"Education as a Transformative Tool for Societies and Economies"

CEBRI - Centro de Relações Internacionais, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

03 May 2016

Good afternoon,

It's a privilege to have the opportunity to address this distinguished gathering, in this renowned Centre. And I'm honoured that we're joined by the Consul General of Ireland in São Paulo, Ms Sharon Lennon.

This is my first visit to Brazil in my official capacity as President & Provost of Trinity College Dublin. It's the first time the head of an Irish university has led a delegation to Brazil and I thank my colleagues from linguistics, engineering, pharmacy and physics for making the time for such a comprehensive trip.

It's been a wonderful visit so far, giving us the opportunity to further develop the research and education collaborations which are so important for our universities - and our countries.

I thank the Centro de Relações Internacionais for this invitation which enables me to discuss with you the centrality of education as a transformative tool for societies and economies.

I'd like to start off with a story. Three years ago, I attended a conference in Seoul, Korea. The opening paper was given by Michael Drake, then Chancellor of the University of California Irvine. He spoke about how, in the Middle Ages, cities grew up around cathedrals – the power was with the church; and in the 19th century, cities grew up around factories – the power was with industry and mass production; and now in the 21st century, cities are growing up around universities – the power is with knowledge and the means to create it.

He finished with this claim: 'in the 21st century the great engine for growth in our societies is going to be universities.' (1)

It was a succinct juxtaposition of power through the ages. What matters today is ideas, discovery, connectivity. Technology gets faster and better at an astonishing rate, and whatever is in production quickly becomes obsolete. This is true of communications, medical devices, household appliances, energy sources, transport. We are facing into a brave new world where the only thing we know is that change is inevitable: in a few decades from now we won't be travelling around, heating our houses, or communicating with each other in the same ways as today.

Universities are driving this revolution. Universities partner with industry to pioneer the ground-breaking research which leads to new products and services; and universities educate the entrepreneurs and innovators who kick-start new companies, as well as the engineers, scientists, medics, managers, and thinkers whom those companies seek to recruit.

Sometimes it's presented as if new technologies are down to industry only. But recent research has established the centrality of publicly-funded university research in today's ground-breaking innovations. For instance the research that produced Google's search algorithm was financed by a grant from the National Science Foundation; and academic scientists in publicly funded university labs developed the touch-screen and the HTML language that Steve Jobs used to such effect in the iPhone.

But I don't want to take up time making the case for universities as a tool for economic growth, because the opportunity now open to universities goes beyond this. We have the potential to contribute in a truly radical way – not only to drive economic growth in our regions, but to shape global societies, and to re-think the way we live together on this planet.

The key word in the title of this talk is "transformative". Now is the time for ambition and aspiration.

*  *  *

Before I get onto how I think universities can make a major contribution, let's just acknowledge that while this is a time of opportunity for universities, it's also a time of challenge. Of course, the two go together. In just two decades, the academic landscape in many countries has changed completely, and it's hard enough just trying to keep pace with this, let alone trying to stay ahead and set agendas.

How has the academic landscape changed? Well, the old model of universities as ivory towers, with academics engaged on private research alone, has gone – never to return.

  • Higher education has now emerged as a globally traded and borderless activity. In my university 40% of the faculty are from outside Ireland, and student mobility is becoming the norm – a quarter of our students are international.
  • Distinctions based on institute and discipline have broken down. And today the most exciting research often happens at the interface between disciplines. Increasingly, disciplines are breaking free of their silos, and we need new compound terms - like ‘bioengineering’ – to convey the interdisciplinarity which is key to innovation.
  • Increasingly professors and students are attuned to considering the societal importance of their work, including the commercial potential of their research and to seeking out funding and industry partners. The ‘route to market’ for a discovery or invention gets faster all the time.
  • Staff, students, and research projects are no longer identified with one single academic or one single institution. Collaborations can take the form of large umbrella projects involving multiple institutions often with a global dimension.
  • And technology is having a systemic influence. Most apparent is online education because it’s changing the way that professors deliver courses and students respond to them.

All of these developments are part and parcel of the information, technology and communications revolution. And they enable universities to be potentially transformative.

But it’s a challenge to make the most of the opportunities available. In Trinity College Dublin, we are constantly asking ourselves questions like:

  • Do we need a specific digital transformation strategy to make us embrace new technologies and learning methods?
  • In the curriculum, are we providing innovation and entrepreneurship training for our students, and international exchange opportunities, at the scale students need?
  • Have we positioned ourselves within our regions so that we’re connecting with industry and feeding our research into high-potential start-ups?

