A learning curve

Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin, president, AIT

With 700 employees and 6,000 students, president of Athlone Institute of Technology Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin is at the peak of his learning curve. Eight years into his 10-year tenure, Ciarán takes the responsibility of running one of the midlands’ biggest employers in his stride.

“I started out in hospitality and tourism before moving into education,” he says. “I taught for many years in one of Dublin’s community schools, and then went back into industry.

“Whether it’s public or private enterprise, the elementals of business are the same — we have to pay our way, develop and transform, make cuts and achieve miracles.”

Ciarán looks at the education sector differently from others.

Major employer in midlands

“I’m not a traditional academic and like to think that I marry the demands of the commercial world with those of academia. AIT has an annual salaries budget of €25 million that is re-invested in the local economy, so we’re a big player in the midlands region.”

All third-level heads have been instructed by the Higher Education Authority to implement a three per cent pay cut across the board over the next academic year, while simultaneously improving on services and research. Ciarán’s doctoral qualification in organisational change appears to be tailor-made for managing this current challenge.

“It’s a very difficult balancing act, and like most institutes of technology we are operating on very tight margins. We already suffered a three per cent budget cut in real terms this year, and we don’t have the benefit of philanthropist funding, so I believe that AIT has performed extremely well on budgets over the eight years I’ve been here.

“A flat rate three per cent cut across all HEA institutions is, I believe, a crude method of dealing with public expenditure, as some colleges could afford possibly more and others less, and we’ll be putting such points to the Minister for Education.”

Cuts in spending have to be matched with an increase in revenue in order to stay viable. Ciarán acknowledges AIT’s proactive role in attracting overseas students, as well as the institute’s ability to offer attractive adult education classes.

“We also rent out our facilities outside of term time and this generates additional income that helps to balance out the cuts.”

Welcomes Community Games in 2009

Exemplifying this is the move in 2009 of the Community Games national finals from Mosney to AIT. This will enable the games to take advantage of the institute’s facilities: a FIFA two-star all-weather pitch, a state-of-the-art athletic track, Gaelic, soccer, and rugby pitches, and all-purpose indoor halls.

“We have excellent sporting facilities and it’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase AIT to the 5,000 youngsters attending each weekend, and Athlone to the 10,000 weekly visitors. These are all potential future customers for both AIT and for Athlone.”

A Dublin man who has made Athlone his home, Ciarán has become so embedded in this Shannon town that he has taken on a number of additional voluntary responsibilities. These include chairman of the Roscommon County Board for Athletics Ireland, board member of Athlone’s Marist College, convenor of Líonra (a higher education network for BMW region ), and co-patron and chairman of the Commission of Justice and Peace for the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise.

“I have an interest in all of these areas. I run myself, as does my family, so athletics is a long-time passion. A current project that we’re working on in the commission is in integrating non-nationals into the community by providing English language classes. We’re also promoting the concept of fair trade products and are aiming to have Ardagh and Clonmacnoise as the first fair trade diocese in Ireland.

“Athlone is a great town, and it’s my home. By contributing that little bit extra I can make a difference to everyone’s lives — mine included.”

Established in 1970, AIT’s faculties of science, engineering, humanities, and business attract almost three-quarters of its students from Westmeath, Roscommon, Longford, Offaly, and east Galway. Impressively, successive AIT graduate surveys reveal that 98 per cent of students obtain employment within six months of graduating.

Some 55 per cent of students continue to work within the midlands region after graduating — a figure Ciarán is keen to increase. To do so requires an increased level of inward investment, which is the remit of the Midlands Gateway Chamber.

President of Midlands Gateway Chamber

A pluralist by nature, Ciarán is not content to simply highlight the merits of Athlone; his current presidency of the Midlands Gateway Chamber ensures that Mullingar and Tullamore are additionally promoted.

“My aim as president is to co-ordinate the three towns’ chambers of commerce and attract business into the whole midlands region, as then we’ll all benefit. There is a population of 420,000 living within a 40-mile radius of the three towns, which collectively makes the midlands region the third largest in Ireland. Working together gives us greater economic power.

“In addition, once the N6 is finished between Dublin and Galway we’re strategically positioned in the centre to take advantage. We’ll be promoting the midlands gateway region from economic, social, and tourism perspectives.”

