Chapter 5. Enhancing the impact of Ireland’s higher education institutions

This chapter expands on the findings presented in Chapter 2 with a focus on the impact of higher education and the possible results of a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation. There are significant opportunities for HEIs to have positive impacts on their local economies, not only directly but in a wide range of indirect ways, both on the supply and demand side. However, as discussed in this chapter, there are also a range of tensions that need to be understood and carefully managed by the HEIs themselves, their local partners and national policy makers if impacts are to be effectively delivered.



Higher education institutions (HEIs) played a critical role in the development of Ireland’s economy and the sector is recognised by policy makers as a key factor in driving the post-crash recovery, in particular its ability to attract foreign direct investment and enhance growth of Irish businesses.

It has been the strategy of successive governments since the late 1960s to increase participation in higher education from what were historically low levels in comparison with other “developed” economies. This has resulted in Ireland currently having the highest proportion of 30-34 year olds with higher education qualifications in Europe, one of the factors highlighted by many commentators (e.g. Gunnigle and McGuire, 2001) in Ireland’s success in attracting foreign direct investment during the so-called “Celtic Tiger” period from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

These high participation rates combined with a still growing young population mean that the number of people participating in higher education is expected to grow by nearly 30% over the next 15 years, from a current base of 215 000. However this growth in student numbers is taking place in the context of reduced government funding for higher education. Between 2007/08 and 2015/16 the recurrent government expenditure for higher education fell from EUR 1.85 billion to EUR 1.7 billion, a reduction of 8%. When coupled with a growing student population this actually represents a fall of 24% in real terms of funding per student during the same period (DES, 2015). However, this trend is now being reversed with an increase in the higher education budget in 2017 and the publication of a recent expert group report which provides recommendations for consideration on the creation of a sustainable funding model for higher education (HEA, 2016a).

Analysis and findings

In these circumstances, how can Irish HEIs maximise their impact on social and economic development? This can be explored by looking at the ways in which HEIs contribute to development and growth, what tensions and challenges they face in delivering impact and how these might be managed or overcome.

Irish HEIs as “anchor” institutions

The Work Foundation defines anchor institutions as:

“Large locally embedded institutions, typically non-governmental public sector, cultural or other civic institutions that are of significant importance to the economy and the wider community life of the cities in which they are based. They generate positive externalities and relationships that can support or “anchor” wider economic activity in the locality…. Their scale, local rootedness and community links are such that they can play a key role in local development and economic growth representing the “sticky capital” around which economic growth strategies can be built”. (Work Foundation, 2010)

In the case of HEIs their main location, in comparison with private firms, is fixed within the current home location. Notwithstanding possible expansion to other nearby or far away campuses it is where they have considerable sunk investment in buildings and strong identification with place, not least through the name of the institution. On past experience HEIs have generally been immune to institutional failure or sudden contractions in size. They can therefore act as a source of stability in local economies, buffering against the worst effects of periodic downturns. They are particularly important as anchor institutions in weaker economies (Goddard et al., 2014).

The importance of this anchoring role in Irish HEIs is even more pronounced due to the highly centralised nature of Ireland and its economy. Dublin accounts for around 25% of the national population; almost 40% live in the greater Dublin area. These population ratios are projected to remain the same to 2031, with the Greater Dublin Area region seeing a small increase of 3.1%, and other regions declining somewhat. 42% of Ireland’s gross domestic product (GDP) is accounted for by Dublin. In comparison, London accounts for 20% of the UK’s GDP (WDC, 2014). Compared to other European countries, Ireland’s “second tier” cities are dwarfed by the capital. Cork City with a population of just under 120 000 is the only other Irish city with a population of more than 100 000 (CSO, 2011).

With the population and economic activity highly concentrated around the capital it is not surprising that Dublin and its wider area constitute the most institutionally “thick” part of the country in terms of research and innovation. Four of the country’s seven universities are located in or close to Dublin and more than half of other public research organisations (SFI, 2016) are based in the capital. The concentration of HEIs and other research institutes around Dublin can result in a mutually reinforcing effect of funding success leading to improved capacity. The fact that over 55% of total funding to Irish HEIs from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7), and 34% of all FP7 funds went to HEIs in Dublin is evidence of this (European Commission, 2014).

This means that HEIs outside the capital are vitally important to their local innovation ecosystems, and in many cases (especially in non-metropolitan places) they may be “the only game in town” in terms of research. In particular the IOTs are critically important to their local economies, especially outside the four “core” cities where they are the sole local HEI provider. In an era of reduced funding and increased competition the danger is that innovation “cold spots” are reinforced or emerge outside the capital. Supporting HEIs to develop their research capacity and connect to local businesses can create significant, and disproportionately positive, impacts for the local and national economy.

The IOTs are under significant pressure. Key factors are high teaching loads and less flexibility in recruitment, which further limits their capacity to acquire competitive funding. IOTs are subject to the same recruitment conditions as universities, but they are more restricted in terms of being able to borrow money to invest. There is no capacity to make people redundant where courses are no longer relevant. This has impacted IOTs, particularly when the construction sector collapsed along with participation in apprenticeships in relevant trades.

