New UCC President Patrick O’Shea - ‘It’s not rocket science to fund universities’

Taking over today, Patrick O’Shea discusses student funding, the arts and science, and how UCC benefits the community. He talks to Education Correspondent Niall Murray.

Patrick O'Shea. Picture: Tomas Tyner/UCC

He fears being likened to John Wayne’s Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man — but it is more than an accent that Patrick O’Shea brings home from the US to the president’s office at University College Cork.

After 37 years away from his alma mater, the former vice-president and head of research at University of Maryland sees little reason why some of the philosophies underlying American higher education can not be applied here.

A key one is the idea that those students whose financial circumstances might otherwise rule them out of attending university should be funded directly by colleges themselves.

It may sound ambitious, even in the middle of an economic recovery on paper, but the physicist who once worked on programmes to support Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars nuclear defence system thinks it should not take rocket science to figure out ways of doing it.

“A big piece that seems to be missing from the Irish debate is corporate and private philanthropy,” says Prof O’Shea. “It can make a huge difference, particularly in support of disadvantaged students.

It might not happen overnight, but he advocates something like the ‘need-blind admission’ system that operates at many US universities (whereby the institution does not consider an applicant’s financial situation when deciding admission). Driven largely by scholarships and philanthropic support, those whose families earn below a certain threshold get to study for free, with increasing percentages of fees charged as family income rises.

The possibility goes far beyond the options under political consideration at present.

One proposal would make undergraduate students liable for higher annual fees than the current €3,000. But they would be offered loans to cover the cost, to be paid back only after graduates reach an agreed minimum annual earning figure.

But, unlike for many current Irish university presidents, such a system is not Prof O’Shea’s top preference.

“I’m highly opposed to student debt,” he says. “You do not want young people from disadvantaged communities starting off and being in debt. That’s the worst possible situation. So you have to create an environment where you’re not mortgaging your future in that way.”

He identifies himself as one of those emigrants who has done well enough to give something back. After a local education at Coláiste Chríost Rí in Turner’s Cross on Cork City’s southside, he parlayedhis 1979 science degree in experimental physics from UCC into an early career developing electron and ion beams at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

After four years at Duke University, he was a senior figure in research and an electrical and computer engineering professor at University of Maryland, and its chief research officer from 2011.

Even Maryland’s 2015 external research budget of over €500m in 2015 dwarfs the expected total income this year of around €300m at UCC, where Prof O’Shea takes over as president this morning from Michael Murphy.

He should be ready to hit the ground running after making regular visits and establishing a semi-permanent presence on campus since late November.

Around the same time, the Oireachtas education committee began pondering the ‘study now, pay later’ model and other options presented in Peter Cassells’ 2016 report on funding higher education. Education Minister Richard Bruton has not formally declared a preference, but the main choices are a system that is entirely State-funded; a retention of the status quo; or combining increased input from Government, employers and students themselves in the form of the loan system.

Dr Murphy has already set the ball rolling on UCC’s efforts to at least treble private fundraising income from corporations and alumni to €30m-€40m a year.

But, unlike his predecessor, Prof O’Shea sees these sources potentially representing more than a small proportion of the university’s total income.

“I’m coming in from the outside and saying ‘let’s be optimistic’,” he says. “Let’s not make this a zero-sum game where third-level institutions are competing with the health services or the gardaí for resources.”

By his reckoning, the 50% of university funding that comes directly from the taxpayer here would be the envy of similar institutions in the US.

He envisages a ‘symbiotic’ relationship between third-level institutions, Government, and industry to support a strong economy that generates a surplus that can be used to support students: “That will keep people from going to Australia and America, in effect. In fact, given the politics in some places, we’re likely to be able to attract people back.”

UCC’s governing body chairwoman, Catherine Day, recently told the Oireachtas education committee that Brexit could lead to British universities only becoming more competitive in terms of research funding, rather than leading to greater opportunities in that arena for Irish institutions.

Prof O’Shea is very conscious of the increased need to reduce our dependency on foreign investment by promoting innovation at home and developing indigenous intellectual property, or IP.

