2015 Press Releases

UCC President delivers O’Connell lecture

11 Sep 2015
UCC President Dr Michael Murphy beside the Boole window in the Aula Maxima (Photo Tomás Tyner, UCC)

President of UCC Dr Michael Murphy delivered this year's Daniel O’Connell Lecture at The Library, Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry.

“It is a great honour for me and supremely ironic that I have been invited to deliver this year’s O’Connell lecture. Daniel O’Connell was a vehement opponent of the establishment of Queen’s College Cork at least in the form in which it was designed.

In the decades preceding the 1840s there had been considerable clamour in Ireland for the establishment of higher education institutions catering for those of religious persuasions excluded from the Protestant institution, Trinity College Dublin. The Presbyterians of Ulster and the Catholics of Connaught and Munster sought their own universities. Sir Robert Peel, by 1841, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom determined to reduce the influence of O’Connell among Irish Catholics by conceding to their call for new colleges but making them non-denominational, excluding any significant influence for the Catholic Church. O’Connell sided with the Catholic hierarchy in implacably opposing them but Peel’s majority in the House of Commons ensured the establishment of the Queen’s Colleges in Belfast, Galway and Cork, “Godless Colleges” as described by the MP for Oxford.

It is my purpose here today to set out for you the trajectory of your university, its evolution, its performance, its sense of its role in present time, and conclude with steps that must be taken to sustain its service to this region.

Early Days

In the early 19th century, Cork was Ireland’s third largest city with a thriving economy. Supported by members of the Royal Cork Institution leaders such as the banker James Roche sought a university for Munster. Waterford and Kerry threw their support behind Cork against a competing campaign by Limerick. Thank you Kerry! Backed by Peel, Dublin Castle provided the necessary, albeit parsimonious, capital and the architects Sir Robert Dean and Benjamin Woodward designed a college “fit to grace the High Street of Oxford”. Construction commenced and was completed in the most inauspicious years of Irish history, coinciding with the Great Famine. In August 1849 Queen Victoria, who had granted a charter to the college, arrived to inspect her eponymous institution only to find that cholera was rife in the city. Stopping briefly on the Western Road she waved to workmen raising the Royal Standard on the Tower and promptly fled to Killarney to avoid the cholera that was rampant in the city. Not the first time that Kerry has gained from Cork misfortune!

QCC opened in November 1849. As remained the case for the next 60 years, all academic appointments were made by Dublin Castle. The first president, Sir Robert Kane, a Dubliner, was a distinguished chemist particularly interested in the industrial development of Ireland. Throughout his presidency, he hankered after Dublin, tended to spend more than half his time there and had to be instructed by the Castle repeatedly to spend more time in Cork.

At its opening, QCC had 115 students, more than 20 professors, and a staff to student ratio that would be envied by Harvard.

George Boole

Among the professors taking up duty in November 1849 was a young Englishman named George Boole. 2015 marks his 200th birthday and, since he is in my view the single most important academic to have worked in Ireland, ever, in terms of impact on global life, I will digress briefly to relate his story.

You may all see an hour long version on RTÉ 1 at 10.35 on the evening of 1st September (since screened, see www.GeorgeBoole.com), when a documentary on Boole’s genius and legacy will be screened.

Boole is the world’s least known, high impact scientist. In a Googling exercise in 2013, the search term “Charles Darwin” returned 60 million pages, “Albert Einstein” 48 million, “Boolean” 39 million and “George Boole” 360,000. High impact but minimal personal recognition for George. Every electronic device on the planet today exhibits an on/off button, 1 for on and 0 for off. All electronic technology operates through the application of Boolean algebra both in hardware and software.

Boole was a childhood prodigy born to a Lincoln shoemaker, John Boole, more interested in astronomy than shoes, and to a housemaid Maryann Joyce. Naturally, arising from John’s scientific distractions, they were poor. But George was a prodigy, doted on by his father and encouraged to read from an early age. By 14, he read comfortably in Latin, Greek, French and German. By 16, he had a job as an assistant school teacher and was particularly interested in mathematics; maths books represented best value for money as they lasted longer!

At 24 he opened his own school in Lincoln but much of his spare time was consumed by research in mathematics, correspondence with some of the leading mathematicians of the age in Europe and ultimately in the publication of numerous original articles in mathematical journals. Such was their quality that in 1845 he received the first Gold Medal in mathematics presented by the Royal Society, London.

