Similar to many educational institutions around the country, Cork University Business School reacted quickly to the closure of schools and colleges on March 12. Overnight, lectures were recorded and remote working apps were downloaded in tandem with the substantial challenge of providing logistical assistance to the 800 students who were either preparing to go on placement or already embedded in companies around the world as the crisis began to escalate.
This major unforeseen circumstance was added to significantly with the structuring of new policies and preparations to ensure the school’s 3,000 business students could undertake their end-of-year exams.
“Like many other sectors, the pandemic has brought great innovation and efficiency to university life,” Professor Thia Hennessy says. “We discovered in a short period of time that we can work, teach, and examine from home. Of course, this brings great efficiencies and innovation that we may well carry back to ‘normal life’ if we ever get there.”
She admits, however, that it is difficult to replace the face-to-face college experience for students and staff, as well as the overall campus experience, of which clubs and societies are a huge and important aspect of professional development for students: “The academic year ahead will certainly be very different, and the constraint, as it now stands, of having no more than 50 people in a room is our most binding one.”
Many undergraduate programmes are normally delivered through lectures to 200 students or more, now limited with the need to rotate students in pods of 50. “This will negatively impact on the overall amount of time that students have on the campus, so I think remaining engaged with students and allowing them to enjoy all the benefits of student life will be one of the challenges," Prof Hennessy says.
In addition, UCC will not be welcoming as many international students as normal: “Our international student body brings a wonderful diversity of views to the classroom and adds to the overall experience for both students and staff.”
While the restrictions of the pandemic continue to impact on the normal workings of the university, the prospect of CUBS moving to a dedicated city centre site at South Terrace offers an optimistic and progressive vision of the future.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a state-of-the-art, fit-for-purpose business school with all the appropriate technology and infrastructure that the business leaders of the future would require in their education," Prof. Hennessy says. The move will also give the university a greater footprint, with student numbers growing substantially over the years without commensurate growth in space.
“Locating ourselves in the centre of Cork is also very important for our connection to the city and to business," she says. "We place over 800 students on internships/placements each year, many of them in Cork City, bringing us closer to the employers, the entrepreneurs and the leaders of business in the region — important for our profile and to develop strong working relationships.”
Speaking to the wide range of research conducted by the school, she points to the prestigious grants recently awarded to colleagues from the Irish Research Council. Dr Carol Power’s project will examine men's sheds as a community-based response to societal challenges, Dr Justin Doran’s project addresses the regional resilience of Irish towns to economic shocks, and Dr Carol Kelleher’s project will examine the supports and policy for family carers.
“I think the diversity of these projects speak to the vast and varying range of research that is conducted by my 170 academic colleagues in the school. The awarding of these grants also speaks to the quality. These competitions are extremely competitive and only the most cutting-edge and innovative projects are successful. I am delighted for my colleagues and, of course, for the students who will benefit from research-led teaching based on the most recent thinking and up-to-date analysis,” she says.
Prior to joining UCC in September 2016, Prof. Hennessy was employed by Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority, where she managed the agricultural and environmental economic research programme. She was also responsible for the Teagasc National Farm Survey and is a member of the European Commission’s Farm Accountancy Data Network.
“The long-term prospects for the agri-food sector globally are very promising. Food demand continues to grow faster than supply and Ireland is a leading cost-competitive producer and exporter of food globally," she says. "Overall the agri-food sector in Ireland is very well organised and coordinated.”
She admits to finding it difficult to be optimistic about Brexit: “The latest developments in talks with the UK, in particular on the treatment of Northern Ireland, are quite worrying. We are getting worryingly close to the end of the transition period, and a no-deal exit looks increasingly likely.
"This would be very detrimental for the agri-food sector in particular, as over 40% of our exports are destined for the British market. A no-deal exit would mean substantial tariffs being applied to many foodstuffs, making Irish products uncompetitive on the British market,” she adds.
However, while the crisis has taken its toll and slowed some of this progress, the long-term fundamentals of Cork as a place to work continue to be very positive. Prof Hennessy, who is honorary secretary of Cork Chamber, underlines the strong support of the various women in business initiatives at CUBS: “We support a number of 30% club scholarships, which are designed to offer women who are already in the workforce an opportunity to return to education to develop and refine their leadership skills.”
The position of women in the business world is improving, albeit at a slow pace. “Some of the national and international initiatives such as ‘Better Balance for Better Business’ have increased the awareness of the need for a diversity of views driven by gender, ethnic, and other forms of diversity for good decision making, in particular on boards, leading to some improvements in the representation of women in management. Indeed, research has shown that boards and management teams with a greater level of diversity deliver superior results.”