Interview with Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, President of University of Galway, Ireland

Interview with Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, President of University of Galway, Ireland


BF: Ireland has always placed education as a top priority. The state allocated €6.9 billion in spending toward education as part of its National Development Plan 2021-2030. Not surprisingly, the country ranked third in the highest level of education amongst OECD members in 2022. What key factors have led to Ireland having such a competitive education and research sector?

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: Ireland has always been viewed as a country that invests in education as our future. I often refer back to the investment in education that led to free-second-level education being introduced in the 1960s (by Minister Donagh O’Malley). The generation that benefited from that has been the vanguard of a highly educated society. We recognize that our main resource is our talented people and there’s a premium on education. It’s seen as the way that we can progress. Attending university to further an education is considered very important for our development. Education is a very strong part of the DNA in Ireland. It’s in the public discourse and it doesn’t translate as much into investment in education as one might imagine. University of Galway has the highest proportion of first-generation students. As a regional and national priority, that sense of families sending their children to university for the first time is also important and they’re very proud.

BF: The University of Galway has consistently ranked in the top 2% of universities worldwide, sitting at 270th in the world according to QS. The university recently changed its name to better represent itself just last year. How does the school’s new name represent the institution’s current unique ethos and what recent large milestones has it passed that have contributed to its current ranking?

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: We’re a university and we’re in Galway. It’s a very simple naming convention, similar to universities named after their states in America. Secondly, we feel that the Isle of Galway is particularly important because Galway has a number of locational advantages. We’re on the edge of Europe but at the center of things. We have a different perspective, but we’re in Europe at the same time. We’re one of the founding members of ENLIGHT, which is the European University Alliance. We see ourselves as a bridge between us and North America. The next parish is North America and that’s been a very strong part of our history. We have the Spanish Arch and there was a trade here, in that part of the city of Galway, going back centuries. More recently, we have connections with the US through migration and inward investments. Thirdly, we’re on the ocean. We see the horizon every day and wonder what’s on the other side. We have that sense of curiosity that great adventures and researchers always have. We’re particularly strong in MedTech, with an indigenous sector and foreign direct investment. Companies like Boston Scientific, Medtronic, and Merit Medical are here, as well as companies like Creganna and Aerogen. The talent comes here as a consequence. We’re also very strong in the environmental area. We’ve signed up for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we’re in the top 50 in the world now for the impact of those goals, and the first in Ireland. We’re proud of that because there’s tremendous work going on at the university with sustainability given our position. That’s been a strong investment for us and had a significant impact. The whole area of creativity and culture makes us attractive. We’re on the edge of the Irish-speaking area in Ireland called Gaeltacht. We have Gaeltacht centers in Connacht, Carraroe and Carna and Gweedore in Donegal. We also have a tradition of establishing important creative initiatives here. For example, the Druid Theatre Company, which is the only Irish theater company that has won a Tony award and is from Galway. We have the International Arts Festival and Baboró children’s theater. We have many initiatives coming out of Galway that impact nationally and internationally because of our immersion in language and culture. It also makes us locationally different than anywhere else. Location is a very strong USP because it can’t be replicated.

BF: Ireland’s education sector has also benefited from Brexit. with applications from EU states tripling between the 2016 referendum and the 2022 school year. The University of Galway’s student body is around 20% foreign students from 116 countries. For what reason are students from outside Ireland choosing the country as a destination to advance their studies and how is the University of Galway competing with other local institutions to attract these international learners?

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: Brexit has made a difference both for students and faculties. We have two vice presidents, one who came to us from a role in Dundee and one from Bristol. We have three deans from Manchester, Lancaster and Cardiff. There’s been a real difference there for faculty who want to do research with European funding and connections. We’re the only English-speaking country now in the European Union, and that’s a significant gateway to Europe; more so than before. We’re also a common law country as opposed to code law. We can teach the areas of law and business, but we have that frame of mind around having those traditions. Being in Galway lends itself to an incredibly good student experience. We’re on the Wild Atlantic Way and next to the Gaeltacht. It’s not a capital city experience. It’s a very different experience here compared to London or Washington.

BF: The research university hosts five distinct R&D institutes. What key areas does it excel at in terms of its research capabilities and how do these institutes benefit Ireland’s wider industry and community?

