my view is that they should at least free-up the universities to be more entrepreneurial and generate income."

Student loans, another option tentatively favoured by the university sector, is also unlikely to see any introduction in the near future for the same reasons.

"It's very difficult politically for the Government to actually introduce student loans," he says. "Even though it might be one of the things that might address some of the issues."

The reticence over student loans is understandable, surely - aren't the horror stories of students with six-figure loans in the US enough to put anyone off?

"That would never happen here," he says. "The scale of what is being considered is much, much less. It would be much more income-contingent."

Loans, fees and other issues were considered by a specialist state-sponsored group chaired by the former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Peter Cassells.

However, the Government kicked the report to touch twice, with nothing now set to be formally considered for at least another year.

That leaves university leaders figures like MacCraith looking for other options.

One part of this is the college's new Alpha campus that has attracted 70 companies, many of them tech-focused.

"We've exceeded the metrics set for us within about 15 months," he says. And those were three-year metrics. It's just been a major success. I would expect within the next 18 months that will have over 100 companies and over 1000 employees, We've got a major Internet of Things cluster."

Does MacCraith feel the competition from new online education options, like Coursera, Udacity or Galway-based Alison.com? Founders such as Alison.com's Mike Feerick argue that university courses are sometimes overpriced and overvalued in an era of certified online alternatives.

"Most people involved in education and recruitment would recognise that for young students, the socialisation experience, as well as other experiences that they get in a physical university environment is critically important," he says.

"In fact, much of the learning for those students is now happening much more outside the traditional lecture theatres. That said, I do think that online, flexible learning is one of the big opportunities of our time.

"In the past few months, we have signed a major partnership with [UK-based] FutureLearn. It has over 10 million learners on the platform and they have only five strategic partners. It's going to let us deliver not only online programmes all around the world, but provide opportunities for our own students on campus."

Despite all the challenges, MacCraith insists that DCU's present and future is bright.

"We've been consistently either in the top 50 or top 100 of those 10,000 universities in the world that have been established in the last 50 years," he says.

"That's our biggest door-opener, internationally. We lead a lot of contracts and international partnerships. So while the subtle nuances of the overall international ranking system may seem confusing to the public, when we present to senior company leaders or chambers of commerce, they understand."

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