University makes relocation a vehicle for social change

Once a Viking stronghold, the area encompassing Dublin 7 and Dublin 1 in the northwest inner city of the Irish capital has pockets of gentrification and even a growing collection of hipster food joints in Stoneybatter.

But much of this historically working-class part of the city suffers from high levels of homelessness and poverty.

“Fifteen years ago it was a no-go area, but now hipsters are buying houses and it’s trendy in parts,” says Pascal Derrien, who runs SPADE Enterprise Centre in Dublin 7. “But it is still dodgy – the Garda (police) station is still one of the busiest in the country.”

As we speak he is looking on his video monitor to check if the premises are secure.

“It’s a multidimensional landscape,” Derrien says. “This area is on a transformative journey.”

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

And a big influence on the outcome will be the gleaming new development project underway – the Grangegorman campus of Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin or TUD), which will eventually cater for 20,000 students. This will naturally bring economic benefits for the surrounding area.

The 73-acre campus development located above Smithfield is described as the largest single investment in a higher education project in the history of the Irish state. Since 2014, €450 million (US$543 million) has been invested in infrastructure – drainage, water, fibre optics, and new buildings including business incubation and research facilities and a €300 million (US$362 million) building for studies in arts, science, health and tourism.

Several protected or historically-listed buildings have been repurposed to education, and playing fields including a playground to encourage children onto the campus have been opened.

In coming months a further €500 million or so is being invested in a new library, sports facilities, student accommodation and science park activity, as well as relocation – TUD is the result of a 2019 merger of three technological institutions with buildings located in campuses in three different locations, Grangegorman, Tallaght and Blanchardstown.

But what makes the university’s approach to the development interesting is the extent to which TUD has tried to use it as a vehicle to build on its full-throttle commitment to using staff and student community engagement to tackle social disadvantage.

TUD has become a driving force, integrating its own community engagement work with the work of statutory bodies and community organisations, and driving the development forward with other stakeholders in a way that ensures the university becomes an engine of social change for the whole area, rather than just a very fine upgrade for TUD with a few business opportunities added on.

That aim is supported by national higher education and employment policies which are part of a commitment to tackling social inequality across the country.

“It is an ethos that really universities can’t stand apart from what is happening outside their walls,” Noel O’Connor, director of student development at TUD told University World News.

“There is a real obligation with the kind of funding you receive to really try to find solutions and help the best way we can. With the Grangegorman project, we can take so many of our activities spread over so many areas – research, innovation, community engagement – pull them together and leverage them for the benefit of everyone.”

He added that 80 pianos are being transported across from the university’s Conservatory of Music on another site, to the newly-opened arts building. Some 5,000 arts students were to be moved in at Christmas, but COVID-19 is holding that up.

Long history of practical solutions

TU Dublin has a long history of providing practical solutions. Its genesis was the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) established in 1887 as Ireland’s higher technology institute at a time when similar institutions were being created around the world. Its main focus was on engineering and applied technology and from early on there was a strong emphasis on connecting with and supporting local communities, including promoting participation in education.

When the merger of DIT with IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown was announced in 2018, it was to become not only the country’s first technological university, but the biggest third level institution with 30,000 students and 3,500 staff on three sites. The Taoiseach (prime minister) at the time, Leo Varadkar, said it would “drive regional development and provide more opportunities for individuals, enterprise and the community”.

O’Connor says that while many universities from Oxford and Cambridge to TU Dublin itself have three missions encompassing teaching and learning, research, and engagement with or impact on society, they are in many cases dealt with separately, creating silos.

“What we have tried to do is integrate those. It is part of national policy, as well. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 really encourages all universities to engage with their surrounding communities in a broad sense and with regions in a meaningful way.”

The key statutory body is the Grangegorman Development Agency (GDA), established by the Department of Education to drive procurement on behalf of TUD and the HSE – Ireland’s Health Services – which is co-located with TUD’s Planning Office and Estates, to ensure an integrated approach and optimum use of resources.

The GDA’s mantra is that at Grangegorman, the site of a former lunatic asylum, it is developing a “new urban quarter” which will have “health, education and community” at its heart and open up a once walled-off part of Dublin.

But the key community body is the Grangegorman Labour and Learning Forum with a coordinator funded by TU Dublin. The forum participants include community and voluntary groups, statutory bodies, employment and training agencies, further education bodies and the university itself, and it focuses its work on the political wards with the highest deprivation.