If we’re not doing all this, and more, then we’re falling behind and we’re losing the opportunity to be transformative.

*  *  *

My experience as a professor and now president of a research university tells me that for universities to stay ahead of the game, they have to be highly proactive.

Universities are engines of growth for societies but only if they want to be, and if they plan and position to be. It doesn't just happen.

In my university, Trinity College Dublin, we have, over the past decade, proactively prioritised the areas I've been talking about: innovation, entrepreneurship, interdisciplinarity, online education, global relations.

Trinity is a large multidisciplinary university, with 17,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students across all the major disciplines in the arts and humanities, and in business, law, engineering, science, and health sciences.
We're a very long-established university. Trinity was founded by charter by England's Queen Elizabeth the First in 1592 – so next year we celebrate our 425th anniversary.

Over the centuries, we've built up a formidable reputation in research and we're currently ranked among the world's top 100 and Europe's top 25 universities.

There is great strength in tradition, heritage and reputation. But you cannot rely on it. I think of tradition as a platform to help us reach for a higher mission.

In Trinity we have articulated this mission as follows: to "provide a liberal environment where independence of thought is highly valued and where all are encouraged to achieve their full potential" – and in pursuit of this we have three components of our mission, as shown in this slide from the Strategic Plan.

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Now I'd like to share with you all the initiatives we've put in place – because some of them are, I believe, very compelling and instructive – but I don't have time, and I don't want to focus this discussion on one particular university.

So I'll give just two examples, where planning and proactivity have had great effect:

First, campus company formation. In the twenty years leading up to 2008, Trinity created less than one campus company, or spin-out company, a year.

In 2008, we realised we could do better and we revised procedures for the approval of campus companies with an "Open Innovation" policy.

At the same we put in place initiatives to grow staff and student entrepreneurship, through, for instance, an Innovation Academy and an undergraduate business incubation scheme.

The result was dramatic: we leapt to creating seven campus companies a year in diverse fields including medical devices, genetics, ICT, digital humanities.

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Many of these companies have been markedly successful, like the games company Havok, whose technologies are used in major video games like Halo 4 and Call of Duty and in top-grossing films like The Matrix and Harry Potter series. A fifth of all spin-out companies in Ireland now come from Trinity.

And in October last we received the great news that Trinity has produced more entrepreneurs than any other university in Europe over the last five years. The evaluation by private equity and venture capital-focused research firm, PitchBook, is based on the number of undergraduate alumni who go on to create companies that secure first-round venture capital funding. Between 2010 and 2015 Trinity produced 114 entrepreneurs and 106 companies. By comparison, in second place Oxford University produced 72 entrepreneurs and 68 companies.

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We would not have achieved this result had we not prioritised innovation and entrepreneurship. Proactivity has had a demonstrable effect.

My other example is in online education. As a university, Trinity has particular strengths in key fields, including history, immunology, nanotechnology, and ageing. In these areas, we're ranked in the world's top 50.

We decided to develop online education through launching MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses. We chose history and ageing, as areas where we have particular strengths and as subjects which appeal to learners round the world.

These two MOOCs have had huge success. The first-launched, the history MOOC, has attracted over 30,000 registered users from countries round the world. This has enabled us to reach out to learners who could not otherwise engage with Trinity, and it's increased our proficiency in this new method of delivering courses.

Those are just two examples of initiatives. I'm proud of what we've achieved in Trinity. Our success can be measured through the careers of our graduates, and through the impact we have had on the region we're situated in, the City of Dublin.

*  *  *

Ireland is a small country with an open economy.

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Our success depends on a skilled, innovative workforce. Historically Ireland has invested in education and this has paid off.

As you probably know, Ireland suffered badly after the global crash of 2008. Recession was painful, but recovery has been impressive: we currently enjoy the highest growth rate in the EU.

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*  *  *

The World Bank now lists Dublin as one of the top 10 places in the world to do business. Ireland is European headquarters to nine of the top ten global software companies, and nine of the top ten US technology companies.

Why do multinationals want to locate in Ireland? For tax incentives, certainly. And because, as the only native English-speaking country in the Eurozone, Ireland is gateway to Europe. But also, and more importantly, because companies like Facebook, Pfizer, Merck and Twitter know they can recruit from a highly skilled workforce, and avail of a rich ecosystem of innovation and R&D.

We’re now seeing multinationals leveraging the potential of local Irish start-ups and spin-outs. As an example, Google, which has its European headquarters in Dublin, recently acquired a 3-D audio technology, called Thrive, which will change users’ experience of virtual reality and gaming headsets. This technology was developed by Trinity College engineers who have now been recruited into Google.

