AS Barry O’Connor steps down as president of Cork Institute of Technology, he is confident that the college is in a secure and healthy position.
Yesterday saw the establishment of the Munster Technological University (MTU). The consortium of Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and Institute of Technology Tralee (ITT) has six campuses in Co Cork and Co Kerry, and a student body of 18,000.
Mr O’Connor is enthusiastic about what the MTU will bring to the greater Cork region.
“It will be really good for Cork,” he said. “Establishing MTU will be brilliant for the region, for the students, the staff, and for the economy. It is a potential game-changer.
“It will support the region, be it social or in the community. It is also great from a business and marketing perspective. It is there to serve the community. It will present so many opportunities for the staff and students.
“It will take a while to bed down, understandably,” Mr O’Connor said. “Any merger will bring changes. Even in the last 12 to 18 months, we have taken in an extra €63m in investment from the State for buildings and research. There is another €50m coming down the track, in terms of a new building in CIT and in Tralee.
“It will be a fantastic success story. CIT has always been a good news story, but this will bring us to a new level.
“It is recognising what we have been doing, in terms of really focused programmes, focused research, and creating great contacts with local industry,” Mr O’Connor said. “We are not just about engineering, business, and science. We also have the School of Music and Crawford College. We have great people constantly coming up with diverse programmes.”
Mr O’Connor said education is key if multi-national companies are to stay in Cork City, thus providing vital employment.
“If we want the likes of Dell and Apple to stay, we have got to keep a supply of top-quality engineers, scientists, business specialists,” he said.
“It is vital we keep those companies in Cork. The onus is on us to keep producing top graduates. They are big companies and big employers. SMEs are also vital to the economy. They supply services to these multinationals.”
Mr O’Connor, who previously worked in University College Cork (UCC), said Cork City is a thriving centre of learning.
“There is great respect for education in Cork,” he said. “The city council, ETB, UCC, and CIT all pull together. It is a great city for students who want to learn and develop. Cork is an ideal size of a city. It brings in hundreds of thousands of international students every year.
“We also have huge opportunities coming from an international point of view, for various months of the year. We have established relations with colleges on the east coast and India. They know we put on globally recognised programmes, but, also, they know there is such a welcoming atmosphere in the city. The presence of so many students is a huge boost to the economy.”
MTU will continue the great tradition that CIT has established for research, said Mr O’Connor.
“It is important to put an extra emphasis on research. We intend to keep developing our research, which is already going very well. We are, presently, bringing in around €20m a year in research. If we continue to grow that, the multinationals will be depending on us for research,” Mr O’Connor said.
Hope you like our new MTU logo which is currently being updated on signage across our university campuses 😀 pic.twitter.com/gVNPpg7eYQ— MTU Cork Campus (@MTU_Cork) January 1, 2021
“This will also ensure they will be less likely to pull out, when they are embedded in the technological university.”
CIT and UCC have always worked in tandem, providing opportunities for students to pursue their educational goals and providing thousands of jobs.
Mr O’Connor stressed the importance of building on this relationship.
“The unique level of co-operation between ourselves and UCC is great,” he said. “You wouldn’t get it anywhere else in the country. There are five degrees given out in Cork with a CIT and UCC crest on it. No other institutions in the country combine like that. It is down to mutual respect. That will only grow with the MTU.”
Mr O’Connor said he will be sad to vacate his role, but will remain busy in a number of capacities.
“I am sad to be leaving, but I will stay busy, even in retirement,” he said. “Around Cork, there is lots of work to be done, in terms of education. I am still on the Primary School Board. I will be kept busy with the Cork ETB. I am also looking forward to spending time with my family.”
Mr O’Connor has worked at CIT for 15 years, and has been president since 2017. He will miss the camaraderie and his hard-working colleagues.
“There is a fantastic crew in CIT,” he said. “It is a real community operation, between the staff and students and the local industry. We have great relationships with local community groups. There is a great team there.
“That really came to the fore when we had this pandemic this year. When that kicked in, the staff just rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in. We now have a new way of teaching for the vast majority of them, but they are flying it,” Mr O’Connor said. “The response from the students was equally good. They really engaged in online learning. We all dug deep and they all did a fantastic job.”
Mr O’Connor has worked in third-level education in Cork City for over 40 years, between UCC and CIT. He regards the annual graduation ceremonies as the moments that staff enjoy the most.
“I gave 25 years in UCC and I have completed over 15 years in CIT,” he said. “It has been a long, but enjoyable, road. The graduations every year are the best moments. To see the students, and their parents, all beaming with pride is a great moment.
Major day for higher education in Ireland as our newest university, @MTU_ie comes into being. A huge opportunity & investment for the South West. Wishing all staff & the 18,000 students the very best. Significant reform & milestone. Happy New Year pic.twitter.com/I9rfFJFpLx— Simon Harris TD (@SimonHarrisTD) January 1, 2021
“That student will have gone through many challenges en route to graduating. We have seen these young students, at first hand, develop and progress into mature adults, ready to start new careers.
“It is great, from our point of view, that we work with young adults who are very committed. We do a lot of work with the student union and class reps. They are fantastic people. We feel great pride and satisfaction in seeing people graduate and taking on a new step in their life.”
