Taking down the walls with a new beacon of learning
Ireland's first technological university is up and running, writes Katherine Donnelly
When the New Year bells rang out in Christ Church Cathedral, they did more than herald 2019. They ushered in Technology University Dublin (TU Dublin). Eight years after a report setting out a vision for higher education in Ireland that would include technological universities, the first was formally established on January 1.
It is the State's largest higher education institution, catering for 28,000 students.
Some may see TU Dublin as a simple repackaging of its three founding colleges - Dublin Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown and Institute of Technology Tallaght, but it is ambitious to be more than the sum of its parts.
For many, TU Dublin may not be tangible until the new Grangegorman campus, its HQ, is more fully up and running in September 2020. Ultimately, it will cater for 15,000 students, while the campuses at Blanchardstown and Tallaght will also operate at full pelt - both are benefiting from new development to enhance their facilities. There will also be a 'virtual' campus delivering online learning.
But TU Dublin is a reality. Its inaugural president, Professor David Fitzpatrick, most recently Dean of Engineering at UCD, started on January 1. From this year, it will award university qualificatons, including to students who started their programme in one of the three founding institutes.
So what is a technological university? The concept is commonplace around the world, but new to Ireland.
A traditional technological university in Europe was more singularly focussed on technical education, such as engineering and other STEM-based disciplines.
Professor Tom Collins, who has played a central role in guiding its delivery, ultimately as chair of the Joint Governing Bodies Strategy Steering Group, sees a different vision for TU Dublin: "The way we have approached it is not solely on STEM, but also with a very strong focus on the humanities and the arts."
He points to the comprehensive mix of courses available across the university and says "we should be open to more interesting interdisciplinary mixes. The obvious one is where do arts and technology merge and what kind of creations does that offer. Those options are not open to the more single subject, single discipline, technological universities".
Within the Irish context, he sees three differentiating factors, including being the only university offering qualifications from Levels 6 (higher/ advanced certificates and including apprenticeships) to 10 (PhD). With that comes the possibility of progression right up the ladder within TU Dublin.
Whether it is students entering via the CAO or for part-time-learning, another guiding principle for the start-up was a strong focus on practice-based learning, related particularly to the world of work, "so that students graduating from here would have experienced and encountered the workplace as a part of their learning, not as a peripheral part but as a core part".
Prof Collins believes it also opens up possibilities for a different approach to blended learning - between distance and on campus, between on campus and in the workplace, and in reintroducing people who have been in full-time work to "a really serious lifelong learning process".
TU Dublin's Grangegorman HQ also speaks to modern Ireland in another way - a beacon of learning replacing institutions hidden behind high walls which, over more than 200 years, operated variously as a workhouse, a "lunatic asylum", a prison and a psychiatric hospital.
It has become, says Dr Collins, "a dynamic hub of creation in a zone that was once a hub of incarceration. It is very symbolic and it is very significant for Irish education and higher education, in particular".
Building work at Grangegorman continues apace. Its commanding position on an elevated site on the north west fringe of the city centre offers panoramic views that capture landmarks including the mountains, the Convention Centre and the Guinness Storehouse.
Two major buildings, Central Quad and East Quad (to include a 400 seater concert hall), for completion in 2020 will cater for 10,000 students, including those in disciplines currently housed in DIT buildings in Kevin Street, Rathmines and Cathal Brugha Street. More will follow quickly on their heels.
That the emerging campus is a triumph in urban design, blending old with modern and sensitive to its location, is no accident. It is the brainchild of James Mary O'Connor, who grew up on its doorstep in Phibsborough and was well acquainted with the site of what was St Brendan's Hospital. He graduated from DIT with a diploma in architecture in 1982 and went to the US as a Fulbright Scholar. He is principal at the California-based Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY), which specialises in campus planning.
The international architecture competition launched for Grangegorman caught his eye and he led his firm's successful pitch with a plan that has won many international awards.
Dr Paul Horan, Head of Campus Planning, said the key objective of the masterplan was to open the site up to the surrounding city, making connections with the adjacent streets.
"From one single entry point, we now have nine ways in and out, and plan for more. This facilitates access for students but also for people walking through, going to the playground or just walking the dog."
The playground was incorporated at the behest of locals and, along with extensive playing fields, is an example of how the campus welcomes the community. According to Horan, making the site accessible was key to success. "Along with two LUAS stops, we have three banks of Dublin Bikes and other facilities for cyclists (there will be a maximum 300 car spaces), and the recently-opened Broadstone Link allows direct pedestrian access to the city centre in 10 minutes via Henrietta Street and Bolton Street.
"The site is also served by many bus services, including three of the proposed QBC BusConnects routes."