Shortly thereafter deteriorating family circumstances required Boole to increase his income and he applied for a professorship in the Queen’s Colleges. In Cork, five years into his professorship and residing at 5 Grenville Place near the Mercy Hospital, he completed his seminal book “An Investigation of the Laws of Thought” in which he set out the mathematics of symbolic representations of logic, the means by which humans make decisions.

In the following year he married Mary Everest, niece of Professor Ryle, Vice President of QCC, and also a niece of Sir George Everest, after whom the world’s tallest mountain is named. Ryle and Boole had shared lodgings at 5 Grenville Place. Mary and George went on to have five extraordinary daughters, the eldest Mary Ellen begat several generations of the most eminent mathematicians on the planet.

His youngest daughter Ethel married Charles Voynich and went on to write the Gadfly, a text book in every school in Russia for several decades and which sold millions of copies. Shostakovich wrote the score for the movie incorporating the globally famous “Gadfly Suite”.

In December 1864 George Boole died at the age of 49, of pneumonia contracted following a drenching while walking the two and a half miles to lecture at UCC. Thereafter, he suffered eighty years of obscurity being remembered only among professional Mathematicians. In 1938, a young masters student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Claude Shannon, conducting research in electrical engineering, encountered “The Laws of Thought” and recognised that the application of Boolean algebra to the control of switches in electrical circuits enabled the passage of large quantum of data that might be conducted through copper wires, started the digital age.

In a recent book published by Princeton University Press entitled “The Logician and the Engineer – How George Boole and Claude Shannon created the Information Age” Professor Paul Nihan asserted that Boole’s book “An Investigation of the Laws of Thought” was equal in impact on modern society to Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”. You can catch the detail in the documentary starring David Puttnam, the Academy Award winning producer with narration by Oscar winning Jeremy Irons on RTÉ next Monday night (screened 1 September 2015, see www.GeorgeBoole.com).

The trajectory of Queen’s College Cork

Progress of QCC in the first 50 years could not be described as breath-taking. Indeed, by 1900 the student population was but 70 greater than on the opening day. Opposition to the “Godless” college, by the Catholic Church, lack of confidence in the quality of the academic staff, failure to appoint graduates to the teaching staff undermining confidence in the quality of the curriculum and teaching, patchy leadership and underfunding proved debilitating. By 1900, more than two thirds of the students were in the medical school, two thirds of them were destined to fulfil their careers in India in the Royal Army Medical Corp. QCC was little more than a medical school with a small humanities appendage.

In 1889, an official college crest was authorised for the first time. Its motto, “Where Finbarr taught, let Munster learn” defined the regional ambition of the institution. All well until a century later when the university’s historians concluded that wherever Finbarr taught it was not in Cork, prompting calls for modernisation of the motto to “where people thought that Finbarr taught, let Munster learn”!

Kerry has generously provided leaders to the institution on two occasions over our 170 years. The first, Sir Roland Blennerhasset, typified the doldrums of the 19th century, and the second Alfred O’Rahilly from Listowel, in contrast shaped the university for the greater part of the 20th century. Blennerhasset, despised by some as a “Cawstle Cawtholic”, an aristocratic landowner with some excellent ideas on education was distracted by his property and other interests. He was rarely seen on the campus during his seven year presidency, reputed to visit twice annually on horseback to spend two weeks on each occasion hearing reports on progress or the lack of it. Professor John A. Murphy writes that the absence of Blennerhasset’s portrait for many years from the collection of presidential visages in the Aula Maxima, aptly represented the nature of his presidency!

The second Kerry man, Alfred O’Rahilly, served from 1943 to 1954. Even from his appointment as Registrar in 1919, he oversaw the transformation of the ethos of the heretofore British institution, promoting republican, Catholic conservative values but also driving a culture of service to the region. A plethora of initiatives included the establishment of Adult and Continuing Education to enable local learning across the province, the establishment of Cork University Press, encouragement of staff such as Professor Aloys Fleischmann to lead cultural initiatives in the city and province, the addition of new disciplines such as diary science and the expansion of the built environment of the campus. By the end of his term the number of students exceeded 1000. O’Rahilly’s presidency was the inflection point in the transformation of the institution from a tiny provincial college, to a university ultimately with significant global standing. By 1970 there were 3500 students on campus, 8000 by 1990, and some 17,000 only 15 years later. Curriculum offerings were greatly diversified, but an even more dramatic change was ahead.