Like many Cork people, he knows from personal experience how overseas employers can just pick up and leave. His wife Miriam’s father was made redundant at 55, and an inner tube of a Dunlop’s tyre with his name on it is now an artefact of the city’s industrial heritage in the Cork Public Museum.

“Foreign companies are wonderful, but we need to make sure the people and the IP that comes out of our third-level institutions are pumped into companies that [start] here,” he says. “That creates a much more robust situation and gets us away from being victims, which could happen.”

He is also confident of attracting international research and teaching talent of the kind that brings not just prestige, but who can also create value for Irish people for the investment; not just in financial investment, but in technology and services that improve lives.

“That’s the lens through which we have to look at that,” he says. “This is what it’s about — the people. It’s not just for the academic community; I mean the people of Cork, Munster, and Ireland.”

The awarding of lucrative contracts to lure international researchers without going through proper sanctioning procedures prompted political and public anger at a time when the worst effects of austerity budgets were being felt in Ireland.

But, with restrictions around such matters starting to ease and budget autonomy being gradually returned to universities, there may be opportunities to take advantage of global political uncertainties.

Prof O’Shea is already aware of many contacts to UCC from people in the US and in Britain who are exploring opportunities here in Ireland.

“So if you have a hard Brexit, you can be sure that those who have strong EU funding will want to continue it,” says Prof O’Shea. “That’s why Ireland has an advantage. We actually have a Brexit committee here on campus and I’m going to broaden it now to the US, to look at how we can take advantage of these crises.”

Even when this interview was conducted early last week, before newly inaugurated US president Donald Trump announced immigration restrictions that have caused concerns among European and US academics, Prof O’Shea cited economist Paul Romer’s saying, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste”.

“Within a crisis are the seeds of opportunity,” he says. “So we have to be proactive about going out and getting more EU funding, getting the potential Nobel prize winners here in Cork or Dublin, or wherever.”

Ireland’s stronger form for Nobel prizes in the arts also reflects his own thinking on how to attract international students, academics, and investors; but also the need to support arts and humanities strongly.

“Many people come here because of the arts and culture,” he offers. “We’re famous as poets and raconteurs; you think about the Wild Atlantic Way, you think about the arts, the history, Newgrange, all this stuff — it’s our secret sauce.

“It’s really important and it absolutely creates jobs. It makes a place worth living in. Foreigners come here because of the culture, the food, the camaraderie, the ceoil, going down to Dingle.”

As well as the standalone benefits of the social sciences and arts disciplines, he believes they can add value to those in his own fields of science, technology, engineering and maths, collectively categorised as ‘Stem’.

“A lot of the rhetoric is that ‘we should invest more in Stem’ but you have to add the ‘A’ to make it ‘Steam’,” says Prof O’Shea, a self-confessed ‘closet historian’. “I view the arts as really valuable, it’s critically important because it makes the country what it is.”

Under his leadership in Maryland, discussions about drone technology research included people from the arts faculties with an interest in the related ethics. Similar interaction may be extended to Cork, where he plans to get scientists better able to explain to the public and those in charge of the public purse strings how they spend their taxes.

“I learnt from my father working in sales that you have to be a good communicator,” he says. “But we academics have a tendency to communicate to ourselves and to others like us and to use language that people don’t understand.”

Prof O’Shea recently brought in a team of actors to train scientific colleagues at University of Maryland to have a stage presence: “This is another example of how the arts can help: We’ve people from an arts background, theatre, music, coming in and talking with the scientists about how to communicate.”

The idea seems to be to explain to the woman or man on the street that the work going on in universities is ultimately for their benefit.

When asked, as University of Maryland’s vice-president for research, about the latest hot topic being worked on, he often replied that the answer has not changed in centuries: “If you were to go down to Macroom 1,000 years ago and ask people what’s important, they’d say they want to be housed, healed, fed, and fuelled, and to have a just society that’s secure and free.”

This appears to underpin his vision of the role of a university.

“What we do is the discovery and understanding of knowledge, its dissemination through education, and its application for the good of people,” says Prof O’Shea. “That’s not my idea, it’s enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, that people have a human right to enjoy the arts and to benefit from the fruits of scientific discovery.”

Take the scenic route through Cork with new UCC president, Patrick O'Shea

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