#PHEresponse to COVID-19| Interview with Dr Joseph Ryan, the CEO of The Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) in Ireland

The second interview of our recently launched campaign #PHEresponse to COVID-19 is devoted to Ireland and Irish higher education system, and their challenges in the times of crisis.

We interviewed Dr Joseph Ryan, the CEO of our member, The Technological Higher Education Association (THEA), Ireland, who gave us an overview of how the sector has been addressing the main challenges caused by Coronavirus.


1.What measures have been taken in your country to stop the spread of Coronavirus?

Unlike some other European countries, we don’t use the term lockdown, but the government has introduced progressive restrictions and encouraged everyone to work at home and to allow movement only for urgent supplies or medical needs. In principle, we can shop, but most of the retailers are closed down. Police has recently been active on the streets and constantly check whether a person has a valid reason to be travelling.


2. What is the general mood of your members at the moment?

On the national level, I think that everyone in the country is confident in the advice and leadership. We are a bit like Danes, in times like this, we tend to comply with what we are asked to do if it is explained adequately. On the other hand, the government is aware that you can’t effectively imprison the whole population for too long.

At the institutional level, people were preparing in advance and have been extraordinarily innovative so far. For example, the community has shown that they can do online delivery in a whole variety of different ways.


3. You mentioned that people have great trust in national leadership. Could you tell us how the government has been supporting Ireland’s higher education sector in relation to the crisis?

Right after our Prime minister’s (Taoiseach) statement on COVID-19 on 12 of March, there was instituted a high-level government coordination group which has been looking at the issues related to post-secondary education and led by the Department of Education and Skills. This effectively is an interim governance oversight for the whole system.  The group included all our agencies, universities’ association, and ourselves – THEA. It doesn’t include the higher education providers directly; we speak on their behalf. Also, there are a series of dedicated working groups who look at the particular themes, i.e. there are operational teams working on the delivery, assessment, students’ care and aid to civil powers and especially the health service.  Those high-level groups meet every day and so far proved to be very helpful in managing the system.

Also, the government has been good in providing money and supports to students with a particular focus on equity and ensuring fair treatment for those with a disadvantaged background.


4. Let’s talk about institutions’ challenge to quickly switch to remote studies. Could you tell me what model of “online learning” your members mostly chose (real-time, combination ort etc)?

We have seen some very good practices implemented by our members: individual or peer to peer learning, live time classes, a combination of online activities. Our Learning and Teaching community of practice have excellent courses online, there are a lot of already existing digital resources, and some of the journals took an initiative to grant free access to the public. So there is a whole range of approaches which we haven’t had time to document, but once we will get through the crisis, there will be a lot of reflection on what did and what didn’t work.


5. In your opinion, how the current crisis will affect the length of the studies, graduation, date and the entrance of new students?

This topic has been one of the biggest debates that we had in the first week of the close down. We made a national commitment to complete and graduate this year in a timely fashion in order to start next year as close as possible on time. There are many complicated factors in that, for example, students with particular needs and how we can support them through the completion of the year. Secondly, there are real difficulties with some lab-based and practical-based programmes, especially in such as the practice-based arts.

The situation has also an impact on our State examinations. There is a question whether and when we can run them. If they are deferred or late, it means that the access to higher education is potentially delayed. At the moment, we are modelling a slightly different academic year for 2021, even if we start as late as November. In our modelling, we can give a full service to students, once we have a number of teaching weeks before Christmas. However, if we are forced through the crisis to delay the commencement of the next academic year to January, it gives us some serious additional and particular challenges.


6. Part of your members’ studies is happening in the workplace. How your members are dealing with that – postponing the placements? How do you see the continuity of applied research?

When our Prime minister announced the first closure, one of the first challenges centred on the students who are on placements and research students who have worked in the labs. Luckily, we managed to complete the vast majority of this stage before a further range of restrictions on the 27th of March. If we look into the future, it is very uncertain. Of course, some of the placements can be managed online, and some by proxy, but not everything.  And we may face supplementing some material in the workplace through next year.  

If we look at the research, we have students that are on the grants. Therefore, we have to act very quickly that they would be protected and the grants would be extended.  We are working closely with the government and the funding agencies in this.  


7. Are you aware of any social problems that students may face? i.e. online learning could be a challenge to socially underprivileged groups.

In Ireland, we have a fairly good integrated system but we don’t have an equal reach for the network capacity throughout the country. So we engaged with the major telecom companies to explore how they can help us in order to make sure that there is a dedicated focus on supporting students in their learning process. In terms of devices, not every household has sufficient devices. Here again, we liaised with big corporations to get additional devices that we can give out to certain students.

In terms of the particular support, institutions are dealing with students on a one to one basis.


8. Let’s talk about the post-crisis higher education world. How COVID-19 will affect professional higher education sector, in your opinion? Do you think that our sector will need to reconsider its modus operandi after the crisis? On another hand, do you see this health crisis as an impulse for a change?

My sense is that the world will never be the same again. I think that we will have a new model of blended learning in the future which we will need to concretely implement.  This experience has somewhat perversely shown that we have the confidence and capacity to deliver well remotely.  

If we look from the broader perspective, at the moment it is anticipated that some 25 per cent of our population may face unemployment as a result of this public health pandemic. And although we are moving towards economic hibernation, we still need to keep the link with companies, with employees, and give them public support hoping we can rescue as much activity as we can. I am afraid that this year we are likely to have graduates who will not have the same employment opportunities as their peers from previous years have enjoyed. Finally, there is a great fear that the countries will become more insular and here European cohesion becomes hugely important.

On the good side, I feel that the professional higher education sector has a key role in rebooting the economy. In my opinion, it won’t be just going back to business as normal but the market will become very particularly skills-focused because we will deal with different needs than the ones we had a few months ago. And professional higher education sector is well placed to address that.


9. Would you like something to add:

What we learn is that in times of crisis clear communication is crucial. People need to hear one consistent message that is informed and can be understandable to everyone. We work on that cohesively every day.