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7 October 2010 | 0

With the economy still on shaky ground and unemployment on the rise, Ireland’s third level students have to work harder than ever to find jobs when they finish their studies.

For such students, ensuring they leave college with a qualification that is relevant to a sector that is constantly changing can be a challenge. However, a number of Irish third level institutions have formed partnerships with industry to ensure that their courses are up to date.

For the colleges, partnering with industry can help ensure they keep abreast of the demands of the marketplace, while for the companies themselves, such partnerships can assist with R&D as well as help produce graduates with the skills needed by the industry.

Lero was established as an Irish software engineering research centre in November 2005 with support from Science Foundation Ireland’s Centre for Science, Engineering and Technology programme.

 

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It is a collaborative organisation that brings together the software engineering research activities carried out by the University of Limerick, Dublin City University, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. Recently the organisation added the Dundalk Institute of Technology and NUI Galway to the list of organisations it works with.

Evolution
“We aim to conduct world class research in the field of software engineering, and specifically in the field of evolving critical systems. This looks at how software evolves in applications where failure of that application would have detrimental effects on life, property or to a business’s competitiveness,” said Professor Mike Hinchey, director of Lero.

Lero focuses on software development in the automotive, aerospace, medical device, telecommunications and financial services sectors. “We think it’s extremely important to bring the third level sector together with industry in order to foster world class research,” said Hinchey.

“Companies are going to come to Ireland if they know that there are top quality graduates here, and that the knowledge is available within this country to further their business goals. To convince the world of that, you have to be operating on the world stage. You have to be seen to be doing top class research and to have a top class education system supporting that.”

Lero operates a number of programmes in conjunction with the institutions it works with, including a PhD programme called the Lero Graduate School of Software Engineering.

“It’s a unique graduate school. Students take a year of the course at the beginning on scientific research methods and then take three years to carry out research,” said Hinchey.

“We believe strongly in engaging with industry. We typically focus our research on niche areas of software engineering that we have sufficient expertise in to be a world leader. It’s not that we focus on areas that no one else is focusing on, but they are areas where we can provide leadership to other groups around the world also researching this area.”

Economic benefits
According to Hinchey, another criterion that Lero uses to decide where it will focus its research resources next is what will benefit the economy most.

“We also research in areas we believe to be absolutely of benefit to Irish industry. Industry involvement is key to this – it is used to test bed and trial techniques, to provide us with data and to get feedback on the issues facing industry day to day,” he said.

“We have partnerships with 14 different companies on an ongoing basis, as well as those companies that come and go. Some have a specific problem they’re looking for help with, while others have general policies of working with us as part of their R&D work,” said Hinchey.

Lero does have research programmes in place that don’t have industry partners attached, but even these have an eye on commercial application in the future.

“These are in areas that aren’t currently commercially viable but which we anticipate will be of interest a few years down the road. We’re preparing for industry involvement then, but until then they’re a bit more speculative,” said Hinchey.

There is also a growing feeling among the business community that engaging with academia is a social and economic responsibility.

“Business leaders have a responsibility to engage, a responsibility to their own business and to their employees. You have to ask yourself what you can do to move the economy forward. That’s how I feel, and it’s how quite a number of people involved with DCU feel,” said Mark Kellett, chief executive officer with broadband provider Magnet.

Kellett is a member of an industry advisory board set up by DCU president Professor Brian MacCraith and chaired by former Intel chief executive Dr Craig Barrett to help the university ensure its degree programmes are compatible with the needs of enterprise.

Frank discussions
“There have been some really interesting and frank discussions regarding what we as industry heads think is important and what DCU as an academic institution thinks is important. For example, we’re working with the idea that ICT is relevant to all programmes, not just the obvious technical or business programmes,” said Kellett.

“As a nation we’ve won Oscars for animation and have a great reputation for producing games technology – these are arts-based pursuits that are also increasingly dependent on technology. EA Games is setting up in Galway where it will initially employ a couple of hundred people to support an online games platform.”

“The ramifications for the university sector are significant – what kind of skills are going to be needed to support that kind of activity? What does it mean for gaming, for design courses, for broadband?”

Industry voices
According to Bob Savage, president of EMC’s centre of excellence in Cork, listening to industry is crucial for the third level sector. “It’s not so much about where the industry is now, but where it will be in five years time. That’s when the next tranche of four year degree students will emerge into the jobs market,” he said.

EMC has been involved in partnerships with third level institutions throughout its 22 years in Ireland.

“When we started out here, the initial idea was to create a manufacturing base in the EU, but a secondary remit was also to grow the business and to expand it to take on more functions,” said Savage.