To drive this further Trinity has partnered with Science Foundation Ireland to headquarter three interdisciplinary centres in advanced materials and bioengineering, telecommunications and future networks, and digital media and content.

Trinity is located right in the heart of Dublin city centre. We have stood in the same spot for 425 years. Historically, many of the national institutions have grown up around us, and in the past decade, tech companies have appeared: Google, Facebook, and Twitter have their European headquarters within ten minutes’ walk from the university.

Let me show you: here, in red, is Trinity in the heart of Dublin city. Here, [Slide] are the headquarters of multinational companies clustered around us; here [Slide] are the start-up clusters, and here [Slide] are the creative industries.

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*  *  *

Trinity has research projects, collaborations, and internship programmes with many of these companies, and there is an active policy to develop these further, and to become even more integrated.

By any reckoning, Trinity is an important factor in Dublin’s attractiveness as a destination for tech companies. College and city are in symbiosis. When it comes to us putting in place initiatives for innovation, entrepreneurship and global relations, it has certainly helped to have multinationals on our very doorstep seeking to recruit our graduates and work with us on R&D.

*  *  *

Now I’m painting a very rosy picture of higher education and economic stimulus in Dublin.

But of course not everything is rosy.

In Ireland in recent years public funding of higher education has decreased significantly. This is a feature of higher education worldwide, but is exacerbated in Ireland because of the economic crisis.

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*  *  *

This is at a time when universities are extending their scope. With universities playing a direct role in innovation and job creation, it’s not a time to be losing one’s nerve about investing in higher education.

In addition Ireland has the second-highest birth rate in the European Union – so unlike other EU countries, our population is growing. Over the next decade, our student population is set to grow by a massive 25 percent (2)– and that’s just Irish students, not counting those coming from abroad.

A growing student population, declining investment in education: the stage is set for crisis.

A funding solution has to be found, and quickly. But as you may be aware, Ireland is still without a government - 65 days, and counting, after our general election. Fortunately, it now looks like a minority government is being agreed on and will start governing soon.

In Brazil, I guess you share my concerns about political uncertainty. To get things done a country needs a stable government. Everyone suffers in times of political instability. But we know that a degree of political instability is unavoidable. It is part and parcel of democracy. The important thing is to lessen its impact on education.

At times of political instability, it’s important that people have confidence that education, at least, is not adversely affected.

In Trinity, as part of our proactivity, we’ve been forced to become more financially independent. 43% of our revenue now comes from non-exchequer sources, including student fees, philanthropy and industry partnerships.

Growing revenue is just another field which universities will have to become proficient if they’re to realise their potential and be truly transformative.

*  *  *

Universities should, I contend, be ambitious and proactive so that they can prepare for the challenges and opportunities of this century.

Today we have global challenges which previous generations didn't have to consider - most glaringly, a planet undergoing climate change. At the same time, thanks to the communications and technology revolution, we have greater potential to address global challenges at scale than our predecessors did.

In Trinity, in our current Strategic Plan, we have set the objective of addressing what we call "a Global Research Question".

By 'Global Research Question' we mean a research area that has emerged across the globe, at scale, and cannot be solved within a single discipline or by a single institution, or indeed a single country. So: climate change obviously, also energy provision, migration, inequality, conflict resolution – all these are Global Research Questions. Beside them other issues pale into insignificance.

In theory, universities have the research, people and networks to tackle these problems.

But the way that universities are structured and funded doesn't facilitate addressing such global issues. Universities, even new ones, follow a disciplinary approach which was developed centuries ago. This approach has proven its worth, but needs re-thinking to meet new realities.

The difficulties that universities face are perhaps a microcosm of the difficulties faced by societies and governments in addressing emerging global challenges. I don't underestimate the difficulties but I think universities can, and should, be pioneers.

I'm not the only university president to be talking about this. The President of Georgetown University, John G. DeGioia, has spoken of universities' "special responsibility to address the global challenges that will shape humanity's future". In a recent edition of Times Higher Education, the vice-chancellor of Aston University, Julia King points out that solving climate change will, as she put it "take all our expertise"(3).

The University of Colombia has an Earth Institute which focuses on "environmental challenges – from rapid population growth and climate change to extreme poverty and infectious disease".

So we can start to speak, I think, of a growing groundswell around the world, and not just from universities. The EU, through the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the EIT, has launched multi-million euro consortia, called Knowledge Innovation Communities to tackle climate change, sustainability, and ageing.

Through these initiatives, the EIT aims to bring to bear business, research, and higher education to solve challenges.