“The forum was set up to ensure there was a benefit for the community [from the campus development] and that we were not just landing like a spaceship, as happened in the past, not further marginalising people,” Kathleen McCann, the forum’s coordinator, told University World News.

It provides oversight of the work of all the bodies involved – voluntary, community and statutory – to make sure they keep to the agenda.

McCann says her work is a “very visible and ongoing community engagement from TUD to supporting, being part of and creating opportunities for those local communities, so that they don’t get left behind”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of TU Dublin’s mission to address local poverty in an integrated way.

“One of the stark things that happened with COVID was that we had to switch a lot of effort into feeding people – hunger became a big problem. We were creating food packs for children aged 0-6 as once the projects and community centres and crèches closed down, access to food was diminished for those who rely on them for daily needs,” McCann says.

Another indicator of poverty is that all the primary schools bar one, and all the secondary schools are DEIS schools – those in the government’s Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme designated for disadvantaged communities.

Pathways into education

One of the most important interventions to address poverty is education, opening up access to students who wouldn’t otherwise get in or even think of applying and providing the right kind of support to ensure that they achieve.

O’Connor explains that for TU Dublin, because it is mostly located in sites in non-affluent areas, the notion of trying to improve the quality of life and open up opportunities to participate for the surrounding community has always been part of its ethos and has very much been part of the fabric of the university in the past few decades (as for DIT).

For instance, the university takes in around 8,000 to 9,000 part-time students and 10% of its students are from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and 10% have physical disabilities or learning disabilities.

But the access programme starts at primary school level and enables TU Dublin to take its own students into DEIS schools to get them involved.

Dr Julie Bernard, the head of Access and Civic Engagement at TU Dublin, says the approach is very much about integrating teaching, research, learning and engagement.

“We take a lifelong approach,” she told University World News.

It starts with involvement in the Area Based Childhood (ABC) programme in their location, for which TU Dublin is the lead agency.

It is one of 16 ABC programmes in the country, all set up in areas where there is significant risk of poverty, providing early intervention to address the effects of poverty on mental health and education.

But in Grangegorman it is set up as a consortium led by around 30 community organisations, with €800,000 (US$965,000) a year in state funding.

“We came together specifically to address child poverty,” Bernard says. “It’s about recognising that if you want children to progress you have to address poverty at a very young age.”

Through the programme children from disadvantaged communities attend crèches at DEIS schools. An early initiative was upskilling community practitioners in early childhood care and education, which is taught at TU Dublin. Additional literacy support is given at primary school by community-based staff.

Higher education students are embedded in the programme, engaged with the community as part of their research and learning. So for instance journalism students produce a programme called Click News, which is published on a website for primary school children, and through that the primary pupils are learning literacy and engaging with world news, so there is a lot of sharing of skills.

Further support is given at secondary level and entry routes to higher education are offered.

For instance, students from disadvantaged backgrounds can access higher education with lower entry requirements – a reduction of 12.5% in the points score – as part of a national approach that was originally co-pioneered by TUD, because research shows that social disadvantage impacts on their attainment. At TU Dublin there is also a year-long access programme.

“The key then is to support students when they come into higher education, and we have a whole suite of supports and progression is very strong,” says Bernard.

Student projects

When the creation of TU Dublin was announced, Professor Tom Collins, chair of the three constituent institutes’ governing bodies, said TUD had the potential to be ground-breaking by “providing a pioneering and practice-based, research-informed learning framework to students”, the Irish Times reported.

This has been realised in part through the many projects that TU Dublin students are involved in with local communities, as University World News has reported.

Examples include urban planning students helping to redesign an open plaza, food safety studies students supporting a meals-on-wheels service for elderly people by working on guidelines and measures for safety, and engineering students delivering construction work for a project providing clean water in Africa.

But that experience is not an add-on, O’Connor said, it is linked to the university’s core activity.

“If students are involved with the community, testing their subject knowledge or research, applying it and coming back in again and engaging and interacting with the community, you really do have a different kind of educational experience. It is definitely enhanced,” he says.

Social contracts

McCann is employed by TU Dublin and co-funded by the university and the GDA. She sees her job as one of always being there for the community, building a relationship and out of this, “pick[ing] up things that might otherwise be missed”, discovering the real needs and potential solutions that could be supported.