At UCC, Mr O’Connor embarked on a number of sabbaticals that allowed him to compare the Irish education system to those in other countries. The comparison left Mr O’Connor very impressed with the Irish educational model.
“That was one of the advantages of working in UCC, that you could get a sabbatical for a number of months,” Mr O’Connor said. “It is important that people experience life somewhere else and get a different perspective on things. We have a very solid third-level operation in Ireland. The French have a very good system, in terms of pre-schooling. All the way up, they seem to have a very successful format. Our system compares very favourably.”
However, Mr O’Connor has a concern about entry to third-level institutions in Ireland.
“I would have a question mark with regards to access to third-level education,” he said. “We have huge numbers advancing. I think the figure is 72% from second level progress to third level.
“That is not favourably spread across the community, despite a lot of efforts from the HEA and the department,” Mr O’Connor said. “We still have ways to improve third-level access. That is also not to say that third level is the only way to go. In Cork, we have some of the biggest third-level institutions in the country. Further education is also a great incentive for students. Students have to think long and hard. Leaving Cert students can tend to be under a lot of pressure.
“Third level is great and it is a great learning experience, but it is not necessarily for everyone,” Mr O’Connor said. “In France, you can become a fully qualified engineer while you are working. You spend three days a week working and two days in college, for four or five years. They have a more flexible system. People here can go working after school and then pursue academic qualifications, if suits, as a mature student. Students don’t necessarily have to go straight to the third level after doing the Leaving Cert.”
Student numbers in CIT have increased in recent years, which Mr O’Connor attributes to the care displayed by the lecturers.
“Their commitment to the students and their wellbeing is unreal,” Mr O’Connor said. “I haven’t seen that level of care anywhere else. The knowledge the individual lecturers have in their students is amazing. That is why our numbers have grown in recent years. Our lecturers know the strengths and weaknesses of their students.
“We are offering online facilities to students, at present, but we are also committed to ensuring that we continue to contact students. The staff really know their students, which is half the battle.”
The outbreak of Covid-19 presented CIT with their biggest-ever challenge. Mr O’Connor praised the staff and students for their resilience, which has enabled the students to continue their course work online.
“Covid was a huge challenge. We have about 12,000 students,” Mr O’Connor said. “We made the call, early on, in March, to move lectures online, apart from labs and practicals. Our accommodation office was very smart. They got on to hotels and they got student rates, in terms of bed and breakfast for a night or two, which worked very well. It kept the numbers down on campus and, thankfully, we had no major situation. Everyone within the CIT community worked well together.
“We have developed a huge online platform now. Going forward, we don’t know what will happen,” Mr O’Connor said. “Hopefully, in 2021, we will get back to some bit of normality. There is no precedent being set here. If people have discovered new ways of assessment, it is possible online could be the way forward. If people live in remote areas, they should have access to modules online, without having to take accommodation elsewhere. We will have six campuses across Tralee and Cork. It gives us a better dimension in delivering our product, which is good.”
The increase in students in recent years has ensured CIT is financially secure.
“We are good financially,” Dr O’Connor said. “This is down to the fact that, every year, our student numbers keep growing. We put a lot of work into student retention and this has paid dividends. We are the national leaders in student engagement and this is down to the commitment of our staff. The Government also deserves great praise, as they set up a fund for all universities and technologies that have been affected by a significant loss of funding. They have ensured funding will be made available to defray the costs associated with Covid.”
Students and members of the community can also look forward to improved sports and leisure facilities.
A new sports arena is set to open later this year, and will be capable of hosting exams and conferences. A high-performance centre is also scheduled to be built, adjacent to the arena. The indoor athletics facility is scheduled to be completed by September 2022.
Mr O’Connor is delighted with the proposed new developments.
“We hope the sports arena will be opened by September. A high-performance centre will be established right next to the arena. It will have long-jump and high-jump facilities and it will be built in conjunction with Athletics Ireland. We are also doing a significant upgrade to our running track.”
Mr O’Connor is thrilled more people are reaping the benefits of the improved facilities at the Bishopstown campus. He is keen for the wider Cork public to make use of them. “It is all about making the facilities available to the members of the community,” he said. “Our athletics track is always in action.
“Come out to CIT any night and there is a great buzz there,” Mr O’Connor said. “People are keen to get fit and avail of our facilities, which is great to see. We have a proven track record in serving the community. In our Bishopstown campus, there is no gate or wall. It is an open campus, which it should be. It is paid for by the taxpayer, so it should be there for all to use.”
Mr O’Connor is pleased CIT enjoys strong roots within the community. “A few years back, there were issues and we sorted those issues. We had an annual event at the end of November, which caused huge disruption for local residents. Working in conjunction with the gardaí, the students union, and the residents, we stopped all that. It is important we work well together and get on well with the residents. I always told them to make full use of CIT as a resource.”
Mr O’Connor is leaving CIT on a positive note, as it begins its new era as a technological university. He is delighted to leave on a high, having thoroughly enjoyed his academic journey.
“Working in higher education is fantastic. It has been a great journey. I have worked with so many professional and committed people. It was my privilege to serve in this role.”