ON DECEMBER 11 2019, in a packed O’Reilly Hall, then Special Minister for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD, launched “Rising to the Future”, UCD’s new strategy for the period 2020-2024. This launch was the culmination of a year-long strategic planning process which engaged stakeholders within and outside of the University.
The starting point was an assessment of achievements made over the previous years under the last strategy, which was launched in November 2014. Over those years, UCD truly became “Ireland’s Global University”, establishing global centres in the USA, China, Malaysia, India, and the Middle East whose purpose is to facilitate research collaborations, alumni networking and student education. Engagement with the alumni community increased by 302% over the same period. UCD also increased engagement with industry, and built on its research quality, quantity and impact, and the number of spin-out companies increased by 100%. Despite cuts in Government funding, the University was able to increase the number of employees by 13.3%, supporting a 10.5% increase in students based in Dublin. This increase in students accommodated demographic increases in Ireland, augmented by a 50% increase in students from outside the EU. The result is a cosmopolitan campus and a higher likelihood of Irish students taking part of their UCD degree at a partner university overseas. Careful recruitment of faculty led to an improved student-to-staff ratio, which had been dramatically affected by cuts during the period of austerity, and together with some curriculum and systems reform, improved student satisfaction by 5%, as measured by the Irish Survey of Student Engagement.
These achievements were enabled by a significant increase (almost 40%) in non-Exchequer income and an increase of 53% in philanthropic support over the previous five years.
“The world is now a very different place to that of five years ago,” UCD President, Professor Andrew J Deeks told those gathered for the launch as he set the scene for the new five-year strategy. “The last strategy was about rebuilding out of an era of economic crisis. In today’s world there is much more awareness of the fragility of the environment in which we live; about the need to think of sustainability, but also transformation. We are more aware of the impact of human activity on the environment in which we live and at the same time, society is more connected than ever before.”
During the consultation process for the new strategy, four themes emerged organically. These strategic themes will shape our research, influence the teaching of our faculty and our students’ learning in the future, and impact on the way we behave and function as an institution.
THEME 1: CREATING A SUSTAINABLE GLOBAL SOCIETY
As a matter of urgency, humanity must learn to live sustainably, without degrading our shared planet. “This theme encourages thinking about sustainability in the biggest possible manner; beyond the campus, beyond Ireland, contributing globally through research as well as embracing those principles in everything we do,” said Professor Deeks.
THEME 2: TRANSFORMING THROUGH DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY
Digital technology has been truly transformative as huge swathes of society have had to adapt due to the impact of Covid-19.
At the launch of the strategy Professor Deeks said: “The digital technology transformation goes through every discipline and indeed everything that we do as a University. All of our graduates need to be equipped to make use of these technologies and to adapt to the changing society that these technologies are going to create.”
As the University prepares for the autumn semester with the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the place of digital technology is central to guarantee teaching and learning, to ensure intergenerational connection, to enhance operations and decision-making, and to accelerate research for the benefit of society.
THEME 3: BUILDING A HEALTHY WORLD
Elsewhere are some of the stories of the UCD alumni, staff and students who play a role in tackling Covid-19. Although an enormous global effort is being exerted to treat and care for the victims and to develop a preventative vaccine, work must also continue to look at health and wellbeing more broadly.
UCD is the only Irish university which brings together human and animal health sciences, agriculture and food sciences, and environmental and social sciences.
“And UCD is very well-positioned to contribute to the One Health agenda: looking to the health of society rather than just the health of the individual,” Professor Deeks said.
THEME 4: EMPOWERING HUMANITY
Understanding what shapes human thinking and motivates behavioural change holds the key to successfully addressing the societal challenges represented in the first three strategic themes.
“As more and more work is enhanced by digital technology, human skills become more important. We need to prepare the transferable skills of our graduates, the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, leadership, teamwork, and the ability to work with people from different backgrounds and different cultures,” Professor Deeks said.
The four themes are embraced in four core objectives and facilitated by six key enablers.
True to the vision and mission of the University, Objective 1 relates to the quality, quantity and impact of research, scholarship and innovation and seeks to nurture academic faculty to be the very best. Objective 2 focuses on students and the educational and life experience provided by the University to prepare them to thrive in present and future societies. Objective 3 sets out to build engagement locally, nationally, and internationally. And the fourth objective recognises the importance of diversity and excellence in the University community. The focus of the strategy is very much long-term, hence the title “Rising to the Future”. Of course, Covid-19 has put society into crisis mode and the University has responded – not only through adaptation of its teaching, assessment, and campus experience but also in its contribution to public health through expertise, healthcare and research. Rising to the Future remains a rallying call for everyone in the University community as we adapt to the impact of the pandemic and equip our students with the skills to really empower humanity.