Direct economic impact

It is an uncontested fact that HEIs have a significant direct impact on their local economy (Henderson, 2001). They are significant employers, procurers of services and a catalyst for new enterprise activity. HEIs attract students and skilled staff from outside the region, who stimulate economic activity through their spending on housing and other local goods and services. A number of studies have looked at the economic impact of the sector as a whole (Zhang et al, 2015) as well as individual institutions (Biggar Economics, 2013; DCU, 2015). These have reinforced the contention that spending on higher education has a significant multiplier effect on the local and national economy.1

Employment in HEIs in Ireland accounted for around 1.2% of total employment in 2010-11 (Zhang et al, 2015). This compares with a figure of 1.3% in the United Kingdom in 2013 according to HESA, a charitable company operating under a statutory framework on behalf of the funding councils and government departments. In terms of overall economic impact the outputs of Irish HEIs have a more significant effect, accounting for 5.5% of national GDP in 2010-11. This is almost double the proportion of GDP accounted for by the sector in the United Kingdom; 2.8% in 2011-12 (Zhang et al., 2015). HEIs in Ireland account for a disproportionately high level of economic output relative to the size of the sector, and are more significant in terms of their impact compared to other countries. Following this logic, reductions in funding for higher education could have a far greater impact on the economy than the value of the “real terms” reduction.

Investing more in higher education would provide a significant stimulus to the economy. This is being facilitated by current efforts to identify new funding sources and the prioritisation of new funding models already underway (HEA, 2016a).

Research and innovation

As already shown, Irish HEIs are key anchor institutions in the national and local innovation systems, especially in innovation “thin” places outside the capital. The success of Irish HEIs in attracting funds, such as FP7, shows their importance as catalysts in unlocking collaborative research funding both nationally and internationally which smaller organisations, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may not have the capacity or networks to pursue alone.

Research centres are an excellent tool for building collaborations between HEIs, other research institutions and the private sector in line with thematic areas of the research prioritisation exercise which lends coherence and alignment with national strategies. Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has established twelve research centres in Ireland to create partnerships across academia and industry to address crucial research questions; foster the development of new and existing Irish-based technology companies; attract industry that could make an important contribution to Ireland and its economy; and expand educational and career opportunities in Ireland in science and engineering. Investment to establish the centres included EUR 355 million from public sources and a further EUR 190 million from industry. The SFI Research Centres have been very active in terms of spin-off activities, licensing and other forms of technology transfer activities. They closely collaborate with the Technology Centres of Enterprise Ireland.

Research activities in HEIs, especially when aggregated into well-defined and resourced hubs and centres can also act as a magnet to attract additional private investment in research and development activities. For example, the decision by Johnson and Johnson to open their new information technology services centre on the UL campus was in part driven by the presence of Lero, the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre, and the expertise in UL’s Computer Science and Information Systems Department.

Irish HEIs depend on a range of state and semi-state bodies and European sources for the bulk of their research funding. All of these are allocated competitively and have their own, often complex processes for application and reporting. Funding pressures (especially but not only in the IOTs) have meant that there is limited capacity to keep up with the various systems and processes in order to respond to calls and to “invest” the time and effort needed to develop proposals of a sufficient quality (see also Chapter 3).

There is a need to demonstrate the value of the research being carried out by the academics within the HEIs as part of their work that is not funded by research funders. Ireland’s research citations are 16th in global scientific ranking and, for example, first in Nanoscience and second in Immunology, but from a system-perspective there is no performance measurement. While there are numerous sources of information on various activities, these are not being translated effectively (enough) into details of their actual impacts in terms of the economy and society at large.

Core funding for research could be allocated on the basis of quality and impact of existing research in the HEIs. This would show the value of the block grant to the research system. Further, mechanisms could be put in place to provide researchers with more capacity (either for themselves or through provision of support) to seek and apply for research opportunities. National funding programmes could be further consolidated, simplified and common processes put in place.

In research funding it has been shown that success breeds success (University Alliance, 2009). There is a danger of a widening gap between the best Irish performers in attracting research funding and the rest, as the more successful institutions have more resources to invest in attracting staff, equipment and further funding. There is also a geographic element to this as Dublin (and other larger cities) are attracting a disproportionate amount of funding which could result in research and innovation “cold spots” emerging or being reinforced in other parts of the country. Enterprise Ireland had, until recently, only set national targets; a more-regional/local approach will help HEIs to build and sustain their local development role not only in the graduates they produce but also through their job creation, R&D, business incubation and community development initiatives.

The Irish Research Council (IRC) has launched its Making an Impact Competition as part of the “#loveIrishresearch” campaign, which is an initiative aimed at highlighting the achievements of Irish researchers and the effective communication of their work to a lay audience. With a prize fund of EUR 5 000 it is an opportunity for students registered in postgraduate programmes across all disciplines to share their research. Two awards are offered with EUR 2 500 each, one decided by the panel and the other based on an audience vote. Winning research will be profiled by the Irish Independent. Unsuccessful finalists will receive a EUR 100 book voucher. Since its launch in 2009, the initiative has attracted a huge variety of submissions. Winning entries in 2015 were on topics as diverse as ultra-high-performance reinforced concrete and the role of omega-3 from algae in gut and brain health (HEA, 2016b).