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: Research funding here over the last decade has been focused on translational research and how that can make a difference for industries. There are new research institutes in medical device discovery and clinical trials. Our sense is about finding new ideas and bringing them to fruition. It’s one of our key strengths for our MedTech cluster. We have a Science Foundation Ireland-funded research center here called Cúram. It’s focused on medical devices and 30% funded by industry. We work very closely with industry in order to translate that research into a broader economic impact. We also have a program called BioInnovate that was originally designed based on a program at Stanford called Biodesign. We work closely with the hospital sector here as well. The BioInnovate program puts research students into the hospital setting for them to find problems. Then they go out and do research to try and find a solution. It’s very much a solutions-oriented program. That’s been very effective at a number of very significant spinouts and has made a big difference.

Universities play a crucial role as democratic movements or places where debate is encouraged for dissent and discussion based on good evidence. University of Galway has a history and heritage dating back more than 175 years. It has been here since the mid-19th century. Imagine how different a place Galway would be if we didn’t have our university. There are other parts of Ireland that don’t have a university and would like to have one. There’s a recognition that having a university in your town brings in 20,000 students. One-fifth of the population in Galway is student population. It’s a campus town in that sense. It also brings in research, creativity, and talent and creates the sustainability and expertise that we must have to make a difference. We’ve made a huge difference across all of those areas. We’re a significant customer when it comes to sustainability. We do tremendous work on campus around energy generation. We have solar panels in one of our main buildings, Bailey Allen Hall. We’re just finishing a facility called GEOFIT that’s geothermal energy that will heat our swimming pool and so on. We also have an impact off-campus working with communities. For example, we have a pilot study on the Aran Islands, in the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland, with some of our researchers here. Our hope is the islands will be self-sufficient in renewable energy through that program.

BF: The University IdeasLab, it’s been a hit success in innovative SMEs in Galway, and the Hub recently launched and created “Her Initiative” to empower female entrepreneurship. What measures do the IdeasLab and the university take to support the creation of new startups in Galway and beyond? And what kind of notable new entities have come from this collaboration with the university?

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: There are many spin-outs. One is ONK Therapeutics, focused on engineering therapeutics for cell therapies to cure cancer. Neurent medical is the second one that came out of BioInnovate. It’s non-surgical intervention to treat inflammatory disease. Pristine Coast is one of our new spin-outs in the area of sustainability around the environmentally sustainable production of seaweed. As part of the student curriculum, our students are taking more programs that make a difference in thinking through new and creative ideas for employment and society. It’s an important aspect in the cultural space. There’s significant work through BioInnovate and spin-outs in that context. There’s also significant work on partnerships with the industry. We have a marine research station in Carna.  Work they’re doing in partnership with companies is around feed for salmon farms. They’re testing more effective, efficient and sustainable feed for salmon farming. They’re also looking at how we might grow seaweed for medicinal purposes and so on. Lobster farming is another area. We’re looking at how we might grow and have more sustainable lobster farming in the west of Ireland and how different species of lobster could contribute to that. All of the projects were with companies in the region. We have another project on medical device research looking at seaweed and coral as a material for stents and so on. It might be more medically appropriate than plastic. There’s significant activity going on across that space and in Cúram at the university.

BF: You were named the 13th president of the University of Galway at the beginning of 2018 and have successfully run the school through some very transformative times. You also recently stepped up as President of the Universities Ireland Council in 2022. As the President of the University of Galway, what are your current three top priorities and what vision do you have for the university and city in the next five to ten years?

Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh: Our strategy is based on the values of respect, openness, excellence, and sustainability. That’s about the lived experience of the university and how we work with partners and so on. Part of my vision is that the university would be even more open than it currently is and everybody would feel it’s open to them. We have a large wall at the back of the most historic part of the university (the Quadrangle) with a door in it that was closed for years. We simply opened the door. There’s a symbolism to that and we wanted to be a university with no gates. People have noticed this and are walking through the back of this area even more. We want everybody to feel at home here. We’re keen to do more in marine research and embed ourselves even more strongly in the areas of MedTech, sustainability, creativity, and work with our location. There’s no tension between being in Galway and having an international ambition at the same time. Because being in Galway means you have something different that’s internationally significant. Creating that synergy between Galway and the university builds a virtuous circle where people and talent come to Galway, which helps industry and society strengthen those areas. The university is stronger as a result. We also want to focus on more internationalization with North American students. Galway’s cultural advantages offer something different and unique that isn’t anywhere else. I’m keen that we have more undergraduate North American students who come with us for the Fulbright Program.

BF: What is your final message to the readers of USA Today?

There’s a great can-do attitude in the States and we have that in Ireland as well. We now have a generation of talent with the ambition to create a better place and we are going about that work. Ireland has come a long way. There are generations of people with that can-do attitude that have stayed here and made a difference. We’re not only close geographically with the US, but we’re close philosophically in the way we like to go about life.