“One of my favourite mantras is, ‘let’s ask what people want’. But sometimes people need a bit of help to work out what they want,” she says.

“There is a particular interest in social entrepreneurship from the forum because of the employment opportunities, especially for people who struggle to access the labour market. There are lots of micro businesses and social enterprises growing in the area.”

There is also a strong demand to support entry into employment. McCann focuses across the board on employment, education and training and one of her key roles is to help link people to employment opportunities that arise from the campus development.

“Unemployment went up to 16% [in Ireland] after the 2008-9 financial crisis, the construction industry was decimated. But by February this year it had changed radically, down to 4.8%, which is considered full employment,” she says.

“Now with COVID it is back up to 16% and even that is masked by all the revenue supports provided.”

Locally the main business is hospitality, food and drink. Then there is the legal profession, which has four main courts in the area. But many small businesses have closed and youth unemployment is “horrendous”, McCann says.

Bernard, O’Connor and McCann are all heavily involved in the Labour and Learning Forum.

The forum started by focusing on the construction industry. Although that is a very gendered labour market, with the imminent opening of two quads on the campus, permanent jobs outside construction will become available, McCann says.

An important tool for ensuring the community benefits has been the development of a social charter and the inclusion of social clauses in contracts. As a result, on average 12% of total construction workers have been employed from the local community.

On all state-funded projects there is now an emphasis on social clauses on construction contracts. On face value it might be difficult to use social clauses in the procurement within the European Union because of anti-competitivity rules, O’Connor says, but “it sends a signal that you feel it is important and in their interest to demonstrate that they are addressing it in some way, so it is about getting companies to recognise that as a client you see that as an objective and they in turn respond”.

TU Dublin has a member of staff who works with construction companies and meets them on a weekly basis, monitors what jobs are coming in and liaises with local employment agencies on the forum.

O’Connor says there is an obvious benefit from having more people from the local community work on the campus development. “It gives them ownership and they feel it is a benefit because their sons or daughters or partners are getting a job on site.”

He says the university has taken this beyond construction to looking at how social clauses can be included in contracts for cleaning and catering, “to promote the whole notion of being part of the surrounding community”.

Another strand is trying to support local businesses. Many of them will benefit from an influx of 20,000 students on their doorstep.

“That is a big spin-off and the whole part of town has lifted off because of that,” says O’Connor.

TUD staff are looking into how they can support businesses. Mooted measures include briefing businesses on stages of the development coming up and how they might access and sell to construction companies, for instance.

They are also looking at how students can go out and help businesses develop marketing and funding strategies.

“In some cases, academics have provided [informal briefings] to local businesses about future trends in their industry,” says Bernard. “We also introduce businesses to each other so that they can network.”

“One of the first activities on campus has been business start-up activities run in TU Dublin,” O’Connor says. “Half of it is about innovation and start-up and half of it is about research.”

Pascal Derrien at SPADE, which has created more than a thousand jobs over the past 30 years and currently hosts 30 start-ups employing 155 people, says he is very interested in the pipeline TU Dublin can create for his services among students with ideas.

The big difference with TU Dublin, compared to Trinity College, University College Dublin and Dublin City College, is that whereas the others’ start-ups are technology-driven, with TU Dublin there is the “social element”.

“They are very open and there is a big appetite among the academics,” he says.

McCann points to TU Dublin’s take up of the TEFCE – Towards a European Framework for Community Engagement of Higher Education – tool box, designed to help universities and policy-makers across the EU assess how they can better interact with their communities locally and regionally to address pressing social needs. She says this has encouraged a lot of mapping of civic engagement to enable a coordinated approach.

Bernard, who has 25 staff working on civic engagement in her office, while in addition many academic staff are delivering activities, says community engagement is part of the history and culture of certain types of higher education institution, and certainly of the technological university remit.

“There is a very strong commitment to community engagement, a strong belief in education for all, a strong focus on preparing graduates for the real world, hence why they take part in community research and learning.”

She says at TU Dublin there is a “very strong belief in the value of it being for the benefit of everyone, students, universities and communities. It is a genuine partnership where everyone gains, that’s what makes it sustainable”.

On 27 January 2021 University World News, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, will be bringing together experts and practitioners from across the world from the International Association of Universities, the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities and the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program in an online webinar to discuss: How can universities improve their social impact. You can register to participate here.