The University of Limerick offers an excellent example of how to describe research impact through the use of case studies (Box 5.1). The initiative was started by the Vice-President for Research who brought together groups of researchers from different faculties and worked with them in order to develop an understanding of “what” impact is and “how” it can be measured (see also Chapter 4).

Box 5.1. Impact Case Studies at the University of Limerick

How do we ensure our government and its policies are informed by the needs of our citizens? How do we encourage our citizens to become active participants in forming the policies which affect their future? These are questions which researchers at the University of Limerick (UL) seek to answer.

Dr Maura Adshead together with Dr Chris McInerney of the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick have led the development of innovative practice in the area of policy research and civic engagement. Dr Adshead explains: “Best practice suggests that all policy should be evidence based but policy-makers rarely have access to those whom policy most affects. With the exception of a few focus groups or opinion polls, it is often hard for policy makers and politicians to know what really works “on the ground”. Our research finds ways to enable ordinary people to express their opinions and influence policy formulation and implementation more effectively”.

Their research has made an impact on public policy and planning projects such as the Clare Immigrant Strategy and the Ennis 2020 Community Visioning and Participatory Planning Initiative. In the Ennis 2020 initiative the UL research team developed a process that would enable deeper engagement between residents of the town and its council to imaging a vision of the community’s future.

Dr McInerney added; “Our research has shown us that a policy of ensuring the voice of the people is heard leads to greater citizen engagement, and ultimately strong civic pride and better communities. The Ennis 2020 project is an excellent example of research policy and practice being applied and leading to greater citizen to Council engagement and ultimately building towards a better future”. The work on Ennis 2020 has informed the training of public administration officials at a national and local level and has been applied in a number of communities including migrants and asylum seekers.

Source: Source: University of Limerick (2016).

The role of all disciplines, in particular areas other than Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), in delivering social innovation and addressing societal challenges needs to be further highlighted and reflected in national funding priorities. Case studies such as NetwellCASALA in Dundalk could be further developed to showcase the importance of transdisciplinary research.

Universities and research funders could explore the use of innovative tools like sandpits to bring together researchers in different disciplines in order to build collaborative projects and proposals (Box 5.2). This has been practiced since 2004 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the main government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences in the United Kingdom. The EPSRC invests around GBP 740 million per annum in universities in a broad range of STEM subjects. The sandpits are part of the IDEAS Factory concept. Participants are selected for each sandpit according to their skills and expertise. Sandpits often have a rich diversity bringing together physical scientists, engineers, designers, social scientists, psychologists and healthcare specialists (EPRSC, n.d.).

Box 5.2. Sandpits to build transdisciplinary projects and proposals

Sandpits are residential interactive workshops over five days. They have a highly multidisciplinary mix of 20-30 participants, some active researchers and others potential users of research outcomes, to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to address research challenges. Sandpits are intensive discussion forums where free thinking is encouraged to delve into the problems on the agenda to uncover innovative solutions.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the United Kingdom has been working with sandpits since 2004 as part of their IDEAS Factory. Sandpits often have a rich diversity bringing together physical scientists, engineers, designers, social scientists, psychologists and healthcare specialists. Each sandpit is led by a director, who defines the topic and facilitates discussions at the event. A group of stakeholders and subject experts facilitate the process as mentors. This group is not eligible to receive research funding so acts as an impartial referee in the process.

The process can be broken down into five output-driven phases:

  1. Defining the scope of the issue

  2. Agreeing a common language and terminology amongst diverse backgrounds and disciplines

  3. Sharing various perspectives on the issue

  4. Using creative and innovative thinking techniques in break-out sessions to focus on a problem

  5. Turning Sandpit outputs into a research project

Sandpits are intensive events and for the well-being of participants, venues offer relaxation opportunities, and the timetable includes informal networking activities as a break from detailed technical discussions. Due to group dynamics and continual evaluation it is not possible to “dip in and out” of the process. Participants must stay for the whole duration of the event.

Sandpit funding is not spread evenly across participants: a variety of outcomes are possible, ranging from a single large research project, to several smaller projects, feasibility studies, networking activities, overseas visits and so on. Outcomes are not pre-determined, but are defined during the sandpit.

Source: Source: (EPRSC, n.d.).

Enterprise and entrepreneurship

Irish HEIs help to promote enterprise2 and entrepreneurship in a number of ways. They support spin-offs and start-ups from staff, students and alumni. They help develop entrepreneurial skills amongst students through societies, competitions and prizes, teaching and learning, project based learning, work placements etc. HEIs are also involved more broadly in local and regional activities to promote and support entrepreneurship, for example the annual Start-up Gathering events. Another example is the Student Enterprise Awards at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (Box 5.3).

Box 5.3. Students Enterprise Awards at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

The competition is run in all five campuses across the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). All finalists are assigned a GMIT mentor to help prepare them for GMIT Students Enterprise Awards Final, which will be a ten-minute pitching competition to an external panel.

First place winner receives a cash prize of EUR 2 000 plus free hot desking space for 3 months in the GMIT Innovation Hubs (Mayo or Galway) plus mentoring support. Second place receives a cash prize of EUR 500 plus free hot desking space for 3 months in the GMIT Innovation Hubs (Mayo or Galway). Third place receives a cash prize of EUR 300. Fourth place receives a cash prize of EUR 200.

