25 February 2010

Developing relationships with Saudi Arabia

The past century has seen the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia emerge from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the Middle East. The country sits on more than one-quarter of the world’s known oil reserves and is recognised as one of the Gulf states best equipped to drive forward a rapid rate of planned expansion.

In April last year, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Coughlan, led an Enterprise Ireland trade mission of 64 Irish companies and organisations to Saudi. Trade between the two countries has increased substantially in recent years. In 2009, Irish exports to the Kingdom were worth over €400 million and there are more than 120 Irish SMEs operating in the Middle Eastern country. Some months later, education minister, Batt O’Keeffe attended the opening of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah, which has identified four key strategic research themes: resources, energy and environment; biosciences and bioengineering; materials science and engineering; and applied mathematics and computational science.

Also reflecting this strengthening relationship, the first Saudi Arabian embassy to Ireland opened its doors in September 2009. Speaking at the time, the new Ambassador, Abdulaziz Aldriss, said that he would “make every possible effort to enhance and develop this relationship and encourage trade and investment opportunities for the people in both countries.” Ambassador Aldriss visited AIT this week, accompanied by HRH Prince Turki Bin Nawaf Al Saud and other members of the Saudi diplomatic team.

The day proved a tremendous success in terms of enabling all parties to become familiar with one another and in building the personal relationships that are so central to international partnerships. The ambassador had an opportunity to visit some of AIT’s research and innovation facilities, the new engineering and informatics complex, as well as meet with the 25 Saudi students who have been attending AIT since September last year. The students who are undertaking full-time undergraduate programmes in engineering, science and business, have integrated remarkably well into campus life and especially into life in the Irish midlands.

Next week, accompanied by the presidents of GMIT and WIT, I will have the opportunity to continue discussions with our education partners in Riyadh. While we are still in the initial stages of building relationships with the Saudi ministry for higher education, the success of the ambassador’s visit during the week and the experiences of our initial cohort of full-time Saudi students augurs well for the future.

01 February 2010

Deich mbliana ag fás in Áth Luain

St Brigid’s Day 2000 was dominated by crisis talks in Northern Ireland to save the Executive from collapse. A report of the international decommissioning body had documented no progress by the IRA towards the decommissioning of weapons. The Irish government was pressing the paramilitaries for a commitment in this regard, while attempting to persuade Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader David Trimble not to resign as First Minister.

Ten years on, while the threat of guns has largely been removed from the streets of the North, the element of brinksmanship which has so long pervaded Ulster politics is alive and well. This evening, there are optimistic noises in the air that a solution can be found to the dispute on the devolution of policing and justice, parades, etc. Vox pops broadcast on radio over the past few days have indicated a growing level of frustration amongst the populace of the North with their political representatives. Focus on the important issues and get this economy working again was a dominant theme.

February the first that year was also the date on which I commenced my first term as president of AIT. I remember my feelings of apprehension and enthusiasm for the job, and the sense of anticipation for the work that lay ahead. Having spent several years previous in the Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College, Portrush I was looking forward to settling into the Midlands and establishing a new network of friends here.

Writing this on the first day of a second ten-year term, it is hard to credit that an entire decade has passed since I arrived in Athlone. Some of the moments that linger longest in my memory from those years include the visit of President McAleese to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the institute’s foundation; the expansion of the institute’s infrastructure to feature the development of a new east campus, the construction of dedicated facilities for hospitality, tourism and leisure studies, and most recently, engineering and informatics. The sporting infrastructure too has benefited from considerable investment, and is now, on a par with the finest international facilities.

Institutional maturity has also been signified with the delegation of authority to award our own qualifications, with the authority to award doctorate degrees now pending. Similarly, the increasing internationalisation of the student body, the growth in research and innovation activity, and enhanced links with industry, are signs of a higher education institution that is proactively engaging with its many stakeholders and the wider community.

The coming decade will be no less challenging than the one just passed, while the current economic conditions underline the hard-sought balance between tightening resources and addressing greater societal needs.

Let’s hope that by February 2020 we will have witnessed more than incremental change in Northern Ireland and that AIT will continue to be a vibrant, progressive higher education institution.

The international contribution to Irish third level

The internationalisation agenda of Irish higher education has come under the spotlight in recent times. It is widely agreed that Ireland has underperformed in its recruitment of overseas students and efforts to promote Ireland Inc. have been noticeably haphazard.

While the international education sector contributes €900 million to the Irish economy each year, we attract less than 1% of the international student cohort. This compares very poorly with the UK which receives more than one-fifth of the world’s share, equivalent to 350,000 students. Similarly, Australian higher education institutions enrolled 200,000 overseas students in 2009, with Chinese and Indian learners comprising in excess of 40% of this cohort. By comparison, less than 6,000 students from these two countries were in Irish institutes of technology and universities in the same period.

In August last year, Minister Batt O’Keeffe announced that he was putting structures in place to develop a new strategy for attracting international students to Ireland. This has seen Enterprise Ireland taking responsibility for marketing and promoting the Education Ireland brand overseas. Education Ireland was first mooted in the Internationalisation of Irish Education Services report published in 2004, but precious little has happened in the interim.

The minister also announced the establishment of a High Level Group on International Education which met for the first time last week. A key issue in the future success of marketing Ireland Inc. is the engagement with immigration services. The Minister for Justice launched a review of the immigration regime for full-time non-EEA students last autumn. The outcome to this process will have a significant bearing on the work of the high level group.

A final word on our prospects for making this country a more attractive proposition for international students comes courtesy of Linda Kelly, Equality Officer with the Union of Students in Ireland:
‘The biggest endorsement for Ireland is to have international students who enjoy studying here, who have a positive experience here and who will recommend Ireland to friends in their home country. This cannot be achieved if higher education institutes and Government departments continue to see dollar signs when creating policy. Policy should and must be student centred if we have any hope of creating a sustainable international education system which can compete with other countries.’