When John A. Murphy wrote the sesquicentennial history of QCC/UCC in 2005, I believe that it was aptly named “The College” rather than the university. Though excellent in parts, research output had been limited and patchy while PhD students were a rare commodity. The arrival in the late 1990s of the white knight, Chuck Feeney and his extraordinary Atlantic Philanthropies was the critical game changer. UCC under the baton of Michael Mortell and Gerry Wrixon over 15 years exploited the unprecedented funding for research more effectively than any other university.

Having successfully competed for over half a billion Euros in capital, expanded the faculty through excellent global recruitment, UCC today earns almost €100m per annum in annual research funding from Irish and international sources. The institution has become a university. With some 21,000 students, a quarter of whom read for graduate degrees and including some 1200 PhD students along with almost 3000 students attracted from 100 countries globally, UCC exhibits all the characteristics of an internationally defined university.

Our graduates, our raison d’être, impact the globe as well as Kerry! In the physical sciences alone we can celebrate Professor Richard Milner from Cork, who is head of Nuclear Science at MIT, Professor Seamus Davis of the Department of Physics at Cornell who has won the Fritz London Memorial Prize, Margaret Murnane Professor of Physics at Colorado and recent Chair of President Obama’s selection panel for the Presidential Science Medal and Frank O’Sullivan, a farmer’s son from Sneem, Director of the Energy Initiative at MIT!

Where next?

When you take up university presidency you need to have a pretty good idea of what you must achieve and a plan to do it. You must communicate it early, confidently and convincingly. 2006, the year of my appointment was the midpoint of the first decade of this century which will be remembered as the inflection point in globalisation. Up to then we had lived regional and to some degree national lives but were not really concerned by events in Asia or South America. The Naughties saw the arrival of what has now become the annual nightmare - publication of the global university rankings. Begun by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2003 to provide the Chinese Government with an instrument to position their universities in competition with the best globally, they produced some alarming data. Books such as “The Future of European Universities – Renaissance or Decay?” flashed across my screen. Globalisation meant that students were no longer interested in the job market value placed on their parchment in Cork, in Munster or in Ireland but on the global market. Rankings mattered. International students considering foreign education destinations, as well as international academic staff making career choices, consulted rankings. But the ranking methodologies were crude, often bizarre in their choice of metrics, favouring the easily measured such as number of Nobel Laureates on staff and among alumni, haphazard surveys of academics and employers whose identity remained unknown - criteria that often had little to do with the purpose of most universities. Government, media and the public formed dramatic and ill-informed opinions of Irish universities’ performance.

For example let’s take the Irish Independent heading, “Trinity College plummets in World University Rankings – from 110th to 129th position”. Yes it sounds dramatic unless you realise that there are 16,000 universities and more than 23,000 degree awarding institutions globally. My favourite analogy is an aerial photograph of the Engadin annual ski marathon for some 12,000 skiers in Switzerland. The three medallists and possibly the hard luck fourth position will be recorded for posterity. Look closely at an aerial photograph and ask does it matter whether you’re 110th or 129th? You may be minutes behind the medallists but only milliseconds may separate 110th from 129th. And with a faster time next year, you may still drop from 110th to 129th! What is really remarkable is that all Irish universities are in the top 3-4% of universities globally – in the top 500 of the 16,000.

In 2007 over 800 European universities panicked by the rankings, exhibited strategic plans on their websites, setting out the ambition to compete with Harvard. But what is incontrovertibly true, is that in virtually all human endeavours the best resourced will be the most successful. With revenue of some €290m per annum, it did not seem plausible to me that University College Cork should set out a 10-year ambition to compete with Harvard (annual income 3.9billion), Stanford (4 billion), Cambridge (2.1 billion) or indeed a nearby university of the same size, Bristol with a budget of 628 million. Today, the combined revenue of all seven Irish universities at €1.45 billion is roughly half that at MIT and a third of that of Harvard.

At some risk, I decided to redefine the strategy, in essence revisiting the philosophy of O’Rahilly, and repositioning the university as a regional institution. Priority should be given to programmes and curriculum that address, inter alia, regional societal needs: to research that addresses regional needs and that are, of course, of global importance; to graduating people employable locally or globally; and promoting institutional engagement with local society, civic, cultural and political. We adopted the motto “UCC – the university connecting our region to the globe”. But, and of paramount importance, I recommitted the institution to conducting this mission to world class standards, demanding excellence in all of our endeavours. Our objective: that UCC should be one of the best regional universities globally.

This mission, set out in our Strategic Plan in 2009 does not preclude us becoming Harvard perhaps in a century and following the discovery of copious volumes of oil off the south coast!