Source: Source: Interviews at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology during the study visit in October 2015.

While all HEIs offer entrepreneurship education to a lesser or greater extent, this is not always available to every student or formalised within their curriculum (e.g. in terms of course credits etc.). In some cases, enterprise is still perceived as a topic focused on or restricted to students of business and commerce. However there are a number of challenges in embedding enterprise education, especially if students are to work together across disciplines, in terms of resources and timetabling (see Chapter 4).

Alumni networks could be more effectively built and deployed to identify growth potential businesses, and also to act as mentors. Entrepreneurial education and training could be offered to all students in more formalised and accredited ways. Giving students opportunities to work on projects that cut across disciplines can spark innovative business ideas as well as developing future workplace skills for team working.

Therefore should (or to what extent could) they align their entrepreneurship support activities to the needs of the local economy? Should support be directed towards those businesses that will fill gaps locally, or complement existing industrial activity? Or should enterprise support for students and graduates be focused on the needs and ambitions of the individuals involved, regardless of local need? Where the focus is on supporting individuals, there may be a danger that new activity merely displaces existing businesses, and there is no net gain to the local economy. However being overly prescriptive in which businesses will be selected or rejected for support may discourage some from pursuing their ideas.

As with all forms of business support, there are critical questions around sustainability and additionality. Is support enabling businesses to survive that would not succeed alone? And if businesses should be expected to succeed without support, to what extent can it be seen to deliver added value (for example, faster growth)? These are difficult issues which have been extensively studied and researched by the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth (2014) without any conclusive findings, but still need to be considered when designing enterprise and business support programmes.

Many of the start-up support programmes run by Irish HEIs are financed by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation (DJEI) and delivered through Enterprise Ireland. The key objective of these programmes is to achieve specific national targets, e.g. number of businesses started, job creation, export sales etc. Focusing on outputs, particularly where they need to be achieved in a relatively short timeframe could result in driving behaviour towards a tendency to back “sure things” rather than more high risk (but high potential) propositions.

There could be a more joined up approach with local enterprise agencies to ensure a seamless offer for new businesses in order to ensure continuity, lack of duplication and co‐ordination in terms of funding, support and accommodation etc.

Human capital and skills development

Impact on human capital and skills development is obviously at the heart of the role of HEIs. The Irish higher education system has been particularly successful in building the skills profile of the population from what were historically low levels to one of the highest levels of participation in the developed world. In the mid-1960s just 2% of school leavers entered higher education. In recent years more than half of school leavers have progressed to graduate level programmes.

As with most countries, participation in higher education in Ireland is strongly correlated with the education level of parents. Members of the travelling community are particularly under-represented. In common with many other countries, people with mental and physical disabilities, and people from deprived communities are also less likely to progress to higher education. Here, several policy initiatives have been introduced to increase access to and progression in higher education.

The binary system of higher education has been critical in creating a bridge into higher education amongst non-traditional learners and therefore the IOTs are a crucial element in maintaining increasing participation rates and especially amongst under-represented groups by offering “stepping stones” towards Level 8 upwards qualifications. For example, 80% of students at DKIT are first generation higher education learners. Almost 50% more students at LIT qualify for the student maintenance grant compared to the national average. LIT also has double the average number of students with a disability at 9%. The proximity of HEIs to large communities with a history of economic and social deprivation has clearly been an important factor in promoting the visibility (and possibility) of higher education to non-traditional participants (see Chapter 4). In the visited IOTs teaching loads and staff-student ratios are close to (or even beyond) acceptable limits. With the number of students expected to grow for another ten years this position will not be sustainable.

In terms of investment in education, the focus of politicians and the public at large is on primary and second-level education, which are also under enormous pressure from increasing numbers and reduced funding. In this context, it is difficult to argue for prioritisation and funding for higher education which is not seen as a fundamental right in the same way primary and second-level education is.

Another issue that seems to particularly pertain to Ireland is lack of student mobility. Irish students traditionally do not travel long distances for their higher education. Of students living in counties with an HEI, the majority (around 80%) are enrolled at an HEI in their home county, based on data gathered by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on county of residence of enrolled students at HEA funded institutions 2014/15. By way of comparison, less than 50% of English students stay in their home region to study, despite there being multiple institutions and much larger geographies concerned. The high concentration of HEIs in and around Dublin gives people much more choice. There needs to be a change in culture of students travelling to study and of HEIs becoming more specialised and focused. There are a number of reasons behind these low levels of mobility, ranging from cultural norms to financial constraints to housing shortages. However the sector should consider the implications of these relatively low levels of mobility.

Firstly, it means that students in higher education “cold spots”, where there are no HEIs in commuting distance are potentially disadvantaged in terms of choice compared to students in the major cities and their surrounding areas, all of which have at least two HEIs. Dublin alone has three universities (plus Maynooth University within less than 30 km), four IOTs, as well as numerous other colleges and specialist (including private) institutions. This results in pressure being brought to bear on and by politicians for universities to be established in areas perceived to be higher education cold spots.

Secondly, it may constrain choice, hamper specialisation and risk duplication as students may be going to the nearest place rather than the best place to study their chosen topic (HEA, 2013). If students won’t travel to specific institutions for specific courses then local institutions (especially where they are the sole provider in the area) are under pressure to provide a “full menu” of subjects.

