In his first full interview as the new president of UCD, Professor Andrew Deeks sat down with the College Tribune to talk about internationalization, funding higher education and UCD’s future.

We have had ten years of expansion, of boom… we had the celtic tiger we had lots of money and the campus grew when the money came and I suppose the money is at its very end….where would you see UCD in ten years?

“That is a big question….Ten years will take us into the next boom and perhaps even beyond the next boom… what I am planning to do is to engage in a proper consultive strategic planning process involving all the schools, the academic staff and also the students to put in place a strategic plan for these next ten years so I am very much hoping that the student community can get involved in that through the union and make good contributions as to where the students would like to see UCD going in ten years.”

In terms of the other buildings that did not receive as much funding, do you think it is important to invest in the arts or the libraries…the things that were left behind when things did develop?

“I think that it is important that there is a uniform development across all of the aspects of the university, to be a world class university, then all facets of the university need to be world class, and that includes the arts and humanities, the human sciences as well as the engineering sciences and the medical and agricultural sciences….The arts and humanities at Durham is now ranked very highly internationally ..I will certainly call on the experience of my former colleague there to advise on what we need to do in terms of raising the visibility internationally of arts at UCD because I know that UCD has a great tradition in the arts and humanities and it is a matter of that tradition being recognized outside of Ireland.”

The balance between arts and science, many would say, currently, is focused on science in UCD…where would you like to see that balance brought to?

“I don’t think it is necessarily a balancing game. It is about enabling all of the disciplines to achieve excellence in their area, so that the arts are not competing against the sciences here, they are competing against the arts from other Irish universities and other universities from around the world, so what we need to do is facilitate them to be excellent in the arts area, in that part of the structure, rather than saying we are are we going to reduce science in order to fund arts. It is not about that, it is about making the cake bigger, such that the whole university is excellent.”

In terms of the cuts in HEA funding and the impact that now has on universities…you have a shift in dynamic in terms of how they are sourcing their finances, whether it is government or alternatively sourced. Do you see that as a big challenge?

“I think that it is a big challenge for the Irish government and for the higher education sector, because there needs to be a balance between the ambition to have a world class higher education system and the cost of delivering a world class higher education system…I think it will require the government, one, to come to grips with that it is expensive to deliver that world class education, but two, it is absolutely essential because we wouldn’t want Ireland to have second class higher education. Three, then the challenge is how you fund that and the particular question is how much is funded by the government, and how much then is funded by the students, and if there is a significant component funded by the students, how they are assisted in being able to do that.”

In terms of access to higher education you see a financial squeeze…From the student perspective a lot of people, with cuts to the grant and rises in the student contribution fee –  they simply cannot afford to go to college. There has been a lot of debate within the unions and universities, as to where the squeeze is going to fall out, is it going to be that there is a student loan system introduced, like the UK, or is it a question of people taking out private loans, or are students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds just going to be pushed out of the system? From the student perspective in relation to paying for education, where do you see the solution lying?

“Where I would like to see it moving towards is towards a system which has a contribution from the student that is funded through a loan system, which means that the loan is paid back through the taxation system once your income exceeds a certain amount after graduation. That is a system that was pioneered in Australia and about 25% of the cost of the education is borne by the student through that model, but there is no upfront cost, so there is no limitation to students entering universities, they accumulate a debt which is only gradually paid back through the taxation system once their income exceeds a certain limit. If they withdraw from the workforce through any reason then there is no need to repay the debt, the debt stays there, but, it doesn’t affect their credit rating in any way. They are not obliged to pay it off.

“In Australia, that proved to be very effective. It meant that, one, students did think very carefully about what course they wanted to do but there wasn’t a financial barrier to them doing the course. Then they only paid it back once they received the benefit themselves from it. As you know the UK has taken that system to the extreme, which personally I don’t agree with, I think that society needs to recognize, that there is a society benefit to having a good proportion of the society educated at university level and so it is fair and just that the society pay a portion of the cost of educating people people to that level, but there is also a private benefit that comes to the student, so it is also just that they pay a proportion as well.”

UCD are expanding into China at the moment, we have an agricultural university… and the Beijing Institute of Technology, is that something that you would like to see continuing, the expansion of the university, to take in different countries?

“I think that it is important as part of this next strategic planning process that we develop a very clear internationalization strategy which should look then into the costs and benefits of those types of development, particularly going back to what I said at the start, that internationalization should be about the experience for every student, and when we go into those ventures we need to be very clear what that is going to deliver back to UCD students that are here in Dublin, apart from financial considerations, so it needs to be a proper plan about the internationalization of the university again looking particularly at the graduates that will come out of UCD in any location.”

In Durham, I suppose that China was one of your big things…you created a lot of ties there, is that something that you would be hoping to use here in Dublin, in UCD?

“I hope to use that experience to ensure that UCD gets the maximum possible benefits out of partnerships with China, but not just with China, with Brazil, with other countries in Southeast Asia… so use my experience of those regions to enhance the relationships that we have there, and to make sure that we get the maximum benefit out of them, because many universities have entered into these types of arrangements, but sometimes they can be more of a cost, a drain on the universities, than an actual benefit. I would hope to use my skills, to ensure that we benefit from the relationships, and not just China, as I said, it is important to take into account all the BRIC countries, the wider East and Southeast Asia and the Middle East as well.”

Colm O’Gorman who runs Amnesty International in Ireland, has very much come out against the way that UCD is developing into China in particular, because of the human rights abuses there….is that something that you yourself would take into account when UCD is dealing with different regimes, not just China, we are talking about the BRIC countries as well.

“I think that it is important to be sensitive to the issues of dealing with any regime that is different from ours. Part of that is to understand the different drivers that are at work in those places and look at how the countries are functioning in the round, part of what I was saying about developing a global competence and a global understanding is to be able to look at things in the round and for students to actually have those links and to make up their own minds and to contribute to the debates. While China is open to joint ventures with us, to having Irish academics go over, give lectures, show Irish attitudes towards things like human rights, then that helps the development of awareness of those issues within somewhere like China. if we refuse to have anything to do with them, then we also forgo the opportunity to influence the attitudes, and the same would be true with the Middle East, the way that women are treated within that society. Again, if we don’t engage then we can’t show a different way perhaps that might influence the way that they function there. With Brazil, again there are things about the way that society works at the moment that people in the West may well take offense at but, again, if we are not engaged with them, we cannot influence. We need to engage and the students will benefit from that engagement.”

Do you have anything to say to the academics….

“The university only functions because of individual academic’s commitment to the institution and what I have seen, is that despite all the challenges, we still have incredible commitment from brilliant academics. Their  research is recognized around the world, but they are prepared to stick with Ireland, stick with UCD, keep doing the research, keep teaching the students to the best of their ability. I think there is an incredible group here and I am looking forward to working with them and to taking things forward hopefully to a much better place. Certainly I would expect that the economy is going to get better and the conditions are going to get better, for the staff who have persevered and remained with the university through the hard times.”

In terms of academic contracts that were renegotiated… I know that some unions are still not accepting them here…Is that something that you will be taking a look at?

I will certainly be doing everything that I can, as you know the government has significant influence over how much can be done there and the reductions that have taken place have been at the behest of the government.



~ Interview conducted by Ronan Coveney and Amy Walsh

Photography: Seán O’Reilly