Ireland is becoming a skills centre for the 21st century, and there is plenty to gain if we export this know-how, writes John Kennedy.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, nearly every vestige of civilisation was almost wiped from the map of Europe as Vandals and Visigoths and other barbarian tribes embarked on an orgy of violence and destruction.
For centuries, Europe was plunged into a period known as the Dark Ages, as learning and Christianity retreated as far west as the remote, rocky outcrops on Ireland’s edge that today have a cameo in the latest Star Wars movies.
‘NIBRT supports the biopharma industry in Ireland but also globally’
– DOMINIC CAROLAN
Slowly and carefully, the fragile flame of knowledge and Christianity was preserved and rekindled during what is remembered as Ireland’s Golden Age, and the return of civilisation was heralded by enterprising Irish monks and episodes including the Brendan Voyages.
In the 21st century, you would be forgiven at times for thinking that the world sits once again on a kind of see-saw between civilisation and barbarity.
On one end of the see-saw is a bold world marching fearlessly into the future of science and technology. At the other end, Syria is a fire bowl of human suffering; the US is, for all intents and purposes, leaderless; the UK is hellbent on destroying itself through a toxic blend of pride and Brexit-ness; and, somewhere in Moscow, there is a man just waiting to give his vast legions the order to advance.
In an uncertain world, knowledge and learning is key. And, once again, it seems that Ireland can play a role in keeping the flame of civilisation alight through learning and, in particular, through the sharing of vital 21st-century skills.
Global brands for education
This thought struck me as I chatted last week with Kathleen Gallagher, COO of Thomas Jefferson University, and Ronald Kander, associate provost for applied research at Jefferson.
The occasion was the BioPharma Ambition conference, an international gathering of pharma industry leaders. At the event, it emerged that the Dublin-based National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) will help train the next generation of engineering and biopharma researchers to produce potentially life-saving drugs.
A new partnership will see NIBRT team up with Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University to create the Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing, the first and only education and training institute for biopharmaceutical processing in North America.
“We will be able to educate graduate and undergraduate students in biologic engineering,” said Kander.
“We will also be able to train professional engineers, much like is done here, and we will also have a focus on workforce development where we will be able to take students from high schools and community colleges and train them for positions in biological processing plants.”
Gallagher said it was serendipity. “An alumni of what was Philadelphia University worked at Johnson & Johnson and started to connect the dots as our two universities merged to say there is something here that, with a combination of NIBRT and the talent at East Falls Campus under the direction of Dr Kander and the engineering school and the foundational health sciences programme at Jefferson – the combination of the three of us put us together for a conversation for what the future of training could be for professionals in biologics.”
The underlying current here is that NIBRT, in terms of the quality of its training on the cutting edge, has become a global brand. In many ways, it is a triumph of policy as it was established to ensure a pipeline of skilled talent into Ireland’s €67bn-a-year biopharma industry.
“NIBRT supports the biopharma industry in Ireland but also globally,” said CEO Dominic Carolan. “But primarily, it was set up originally in order to attract FDI into Ireland, and we do that by really training the talent for the industry as well as doing research for the manufacturing base that’s already here.
“That’s essentially the vision we have and the mandate that NIBRT has for Ireland.”
This spirit of sharing education with the world is something that seems natural in Ireland.
An example of what could be possible is seen through CoderDojo, the coding movement that was founded in 2011 by a young and eager James Whelton and SOSV partner Bill Liao.
Since then, the movement has exploded on the global scene, with more than 1,700 Dojos across more than 75 countries, providing coding education to children with a legion of volunteers. Last year, CoderDojo merged with the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
Another example is the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, globally recognised as leaders in health sciences education, with campuses in Ireland, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. With more than 3,000 students from 50 countries, and a full-time staff of 1,200, RCSI is a unique institution in its field, and the only medical educator with four international campuses.
And let’s not forget the Digital Marketing Institute, which, since it was founded 10 years ago, has experienced rapid growth. More than 18,000 professionals in 115 countries have completed its learning programmes to date. Since 2014, the Digital Marketing Institute has grown 73pc annually on the back of strong uptake of its online and corporate learning programmes, as well as licensed courses offered via a network of 100-plus education partners globally.
Dare to dream
Ireland’s potential as a learning powerhouse on an international scale was reinforced in my mind last week when I spoke with the managing director of Microsoft Ireland, Cathriona Hallahan, on the occasion of the opening of the software giant’s new €134m campus in Dublin.
To coincide with the event, Hallahan revealed that Microsoft is investing €5m in its DreamSpace innovation and education hub as part of a plan to educate 100,000 students across Ireland in digital skills.
Microsoft doesn’t often get the credit it deserves for the educational role it has played in Ireland since it came here in 1985. During the recession, Microsoft introduced the New to Work programme, which enabled 13,500 young people to gain digital skills to help them enter the workforce.
Hour of Code gave 15,000 schoolchildren in Ireland vital coding skills.
“And we have also focused on giving 10,000 girls the opportunity to gain vital digital skills and learn more about the tech industry,” said Hallahan.
The plan to educate 100,000 schoolkids in vital digital skills has, in my opinion, the kernel of an opportunity to spread this learning globally.
As the storm clouds of chaos swirl around our planet, Ireland has the chance to keep the flame of learning, knowledge and 21st-century know-how alive.
Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Silicon Republic
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