In terms of the role of HEIs contributing to the human capital of the country, it has been suggested that many of the “best” (i.e. highest achievers at second-level) Irish students go overseas to study at more internationally prestigious universities. A significant number of these will not return to work in Ireland, especially those who have left for postgraduate studies.

Many HEIs highlight the insufficient/inadequate careers advice in schools at second-level and lack of knowledge amongst parents about opportunities and career paths (especially in STEM industries) as another challenge in ensuring Irish students are studying the subjects at third level that will deliver the skills needed to supply the demand for human capital in Ireland’s growth sectors. While there is already evidence of links to local schools and communities via outreach and access programmes etc., more could be done in a more systemised way. Supporting careers advisors to understand the range of opportunities that new industries offer is key to ensuring students make informed choices later on. This support needs to happen before the final senior cycle when subject choices for the Leaving Certificate have already been made. Ideally, HEIs should be engaging with schools, pupils and parents at the end of primary and early years of second-level school.

Regional initiatives, such as Regional Clusters and Regional Skills Fora, if well organised, supported by the HEIs and properly resourced, can be an important method to achieving more co-operation between providers, increased pathways into and between HEIs, and building better links with further education providers and schools.

HEIs also play an important role in lifelong learning, continuous professional development, workforce development etc. IOTs in particular have higher numbers of mature3 full and part-time students than average (16% compared to 8% in universities). The economic crisis has led to the development of some very innovative approaches to support unemployed people to reskill in new sectors where there is higher demand. Developing skills/reskilling amongst mature learners is a key factor in driving up the human capital in Ireland to a level needed for economic recovery and success. There is clear evidence of success in initiatives like the Springboard Programme. Promoting higher education for mature learners has wider benefits as feedback from the interviewed staff in HEIs would suggest that the presence of mature students helps other learners and drives up quality because of the prior knowledge and high expectations they bring to their learning experience (see Chapter 4).

Further innovation in teaching and programme delivery should be encouraged. There are many examples of HEIs teaching through project-based learning, blended learning, placements, co-operative models etc. There is also potential for tools such as electronic diaries to be developed further and mainstreamed.

Social and cultural development

HEIs can play a significant role in the social and cultural development of their local areas. IOTs in particular have been very instrumental in promoting social mobility, evidenced by higher than average levels of students on maintenance grants, from disadvantaged backgrounds, with disabilities and mature students. Feedback from students suggests that IOTs are seen as more locally oriented and accessible (smaller class sizes and classroom based learning makes for an easier transition from school compared to traditional universities).

Irish HEIs in general are often home to or sponsors of sports, art, music, museum and theatre facilities which are accessible to the public. They can also be instrumental in developing capacity locally for arts and culture, for example the University of Limerick and Limerick Institute of Technology are playing a pivotal role in the bid for Limerick to become European Capital of Culture in 2020. Shared facilities, joint ownership, establishing community interest companies and social enterprise etc. are effective models that HEIs and local communities can explore to ensure the sustainability of local sports, arts and cultural facilities.

In addition to the above-mentioned pressures on the core teaching and research budgets, recent years have also seen significant funding cuts for adult education and community and cultural/arts projects (e.g. Dorrity, 2010; Irish Congress of Trade Unions Community Sector Committee, 2012). This will have an impact on the ability of HEIs to contribute directly to the social and cultural development of their local areas, and will have deeper impacts in more peripheral places where there may be few if any alternative providers. At the same time local communities and authorities have high expectations of the role HEIs could/should play in social and cultural development. These expectations may have become even higher in the past decade as funding for other local organisations has declined sharply, reducing their capacity to deliver. However, hard pressed HEIs and their staff may start to see investment of time and resources in non-”core” (i.e. teaching and research) activities as an unjustifiable luxury in the face of shrinking budgets, wage restrictions and growing student demand.

Several Irish HEIs are located in or near to areas of high (or traditionally high) levels of deprivation. Many if not all HEIs encourage learners from non-traditional backgrounds through access programmes etc. As already outlined, IOTs are an important factor in engaging students from non-traditional backgrounds in HE. During the study visit for this review some concerns were expressed that the process of applying for designation as a technological university may cause a drift away from this strong local embeddedness as the merged institutions will operate across a much wider geography and will need to compete more at a national and international level for research funding.

Another way HEIs can contribute to society is by mobilising their staff and students through volunteering and community development activities (see Chapter 4). A commendable example is the NorDubCo initiative in North Dublin, which has established viable relationships with the business community, local government, the local development sector and education providers (Box 5.4).

Box 5.4. NorDubCo

NorDubCo was established in 1996 to promote social, economic and civic development of North Dublin. With the advent of the “Celtic Tiger” period of prolonged economic growth, many of the issues facing the region for which NorDubCo was established were no longer problematic. In others, economic growth had created a completely new set of issues to be addressed by the members of NorDubCo. Today’s post-Celtic Tiger situation presents its own set of issues. Since its establishment NorDubCo has worked to ensure that sustainable economic, social and civic development takes place in the region. In this context it has worked to create a positive vision for community and working life in the region, a vision that sought to embrace all of the region’s communities. NorDubCo’s work had three distinct aims: to develop a more inclusive policy debate within the region; to promote new thinking to influence the economic, social and civic environment; and to enhance the effectiveness of NorDubCo. To this end, it involves the business community, local government, the local development sector, public representatives (both local and national), education (second-level, further), higher education, particularly with Dublin City University, and other local organisations, through projects such as the “Accelerated Skills Development Programme”, and the “North Dublin Economic Clusters” project.