Recognising that international reputation is very much driven by performance in research I also determined to prioritise our research resources in a limited portfolio of regionally important domains where we could afford and must aim to be among the best in the world. With time, and with increases in resourcing we should expect to expand that portfolio and eventually match the best. Thus, we prioritised ICT through the Tyndall National Institute, the largest research institute in Ireland. We prioritised food research, a key element of the Munster and Irish economy through our Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC), now ranked No.2 in the world in probiotic research. We prioritised environmental research through the Environmental Research Institute, and its new component part, the Marine Energy facility in our new Beaufort Building in Ringaskiddy.

For international and domestic marketing purposes we developed a bold new brand. Having been through the drastic consequences of group-think in our national decision-making we strove to encourage our students to be “independent thinkers”; “great minds don’t think alike”. We were advised that this was more palatable internationally than “Up the Rebels”!

How have we performed?

Understandably, following our worst economic depression in 80 years, the loss of 15% of our staff in the face of a 10% increase in student numbers, we have lost some ground in the commercial ranking systems that reward great wealth, great age and capital city location. But we still remain in the top 2% in the world in all those systems. On the other hand, thankfully, the ranking systems themselves are becoming more sophisticated and in particular, the European Union has taken a significant part. Concerned by growing influence of international rankings and in particular their distorting effects in university planning, the European Commission determined to shape its own ranking system with more objective metrics, performance criteria of societal importance, and a much more diverse spectrum of measures. It was concerned that universities were diverting resources to purchase celebrity academics, advertising in global media and distorting their priorities to gain favour in the rankings. U-Multirank was introduced by Brussels two years ago to grade universities across 30 measures of performance from “A” representing “Excellent” to “E” representing “Very Poor” under each heading. U-Multirank includes, of course, measures of regional engagement as well as international orientation.

On the evening of 30th April, I received a gracious phone call from the President of another Irish university to enquire whether I had visited the website of University World News that day and to “offer congratulations although it sticks in my craw”!

Data from some 1200 universities were included in the 2015 ranking though it must be admitted that many of the top universities in the other ranking systems were reticent to participate. Of the 1200 universities included, University College Cork in Ireland won the highest number of “A” scores, with 21 top grades across all five dimensions, of 30 metrics measured. Two Dutch universities shared second and third places, Eindhoven and Wageningen.

In my view, for thousands of universities around the world, ranking as practiced in the last ten years, is of no relevance. Only the 50 wealthiest, oldest and those based in major global cities will value them. For all others, including all Irish universities, in the coming decades it is those systems that grade performance under diverse objective societally relevant riteria that will interest students and staff selecting academic destinations. Grading principles applied for decades in the hotel sector will now be applied in universities.

I said earlier that research excellence matters. In May, the Leiden University ranking system which chronicles the quality of global university research published its 2015 data. It ranks universities according to the quality of their scientific publications reporting such measures as the proportion of publications that appear in the top 1% of scientific journals of the world.

Reporting on the quality of publications over the past three years, Leiden placed University College Cork 16th in Europe and 52nd overall in the world. Trinity College, NUIG and UCD also placed in the top 750.

Sustaining Excellence

Taken in the round, notwithstanding the unprecedented challenges posed by the economic crisis over the past seven years, Irish universities exhibit extraordinary performance, rarely if ever acknowledged by Government, public service or media. Only rugby and boxing (with their elite programmes) and a handful of Irish companies match the sector in global performance. As we emerge from the economic crisis and societal focus changes from fire-fighting to strategic policy reform and development it behoves us to reflect on the essential steps necessary to sustain university performance and to improve it. 45 years after I entered University for the first time and having spent most of the intervening years in or associated with universities, at home and abroad, I must offer some observations. Challenges to sustaining excellence fall under three headings – Resources, Regulation and Research.


Regulation and governance of the sector is complex, not well coordinated and excessive. The Department of Education and Skills has overall responsibility for governance, policy infrastructure and direct resourcing yet, a visitor to the website of the Department would be required to dig very deep to find reference to universities, focussed as it is on schools, inspector’s reports, circulars and directives. Day to day oversight of the sector is devolved to a buffer organisation, the Higher Education Authority, whose decisions can be overridden when convenient. Oversight of research, now a very significant element of university life, resides on the other hand in the Department of Enterprise Jobs and Innovation, whose priorities are not infrequently at odds with the Department of Education. The management toolkit is shaped by the Department of Expenditure and Public Reform. That management toolkit is designed primarily for the Irish Civil Service and its rules and regulations are unfit for the purpose of universities, required to compete for staff, students, resources, on an international market playing to very different rules. Improved regulatory cohesion, fit for purpose by international standards is urgently required and equally important, less of it.

