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2020: a year that “cemented the crucial role of Universities” in societies


It has been a turbulent year for universities. However, despite the huge challenges we have faced, many of the outcomes have been positive. This was summed up for me recently when DCU Governing Authority member Sharon McCooey (Head of LinkedIn Ireland) stated that the pandemic has “cemented the crucial role of Universities” in society. 

There is no doubt that COVID has focussed the minds of governments, policy makers and the general public on the huge contribution of research-intensive Universities, such as YERUN members, to addressing big global challenges. Throughout the crisis University-based research and expertise has offered reassurance, context and solutions. Foremost among these solutions is the development (with great speed) of vaccines for COVID-19. 

The research has not been confined to STEM disciplines. For example, at DCU we established a COVID-19 research fund that has led to significant work Including: a study exploring the impact of the pandemic on children’s physical fitness; an oral history project that  captures citizens’ personal experience of the past year; an assessment of the impact of online misinformation on public health messages; and a project to develop a rapid test to identify the presence of COVID-19 on surfaces in healthcare settings.

The crisis has also proved beyond doubt that universities, such as ours, are agile and flexible when faced with once-in-a-generation events like the pandemic. The pivot to online teaching and learning had to happen at ‘warp speed’, and has opened up new horizons. We may be large and complex organisations but we have shown ourselves to be less rigid and bureaucratic than even we ourselves believed.  

There’s no doubt that digital technology was a vital tool for navigating a path through the past year. But from a university perspective, our people were the true heroes of 2020. High tech is nothing without human touch. The key to surviving the pandemic has been ensuring we keep up those essential human connections among staff, and between teachers and students. 

2020 has shown that education is about more than knowledge or technology. It is about human connection. It is about learning from one another. It is about communities of learning that are so much greater than the sum of their parts. 

Article by Prof. Daire Keogh, President of Dublin City University.

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