“Today we have a campus made up of 24 different business units, handling all sorts of needs – development, customer service and more. To create those, we had to start from day one by building strong relationships with the third level institutions.”

University links
The company has links with the University of Limerick, University College Cork and the Cork Institute of Technology. It has been involved in the design and delivery of numerous academic programmes over the last two decades, with the dual goal of creating graduates equipped to take up employment with the company as well as creating a means to retrain its existing employees.

“We started out trying to make sure we had a steady stream of certificate and diploma students coming from the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT). We influenced some of the curriculum there to reflect some of what we were doing at the time. But at the same time, as our own company activities have expanded here, a key element of the relationship we have with these institutions has been around the area of transforming existing skills,” said Savage.

“For example, over the last 20 years we’ve run two bachelor degree programmes with CIT. One was a bachelor of science in electronic manufacturing – for this we wanted to transform some of our technician base into engineers, to move them up the food chain. More recently, we also helped put together a bachelor of science in IT, which allowed us to transform more our staff into the IT and services space.”

Graduates
“A lot of our guys graduated out of that, moving up the food chain in the company into more valuable jobs as we ourselves started to do more valuable things as a company. Today, there is a lot of focus on cloud computing – the journey to the private cloud is part of our vision as a company. Together with CIT we’ve just launched a cloud computing degree to allow us to transform the skills of our technicians and some of our manufacturing degree people to work in this space.”

A challenge for all those involved in industry/third level collaborations is how to best manage expectations. Companies with specific staffing needs would be forgiven for wanting graduates tailor made for those requirements, but universities and institutes of technology have to prioritise the long term career requirements of their graduates.

“There’s never a perfect match between the needs of a private company and the contents of a third level course, nor should there be. You have to be practical – you can’t get a degree totally customised to your needs,” said Savage.

“Not everyone who graduates from the degree programmes we’re associated with comes to work with us, but even if they could, they wouldn’t necessarily be working with us forever. Those programmes have to be generic enough that they stand the test of time in the industry at a broad level.”

Savage said there are “always” negotiations, tradeoffs and varying amounts of influence when it comes to having an input into course content. “But that has to be done in a responsible manner,” he said.

“Overall, we benefit because we get access to graduates that meet our needs. The universities benefit because their courses create more employable students, and obviously the students themselves benefit because they leave third level education with more marketable skills.”

R&D hit
Like all areas of the Irish economy, the R&D sector has been hit by the effects of the recession, with knock-on effects for researchers in third level institutions connected to industry.

“The recession has most notably affected us in that many companies just don’t have the cash to invest in R&D that they previously had. Most of their investment is now in kind – in time, in expertise and sometimes in the use of their equipment,” said Professor Mike Hinchey of Lero.

“That’s been the biggest effect we’ve seen. What we want to do is withstand these changes and be in a strong position when things recover. Our work is very important for that – when things improve and companies are in a position to spend here, we need to be in a position where we have lots of trained, educated and experienced people who can fill the roles that will appear.”

With this in mind, Hinchey points out that government support has never been more important than it is right now.

“The government has tied its colours to the mast of the idea of Ireland as a knowledge economy, and that’s what we have to keep heading towards. The government has been very supportive so far – it’s been quite sensible and forthright in protecting education and research – and hopefully that won’t change.”

Hinchey said the worst thing that could happen to the sector “is to expect people like us to do research on tiny budgets that aren’t realistic. That would be far worse than doing no research at all, and we have to be thinking more long term than that”.

Government position
Speaking during the opening of the new Nimbus Research Centre at CIT, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation Batt O’Keeffe reiterated the government’s commitment to fostering good relationships between industry and the educational sector.

“We need to strengthen the links between our research institutions and industry to ensure that we develop, transfer and apply knowledge in productive ways. In the past three years, Nimbus researchers have engaged with over 70 companies in funded projects, almost 60 of which are Irish SMEs, and with a further 80 companies in providing advice,” he said.

“They now have a series of successful innovation partnerships and direct industry funding where Irish industry looks to Nimbus to provide solutions that increase their commercial competitiveness.”

According to O’Keefe, these industrial-academic collaborations are central to the government’s economic strategy of creating a thriving enterprise sector and high-quality employment.

“This helps to make Irish firms more internationally aware and competitive, directly supporting the thinking of the Innovation Taskforce by strengthening the links between research institutions and industry to ensure that we develop, transfer and apply knowledge in productive ways,” he said.

“The research landscape in Ireland has seen an unprecedented transformation in the research and development facilities available in our higher education institutions. This enables our researchers to innovate and to compete at the highest level internationally in their fields of excellence.”

“Crucially, it also fosters the climate of collaboration between industry and higher education that is fundamental to turning research into products and services we can sell and that can create jobs for our people.”

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