Source: Source: NorDubCo (2017).

Engagement in social and cultural development activities is an important way for HEIs to demonstrate their value and impact to their local communities. This can be an important element in building support for the value of higher education, particularly amongst communities that do not traditionally engage. Students can be a valuable resource to help with fundraising and providing support for services in the community. Formalising these opportunities (e.g. through course credits, formal recognition etc.) ensures a “win-win” for both sides and ensures supply matches demand. An example is the Child Law Clinic at University College of Cork (Box 5.5).

Box 5.5. Child Law Clinic at the University College of Cork

The Child Law Clinic at University College of Cork is a pro-bono legal research service provided by students for lawyers. Staffed by colleagues at the Faculty of Law, researchers and students on the Faculty’s PhD and LLM programmes, the Clinic aims to enhance the quality of litigation in children’s cases with a view to achieving progressive reform of child law in Ireland and internationally.

The aims of the Child Law Clinic are to:

  1. Improve the quality of children’s representation

  2. Promote evidence-based reform in all areas of child law

  3. Support lawyers litigating children’s issues

  4. Provide students with practical experience of child law and litigation

The Clinic does not provide legal advice to individuals but rather supports lawyers to represent and litigate on behalf of children. It also aims to provide legal support to organisations working with and for children.

Source: Source: UCC (2017).


Internationalisation constitutes a key strategic area for Irish HEIs. In the current expansion of study places, enrolments from Ireland and EU member countries are expected to account for approximately two-thirds of the total increase with the rest coming from non-EU enrolments. In addition to internationalisation activities to boost outgoing and inward mobility of students and staff, it will be important to increase the number of opportunities and to build international links and relevant competencies for those students who will not go abroad during their studies.

Uptake of foreign language studies at second and third level is relatively low in Ireland compared to other European countries. For example, across the EU28 over 50% of upper secondary level students were studying two or more foreign languages, while in Ireland the figure was less than 10% (EUROSTAT, 2014). Ireland is also significantly below the EU28 average for adults speaking one or more foreign languages, with less than 30% compared to an EU28 average of over 60% (EUROSTAT, 2011). These factors constrain the ability of students to take part in exchange programmes and may also be a disincentive to some potential investors although employers often choose Ireland because they can attract international talent to locate here who have the native language skills required.

While the policy of recent years has been to emphasise the value of STEM subjects for the promotion of innovation and economic development, there should also be a similar “push” on studying foreign languages at second-level and third-level. In fact, courses in STEM fields could offer a language component, as it is often in these industries (especially technology) where the greatest demand for language skills originates. The Department for Education and Skills is currently working on a Foreign Languages in Education strategy.

At the University of Limerick (UL) a well-developed international alumni strategy includes a student ambassador programme and a scholarship initiative. UL has the largest outward mobility via the Erasmus programme of any Irish HEI.4 It has the highest rating in Ireland in the international student barometer in terms of student experience, and is ranked fifth in the world. Significant resources are put into region-specific approaches to meet the need of partner institutions in terms of subject areas and qualification levels. For example, India is very interested in work placements and China in entrepreneurship. Courses are offered in French, German, Spanish, and Japanese. It is recognised that more could be done to keep links with incoming students after they return to their home institutions and international students in general. So far, only a few research activities have spun off from student mobility but there is potential for more. This is going to be acted upon by the newly established assistant deans, who will closely collaborate with the deans for academic affairs and research. It is also planned to introduce a “Challenge Fund for Internationalisation” for each faculty to seed fund innovative and promising initiatives. Faculties will set their own priorities and there will be a central co-ordinated assessment of how these contribute to UL’s strategic plan.

Several promising initiatives have evolved also from the approach to internationalisation taken by the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT). LIT currently has 200 international students which account for approximately 4% of the total student body. A recent focus has been on the “New Irish”, who have a command of a number of languages which would be attractive to prospective employers and indeed other international partners who would welcome the opportunity to partner on exchange programmes with these students. LIT also places an emphasis on courses where students have a tendency to go abroad, instead of internationalising all programmes, as a way to build strong and lasting partnerships as opposed to creating a large number of short term partnerships.5

Dublin City University (DCU) also has a high number of international students (20% of total enrolments) from more than 100 countries. As in other HEIs, use is made of the national employment scheme for international students, which allows for up to 20 hours per week during term time, and 40 hours per week outside of term time for work in Ireland. There is also a “stay-back” scheme, whereby international students can remain for one year after graduating to work in Ireland.

Particularly on the part of SMEs, there seems to be some reluctance in taking foreign students on as the perception is that these students tend to leave shortly after the work placement ends. Information events which include the involvement of international students in collaborative research and other measures could help to raise awareness of opportunities which these students could gain and bring to (traditional) SMEs. The recently established Centre for Family Businesses at DCU is also expected to play a role in this. The Copenhagen Talent Bridge initiative (Box 5.6) offers relevant learning in this regard.