One of the gateway’s current projects involves a ‘skills audit’ of the region to pinpoint any deficiencies that need rectifying by upskilling of the midlands’ workforce.

“We can then approach FÁS and other training and education providers with a structured training plan of what this region’s future requirements are. Expert bodies suggest that half a million people need re-training in Ireland, but we need to get behind these figures for clarity.”

There are strong links between AIT and industry, which operate at several levels. Industry advisory panels contribute to regular reviews of AIT’s courses to ensure that students receive the best possible education.

Élan has co-funded AIT’s new director of research, Professor Gabriel Crean, who meets with representatives from the region’s key industries, some of whom are on the institute’s governing body.

“If we train for the commercial world, then that world will take our graduates, so we all win. A new degree in renewable energies is one example of a programme that was developed to meet industry and societal needs. We constantly review and adapt our programmes to ensure they meet with real world demand.

“However we must also ensure that our courses provide students with the academic rigour necessary for them to develop their careers. The international recognition that their qualifications enjoy enables them to compete on the world market.

“Our new €36 million engineering and informatics building will be completed in February 2009. This really underlines the Government’s confidence in AIT and offers a cutting-edge facility to students and staff. By the end of this year we will also have a new €2 million research facility for post-graduate students.

“We’re also hoping that by 2010 a four-acre AIT and IDA research and innovation park will be established, where all our research activity can be based, and which will be a valuable resource for industry.”

AIT exceeding national targets

Ciarán is rightly proud of AIT’s record of making third level places available for the educationally disadvantaged.

“There is a national target of 16 per cent for students who enter third level through non-standard means (primarily non-Leaving Certificate students ). AIT exceeds that rate at 20 per cent — one of the highest in the country.

“The national target for students with disability participating in higher education is 2.5 per cent. The reality however is only about 1.4 per cent, but AIT has reached 2.8 per cent. In terms of delivering on these targets, we incur additional costs, but get no help in this area.”

This year the student services fee was increased from €825 to €900, but this is not actually going to benefit the students.

“AIT only gets €18.50 out of the €75 increase — the rest is clawed back by the Government. Also this additional €18.50 will not even pay for the additional staff costs in the national pay agreement.

“This increase is an additional Government tax on those taking up higher education and acts as a financial disincentive to parents.”

The re-introduction of third level student fees is both topical and controversial, especially within colleges like AIT, whose intake includes a substantial number from the lower socio-economic groups.

“Again I say, who is going to win by the re-introduction of fees? If students did pay fees and this money was additional to existing Government funding levels, then colleges might benefit. But the likelihood is that the exchequer would reduce its contribution by the amount of the fees. So Government wins, but not the colleges or the students.

Third-level fees a retrograde step

“I see it as a retrograde step. We’re supposed to be creating a knowledge-based economy, and the pressure is on all third level institutions to produce an increased number of PhDs to meet industry needs. How can we do this if parents can’t afford to send their children to college?

“Student loans are not the answer either. Who wants to be saddled with a €30,000 or €40,000 debt at the start of their working life?

“Certainly we need to seriously debate how higher education is to be funded in Ireland. Can we have a low-tax economy and demand higher services? Should a portion of tax be ring-fenced for education?”

China, India, and the Middle East feature among AIT’s global partners, and involve Ciarán in a good deal of travel.

“I’ve been spearheading the internationalisation of AIT since 2000, which involves developing relationships with other third level institutions and multinational companies.

“We have established an alumni association in China, and a strong network exists between our 90 graduates there and AIT graduates who are working here in Ireland. This is a vibrant economic and social link, and one that will hopefully yield dividends for all involved.

“Irish economist David McWilliams actually interviewed some of our alumni in China for his recent television series The Generation Game.

“While our international students generate valuable revenue for the institute, it is equally important that they fit in well to the local community. Our Chinese students here fund-raised €10,000 for the Irish Red Cross to help the Chinese earthquake victims, and this money came from the people of Athlone.”

Only two years away from the end of his AIT presidency, is Ciarán planning to stay on or get back into private industry?

“I get offers, and I do miss the cut and thrust of the business world, but there’s cut and thrust in education too. This is a very challenging environment to work in, but I absolutely love it. My favourite days each year are at graduation when I meet parents who are so proud of their children’s achievements. It’s especially gratifying to see students who entered AIT deemed as ‘average’ students, but with the right academic nourishment have flourished. This is the strength of AIT. ”

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