There is now widespread international recognition that the greater the autonomy of universities, the better their performance. In a pan-European review of autonomy of universities some four years ago, the European Universities Association demonstrated that best performers, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Nordic countries were the least heavily regulated. Ireland was well down the pack and that analysis was conducted before the financial crisis and the introduction of emergency fiscal legislation coupled with the employment control framework. Fetters must be removed.

Within the universities, the legislatively prescribed nature of Governing Bodies must be overhauled. They are too large, too many members elected without reference to the skill sets required of modern good governance. In particular, I would advocate inclusion of international expertise at all times.

I also strongly recommend a rebalancing of the expertise selected to participate in policy making and regulatory bodies. In recent years, the State has rightly ended the hegemony of professional cartels in these bodies but the pendulum has swung too far. Today paucity of domestic or international experience and expertise in the function being regulated, should raise concern that some governance and policy bodies lack competence and capacity.

My final observation on governance and regulation relates to the need for peer reviewed quality assurance. One of the most significant developments in the university sector over the past two decades has been the implementation of regular international peer review of our institutions and their constituent schools and administrative units. We have restructured universities to be better performers, more efficient and more effective. There is no reason why regulators, state agencies, even Government Departments should not embrace peer review. In a small country with a limited pool of specialised talent, it is particularly important that we subject our practices to adjudication by others with diverse experiences.

I might venture to add, that had our Department of Finance, or our Financial Regulator engaged in international peer review, we might have avoided the fiscal calamity visited upon us. It is my opinion that such regular review should be mandatory.


Over the past five years the resource available to support each university student has fallen by 22%. An analysis by Ecofin in 2009 reported that there was no residual capacity in the Irish university system; at that time we were producing the highest number of graduates at the lowest cost across the OECD.

Since then we have certainly done more with less, but at what cost to the quality of the student experience? Everybody wants higher quality higher education in Ireland but frankly, nobody wants to pay. There is a clear need to re-define the appropriate balance in investment in higher education between the state and individuals. The financial return to the state from higher education is among the highest in the OECD. On the other hand, higher education provides individuals with one of the highest lifetime returns in earnings across all countries of the OECD. Both must contribute more. A government backed loan system to enable socially disadvantaged students to afford upfront fees must be a critical component.

And universities must be free to incentivise more entrepreneurial initiatives by university staff, to diversify university income. The report of the funding review group currently chaired by Mr. Peter Cassels will arrive on the desk of the new incoming government and it is critical that the recommendations therein are addressed and implemented in the first year of office. Certain tough decisions are best faced up to in the first year of the political cycle.


The arrival of Chuck Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies in Ireland in the 1990s, leveraging matching investment from the Irish Government, led to the transformation of Irish universities. Rapid growth in research quantity and quality to international norms also transformed the nature of teaching and the student learning experience in our universities. Ireland is now ranked 16th internationally for the quality of its research up from 40th position 20 years ago, behind Bangladesh. Some of our disciplines are ranked in the top 3 positions in the world. It will be very important to sustain Government support for research and equally important that research centres remain embedded within universities from which they derive their life blood - talented students and academic staff. Proposals for segregation of research centres from the universities will serve neither the interests of those centres nor of students who rely on teaching inputs from some of the world’s best researchers. Again, better integration of the governance of research with other aspects of higher education should minimise this risk.

I am, however, confident that ultimately we will respect best international practice and continue to thrive.


I will conclude by returning to the relationship between UCC and Kerry.

Some 1500 Kerry students are enrolled in UCC, second only to Cork. We support the medical education centre at Kerry General Hospital and many UCC students enjoy placements and internships with Kerry Group in food research and adult education and Gaeltacht summer courses are a major feature of our offerings.

The university has played a significant part in supporting the success of the Kingdom. I need hardly remind you of founders and leaders of the most significant Kerry businesses were graduates of UCC. Innumerable Kerry inter-county footballers plied their sport in the Mardyke and for coaches to UCC Sigerson winning teams, such as Mr. William Morgan, it has been a joy to see their Kerry protégés regularly defeat Cork in provincial finals! I am confident that the Brussels ranking system valued this regional generosity highly.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The “Godless College in Cork” has come of age and has become a university that Kerry can take pride in. I’m confident that Daniel O’Connell if here today, would be happy but with one concern perhaps – the need for University Emancipation!"

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

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