Box 5.6. Copenhagen Talent Bridge

Crucial for many economies and HEIs is the attraction and retention of internationally connected talents. This is also the aim of the Copenhagen Talent Bridge project which brings together all HEIs in Copenhagen, city governments and industry representatives in the Copenhagen area. One of the objectives is to support SMEs in hiring and managing international talents. There is both the demand for and supply of international skilled labour, but there are several barriers related to recruitment, language, daily work life, etc. which render employment difficult, especially for smaller firms. All HEIs located in Copenhagen have been important match-makers through their business links.

The Copenhagen Talent Bridge project co-ordinates and scales these initiatives, functioning as a “talent pipeline” in key sectors such as cleantech, life sciences and ICT. Part of this is the Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps, a global network of international students who, on a voluntary basis, represent Danish universities globally by sharing their personal experiences and organising events internationally.

Source: Source: HEInnovate (2017a).

Incentives can encourage universities and private institutions to collaborate for international funding competitions (e.g. Horizon 2020). This could include travel bursaries, buy-outs from other activities to develop proposals, training and capacity building, matchmaking services to help identify potential partners etc. Both the Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland offer such support.

Building absorptive capacity

As well as these important supply side impacts, HEIs can also impact on the demand side of innovation through building absorptive capacity, supporting collaboration and providing local leadership for social and economic development initiatives. If Irish businesses do not have the capacity to absorb the research, knowledge and skills coming out of HEIs then the danger is that these “leak” out of the region or country to other places with higher innovation capacity, creating an “innovation paradox” (Ougthon et al., 2002) whereby high innovating places benefit from the investment made in lower innovating places, reinforcing the hierarchy of regions and countries as the strong places become ever stronger.

Building capacity in local companies creates not only potential value for the company in terms of innovation and growth opportunities but also helps build new potential partners for HEIs who may act as future collaborators, consultancy clients and employers for their graduates. According to latest available data, 99.8% of businesses in Ireland are SMEs, and 90.8% are micro SMEs, that is, they employ less than ten persons (Central Statistics Office, 2017). However SMEs only account for about two-thirds of employment in Ireland and less than half of gross value added (GVA). Therefore building capacity in this sector will be vital for sustainable future growth and development.

Many of the funding instruments designed to encourage collaborative activities between HEIs and business are geared towards businesses with ten or more employees, which are export oriented and operate in broadly STEM sectors. This effectively excludes over 90% of Irish businesses, which are arguably the ones that would benefit most from developing their capacity to absorb research and skills. The small proportion that does qualify is by definition innovative and growth oriented. There is a lack of evidence internationally (What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, 2014) that supporting these businesses creates any significant additional benefits, that is, the attributed growth would probably have happened anyway.

Links with local businesses have often been made by academics carrying out short-term consultancy projects. In Ireland, controls on public sector pay and conditions may create restrictions on the wider institutional impact of these activities (see Chapter 3). Without links to individuals in the institution local businesses (especially the smaller ones) can find navigating the HEI to find the required support is a challenge.

Creating a more joined-up approach to businesses across the HEI through a single “front door”, with clear offers for “transactional” services can help to build the relationships that lead to more transformational, long term engagements between businesses and HEIs. A corporate approach to client management can also help to ensure relationships do not “fall between the cracks”, avoid duplication and ensure business get to the right part of the institution to meet their needs as quickly as possible. Student placements can act as a powerful tool in “breaking the ice” with businesses who have not previously engaged with HEIs and lead to longer term, more transformational relationships. They are also highly beneficial for students in terms of skills development and employability. A relevant example is the INaMi network in the Lüneburg region, which was initiated by Leuphana University (Box 5.7). Located between three large northern German agglomeration economies – Hamburg, Bremen and Hannover – the Lüneburg region is characterised by a high share of commuters and features of significant demographic change with areas of population increase as well as steep decrease. The regional labour market suffers from skills shortages and low firm-level innovation activity rates.

Box 5.7. INaMi network at Leuphana University

The INaMi network (Innovationsverbund Nachhaltiger Mittelstand) brings together SMEs from different sectors in an expert-moderated knowledge platform that provided access to research findings and generated practice-oriented knowledge. The network includes 74 SMEs from nine districts in the region and from more than 20 different sectors – e.g. food manufacturing, real estate, retailers, furniture manufacturing, architects, goldsmiths, stonecutters, elderly-care homes, mobility providers, industry laundry services, etc. The key issues these firms deal with on a daily basis are how to increase sales with sustainability-oriented products and services, and how to build management systems and an organisational culture that raises awareness and motivates employees.

Researchers from Leuphana University provided input knowledge in the form of short discussion papers for one-day conferences and regular working-group meetings (during the evenings and weekends), facilitated debates, and prepared documentary information, such as guidelines, checklists and handbooks. In total, INaMi organised 14 full-day events and 60 meetings for 17 working groups. 10 guidelines, 19 scientific publications and 60 news items were produced.

Through knowledge transfer and various capacity building activities, INaMi has fostered the absorptive capacity of local firms. Central to this have been twelve competence tandems, with teams of 10-30 scientists, each led by a Leuphana professor and an international scientist, as well as 19 R&D projects which involved around 600 firms through partnership agreements. In addition, scientists acted as expert facilitators in more than 80 thematic events, which applied highly innovative methods such as design thinking and involved more than 8 300 entrepreneurs, employees and local development actors.