The EIT initiatives are still in their early days, but we're starting to see results in terms of new start-ups, products and services, knowledge transfers, graduates, and training courses. For the climate change initiative, Climate-KIC, for instance – we are seeing start-ups devoted to water contamination alerts, plastic recycling, wireless fast-charging for electric vehicles, and cloud computing solutions for emissions management.

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The model of universities, research institutes and industry coming together across Europe to address problems at scale is proving a potent one.

I'm on the board of the EIT, and this has helped focus my mind on the importance and necessity of universities getting involved in transformative initiatives.

In Trinity now, we are driving forward with plans for a new interdisciplinary institute, which will adopt a pioneering approach, and will be groundbreaking. This is the Engineering, Environment and Energy Institute, which we're calling E3, and which we plan to open in the next few years.

*  *  *

With E3 we're trying something genuinely radical – to alter the way we, as humans, interact with the planet. In 1828 the English engineer, Thomas Tredgold, gave a definition of engineering which quickly became standard: "Engineering" he wrote "is the art of directing the great sources of power in nature, for the use, and convenience, of man".

A century and a half later, when I was an undergraduate studying engineering, this was still the way we defined our profession. But we were beginning to appreciate that nature is neither inexhaustible nor impervious to our behaviour.

Today we understand that we have to turn Tredgold's definition on its head. We have to think about directing our technologies to sustain, rather than deplete, our natural capital. We want to create technologies in symbiosis with the natural world so that technology becomes an 'evolutionary force' directed for the sustainability of life on the planet.

The natural world supplies ecosystem goods and services that drive economic activity. In turn that economic activity impacts on the availability of ecosystems goods and services (or the Natural Capital). This dependence can be expressed diagrammatically.

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At the moment economic activity impacts negatively on Natural Capital, and ecosystem goods and services are not replenished. The philosophy that underpins E3 is that human activity can create a 'virtuous circle' between technology and the natural world. We can create technologies that sustain the earth's natural capital for future generations. We want to expand our engineering and natural sciences activity underpinned by this objective.

E3 will provide coherence through co-location of researchers and shared facilities, and by providing space for industry-academia collaboration. It will attract and produce new international talent, by appealing to a new breed of engineers and scientists, and by mentoring new postgraduates and postdocs.

The impact on education will be decisive. Our students will be educated to be designers and makers, as well as engineers and scientists. Graduates will see sustainability and the environment as an exciting challenge – and not as a halt on technological development.


*  *  *

We know that there's a desperate need for E3 – our very survival on this planet depends on it. We know also that there's a demand for E3 from students and employers: already top tech companies and school-leavers are looking for courses which combine engineering with natural sciences. And finally, we know that we are well-placed, in Trinity College Dublin, to deliver E3 because we have created the conditions – interdisciplinarity, industry partnerships, innovation and entrepreneurship – which will drive and sustain it.

I'm tremendously excited about the potential of E3 – I guess that's obvious to all listening! I think the approach is right because we're prioritising innovation, creativity, and human ingenuity. Frequently in the climate change and global warming debate, we are told to stop doing things. And warned about dire consequences if we don't halt our actions. Warnings are necessary. But we know that humans work best, not through warnings but through discovery.

Only by bringing the excitement of discovery and the stimulation of invention to climate change and other emerging challenges can we make a difference. It will not be enough to appeal to a sense of duty.

To my peer universities – and to governments and industry and NGOs – I say: let's pull together to face this tremendous challenge and let's create jobs and whole new fields of research while we're doing it.

Brazil, with its size, its natural resources, its biodiversity, and its huge economy is – it goes without saying - a major player when it comes to finding solutions to climate change and technology. So much so, indeed, that I hope you will not consider it presumptuous that I, coming from a small island, am addressing you on this.

I do so in the spirit of partnership and collaboration. We have great people and research in Ireland, but manifestly we can't bring about 'evolutionary' change alone. We will need your help, your experience, and your discoveries.

To rephrase the Michael Drake quote with which I began this talk: the great engine for growth in the 21st century is going to be universities, acting in collaboration – and, together, we are going to re-design the whole concept of an engine.

Thank you.

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(1) 2013 International Presidential Forum on Global Research Universities (Kaist Press), p. 23

(2) In 2015 there were 45,000 new entrants to third level; by 2028 this will grow to about 56,000. Figures from your address to Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce in November, I don’t have the slide from which figures drawn. N.b. Brazil’s population growth is slowing – from 2.4% in 1980 to 0.83% in 2016, projected 0.64% by 2020.

(3) https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/dame-julia-king-climate-change-will-take-all-our-expertise

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