Firstly, what is a Global University? And why do we need one? My view is that every city, every region with aspirations to provide a recognisable and distinct identity, with a supportive cultural and creative environment, as well as a viable economic future for its citizens will need at least one global university to project that identity in the always on, instantaneously globally connected modern world. Galway City and NUI Galway provide a model example of this paradigm and we can see this in their continuing evolution.
Others are more qualified to discuss the history of how Galway and the West of Ireland has changed from a place where the vast majority of an indigenous population either eked out a living on the land or emigrated, causing massive depopulation into a vibrant wealthy place known around the world for its creative culture and cluster of medical technology companies, with a cosmopolitan, diverse and now rapidly growing population, and to the University’s role in that process. I will focus here on how the University will be central to the arguably possibly even larger changes that are likely to occur in the coming years and decades.
This model is not sustainable indefinitely, however, as Ireland moves to being a net contributor to the EU while developing nations with far cheaper labour costs and educated young populations move into that niche (in many cases with the help of massive Chinese infrastructure investment, but that is a whole other story). The future for Ireland lies in moving up the value chain and utilising its smart and agile population to drive innovation and create new industries in what is now being called the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0 is driven by the cyber revolution whereby devices are connected (the “internet of things”), combined with artificial intelligence and data analytics to create smart autonomous systems. So, for example, a commonly heard statistic is that 80% of all arterial stents in the world are made in Ireland, with the majority of those being made in Galway. Now imagine that stent monitoring blood flow and communicating with a health hub either worn by the patient or in the house which automatically feeds data to your practitioner ready for your next consultation and also raises an alarm if any change in condition arises! We are all also familiar with the fact that different people react differently to different drugs treating the same disease, so treatment is often essentially a trial-and-error process until the best efficacy is found. Now imagine being diagnosed with a serious illness, and the doctor checking your DNA profile before prescribing immediately the absolutely best treatment that works first time for you, a concept known as ‘personalised medicine’. Similarly manufacturing and logistical pipelines will be monitored and tweaked in real-time to optimise production and delivery rates, and so on across almost any area of life we can imagine.
An innovation created in China or India or Africa can in theory be downloaded, installed, tested and operational in Galway in a matter of minutes, certainly within a day with checks and monitoring. In order to compete, therefore, in this coming world, a small nation like Ireland and a city region like Galway needs to ensure a close link and clear pathway from researchers in universities to industry, as well as public and third sector employers, all of whom will operate in a globally interconnected way. It also needs genuinely world class researchers in the universities competing on the global stage. The days of local-only impact are gone. For a university like NUI Galway in a small city, the broad skill-set required in its staff cannot possibly be maintained by local or even Island-wide recruitment. Therefore the recruitment base is global. We need the best talent from all over the world to keep us competitive, and we need to provide a globally competitive environment in which those researchers and educators can flourish. We also need to attract the best students from around the world to our campus to provide that globally-aware environment and mutual learning and growth that comes from the interaction of different backgrounds.
Of course Galway and the West of Ireland will always remain embedded in Irish culture, history and language, and that environment has always and will continue to attract visitors from all over the world. Having a globally competitive university will in fact raise the profile of Galway and the West even further globally and strengthen the tourist industry at the same time. The relationship between performing artists and the University’s research in this area will be vital to maintain Galway’s reputation at the cutting edge of performing arts, to train local and international performers and to continue to attract visitors to its various festivals. World class research and teaching in the social sciences will also be vital, alongside a working relationship with city, regional, national and European policy-makers to assist evidence-based policy development as Galway and the region grows.
Finally all of these changes must take place within a sustainable, zero-carbon based economy. This will require massive changes that are under constant development and so the university will be absolutely central to progress in this area, also. As it happens NUI Galway is already highly competitive in the global sustainability arena and was recently rated 14th best University in the world for sustainability by the Times Higher Education. That performance will need to be maintained and nurtured as carbon reduction and mitigation grows in importance in the world’s attempt to slow and even reverse climate change.
A key element of success in any endeavour is confidence. We can draw confidence in our ability to make decisions in our chosen fields based on our past successes and our state-of-the-art knowledge. Confidence in a population and a place arises not only from individual confidence but also from knowing that decision-makers are on top of their game, with access to the very best of current knowledge and evidence. The most prestigious and well-known universities in the world are characterised by complete confidence in themselves and their place in the world. For some (Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard) this status comes from a long history of world-leading performance; for others, such as National University of Singapore, for example, it is a relatively recent achievement, arising from the deliberate strategy of visionary leadership in a small nation. NUI Galway has a way to go to compete with these behemoths, but with a clear vision and ambition, as well as dedication and focus, NUI Galway in partnership with the city and region can become a truly globally connected University, embedded in an economically and culturally vibrant, sustainable environment with a high quality of life for all.