Dublin City University President Brian MacCraith is using everything at his disposal to ensure that Ireland’s University of Enterprise bridges the gap between academia and industry.
When I took on the role of President of DCU five years ago, we developed the strapline Ireland’s University of Enterprise and it deliberately had a double meaning. Firstly, it demonstrated our clear commitment to proactive engagement with the enterprise sector but it also indicated our commitment to fostering an innovative and enterprising mindset in our students and staff.
Through the DCU Ryan Academyof Entrepreneurs, we have made some significant developments, such as UStart, Ireland’s first student accelerator programme. We have a number of accelerator programmes now including one specifically for women, as well as themed accelerators – software, ed-tech, agriculture, etc.
About three years ago, we became one of two European universities to be designated an Ashoka Changemaker Campus, for fostering social entrepreneurship in our students. This generation of millennials clearly responds to that commitment to effecting societal change and when we intersect that with learning business principles and setting up sustainable enterprises, they get very excited.
We believe that with all our assets and capabilities, we have a responsibility to contribute to the development of the wider society. The ‘job for life’ is long gone, so we look to move our students from being job-seekers to being jobshapers or even job-creators and we do that by putting together a framework of opportunities for our students. This is demonstrated by our approach to the learning experience around innovation and entrepreneurship. Our hackathons are by far the best things we have done in the context of experiential learning. While you can be taught innovation theoretically in a lecture theatre, experiencing that process over an intense 48-hour period, starting with the articulation of a problem or opportunity statement on Friday afternoon and ending with a working system by Sunday is just incredible. This kind of experiential learning is so valuable, we have committed to hosting at least one student hackathon every semester and we use them in part of the selection process for our accelerator programmes.
About 18 months ago, we were putting together a set of graduate attributes that employers from all sectors said were most valuable to them. These included graduates being creative and enterprising, taking the initiative, and being problem solvers and good communicators. And we found that the hackathons and student entrepreneurship initiatives fostered all those qualities simultaneously. That kind of experiential learning shows students that this is what the world is like, this is what success looks like and these are the types of skills they need to develop and enhance. One of the greatest surprises for students during this time is the shock of their own potential being realised.
We also actively engage commercial companies with our new Innovation Campus (DCU Alpha). Set up about 18 months ago, all the companies are high tech – software, hardware, but also the internet of things – and the key driver is engagement with the university. We’re attracting companies that want to be in close proximity to the campus and all its facilities, infrastructures, people and collaborative projects. It’s been a great success – the job metrics we were set by the government have already been exceeded. There are 33 companies located there already and more wanting to come in – we’re feeding off them, they’re feeding off us, they’re feeding off each other – it’s great mutual synergy. Innovation happens when you have that convergence of ideas and we host hackathons for these companies and they are amazed that we can get them from problem to working prototype in 48 hours.
I think it would be fantastic if, in the next five years, Ireland came to be known globally as an innovation hub. That will take a more coherent ecosystem, however. Many good things are happening in Ireland’s education system, but there’s still no coherent strategy of embedding innovation and entrepreneurship at a young age and that’s something we’re talking about with the government.
I think it would be fantastic if every child were exposed at least once to experiential learning around innovation and entrepreneurship by the time they reach third level. While not every student would go on to become an entrepreneur, we should be encouraging everyone to think like an innovator and understand the value, both personally and for society, of being a problem solver.