Through direct contacts with researchers and the development of background knowledge, these activities can be expected to have significantly raised the absorptive capacity of regional enterprises, and to have lowered the commonly present distance of small and traditional firms and other organisations in reverting to universities as providers of external knowledge for their innovation activities. Increasing numbers of joint applications for third-party funding, support services for regional firms, and collaborations with (high-)tech firms, who traditionally often seek collaborations with technical universities are indicators for this.

Source: Source: OECD, 2015.

Building collaborative capacity

HEIs, especially in institutionally “thin” places, are important actors in the social and economic development of the local area. Not only might they be the sole higher education provider (which is critical in a country like Ireland where student mobility is so low), but often they will be one of the largest employers and purchasers of goods and services in the area. Therefore it is essential that HEIs have a seat at the table with other public, private and social sector partners when designing development strategies, and where there is more than one HEI that they collaborate in order to design and deliver the appropriate programmes to meet local need and opportunity. Here, the Regional Clusters and the Regional Skills Fora play an important role.

HEIs are often seen as neutral brokers in local development who are able to “rise above” the (perceived) narrow financial or political concerns of the private and public sectors. There are a number of excellent examples of how HEIs are doing this in Ireland. However, HEIs cannot be expected to respond to every demand made on them by society without it resulting in a neglect of their “core” mission to deliver teaching and research. HEIs operate in a national and international as well as a local context. They cannot orient all of their teaching and research solely to the needs of the local economy.

Choices may have to be made which might not be popular with other partners. What should be the criteria for selecting what to do (and what not to do?) Furthermore other local actors might need to look to HEIs outside the locality for the expertise they need. What are the terms of engagement for HEIs that are less aligned to local needs? These are questions that influence strategic orientation and long-term development plans of HEIs and their engagement activities.

Effective local collaborations can result in mutually beneficial relationships with the overall impacts being greater than the sum of the individual parts. There may also be longer term benefits in terms of job and business opportunities as new products and services are developed as a result. Collaborative relationships for one purpose can create new opportunities for other activities. For example, a company that has worked on a skills development programme with an HEI might then use the relationship to start building a research collaboration.

Concepts such as societal challenges, social innovation, and quadruple helix are increasingly emerging as important for research aimed at addressing current and future major global challenges and their local implications. HEIs are often better placed than private or other traditional research organisations to work in these spaces as they house the cross-cutting and multidisciplinary knowledge and skills needed and are not (necessarily) working to tight deadlines as are those engaged in research aimed at more immediate commercial applications. An example is the NetwellCASALA research initiative at Dundalk Institute of Technology (Box 5.8).

Box 5.8. NetwellCASALA at Dundalk Institute of Technology

Population ageing is wrought with challenges, but it also offers many opportunities. At NetwellCASALA multidisciplinary research and development activities are focused on developing more integrated community-oriented services, more sustainable home and neighbourhood design, and more age-friendly technologies. Working closely with business partners, members of the community, health services, local and national government agencies, other academic establishments and ageing affiliated agencies, the project aims to translate ideas into practical solutions that improve the lives of older people and those who care for them, while also creating new business opportunities and informing public policies.

NetwellCASALA is a joint venture between Dundalk Institute of Technology, the Health Service Executive of Ireland and Louth County Council. It has established links with a global network of stakeholders, placing it at the forefront of understanding of ageing and age-friendliness. Its activities involve an array of disciplines including the social and behavioural sciences, health and medical sciences, computer science, engineering, design, marketing and business administration.

Working across the three inter-related and mutually reinforcing strands of communities, environment and technologies its researchers are able to provide partners with a complete concept-to-trial, product and service development environment through the NetwellCASALA Living Lab.

Source: Source: Interviews at Dundalk Institute of Technology during the study visit for this review in October 2015.


There are significant opportunities for HEIs to impact on their local economies, not only directly but in a wide range of indirect ways, both on the supply and demand side. However there is also a range of tensions that need to be understood and carefully managed by the HEIs themselves, their local partners and national policy makers if impacts are to be effectively delivered. From the analysis in this chapter of the tensions and challenges HEIs face in delivering impact and how these might be managed or overcome, it becomes clear that the higher education sector as a whole needs to make its case more powerfully by explaining to the public, as well as politicians and policy makers, the impact it is having in driving social and economic development and why this justifies significant investment. A national, sector-wide approach may be the best way forward rather than individual institutions each telling their own “story” in a different way.


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← 1. These range from a factor 5 according to Zhang et al. (2015) to factor 7.5 according to Biggar Economics (2013).

← 2. Enterprise refers to entrepreneurial skills in the broader sense which are also important for developing skills in the future workforce to ensure they make the maximum contribution to productivity and growth in public, private and third sector organisations.

← 3. Defined as being over 23 years of age. In Irish higher education mature learners are students that are at least 23 years of age at the time they enter the study programme.

← 4. The Erasmus office maintains contacts with 280 Erasmus partners and 40 non-EU institutions.

← 5. These include study programmes in Fashion, Agriculture Mechanisation, Science, and various Level 8 programmes in Business Studies, Tourism, Events and Sports management.