Five Big: Five Small with Prof. Don Barry

Don BarryWelcome to the new and, hopefully improved, An Focal. This interview with Prof. Don Barry kicks off our new interview series with a well-known personality connected to the University. The premise is simple; we have a short interview during which we ask five ‘big’ serious questions, and five ‘small’ casual questions. Enjoy!


1. An issue that arises every year is the library. Where do we currently stand now that U.L. has possession of both the building plans and the European Investment Bank loan?

Well where we stand at the minute is we are awaiting a government decision to release the €20 million that they have committed to the building of the library. The advantage of the EIB loan is that the government could release that money over a period of time rather than all at once. But it’s important to emphasise that the EIB capital is a loan and at the moment we have no way off paying back the capital of €20million that we would have to borrow to make the library happen. So until such time that the government makes a move on that we are stuck and it’s creating a lot of problems within the university that we are communicating to government and if the time scale of this is not improved upon we will have to continue looking at ways to provide, in particular, study space that fits the students needs.

2. The biggest issue for students is fees. Do you see an alternative to current proposals? That is, but not exclusively, the introduction of half/full fees or the establishment of a government backed student loan system like that in place in the U.K.

I think that this is an extraordinary problem in the sense that high quality third level education costs money. The dilemma we face in Ireland is the taxpayer can’t afford it, the students can’t afford it and the parents of the students can’t afford it. As such the whole country is struggling to find a way to continue supplying the high quality of third level education that still exists. So in an ideal world I think that third level education should be treated in such a way that secondary and primary education is, that is to say it is paid for by the tax payer. In the current situation I think that fees exist. The student contribution is a fee, it’s going to go to €3,000 a year and that’s a fee in terms of the pressure it puts on students and I think that some sort of a balance is going to have to be found in the contribution that the tax payer makes for education and the contribution that the user, that is the students, have to pay for the education they receive, and that’s a very difficult balancing act. I think there is merit in the government exploring a government backed loan scheme for students. That’s not an ideal situation as students will then graduate with an outstanding loan that they would have to pay back over their working career. So I think this is a very complex situation and I unfortunately don’t have any silver bullet to fix the state of the country.

3. What was your dream and vision for U.L. when you first started and how have the recession and subsequent cutbacks hampered that vision?

Well I think my original vision doesn’t differ very much from what became my first strategic plan for the university. So I spent a lot of time in my first couple of years talking about the importance of the university delivering a high quality student experience. As such that ended up featuring as the first goal of our strategic plan. I also was committed to trying to improve the research performance of the university and continuing the university’s contribution to the local region. I also had a particular interest in advancing the university’s international reputation across teaching, research and contribution.

The recession has, naturally enough hampered all of those, in the sense that less money is available to spend than we first thought we’d have when I first started out as President. I think that the thing known as the Bernal project has gone some way towards helping us to make progress on the research front by virtue of the investment of Atlantic Philanthropies in making that happen. But I think that if we had had more money we would have done a lot more about enhancing the student experience. And I think that I meet class council each year, and each year I ask how have the cut backs impacted your life as a student so I know the difference the cutbacks have made in terms of student facilities such as the library and other student services, tutorial sizes in particular, and the general falling below the standards that the university would aspire to in the delivery of those services to students. I regret that but I think it’s important for everyone in the institution to acknowledge that the funding from government has declined progressively since I became President and that we are statutorily bound not to run a deficit. I sometimes feel as though the Celtic Tiger died the day I became President and it’s been trying to balance the books along with other strategic priorities that has been a major challenge for me and the entire campus community to put up with it.

That would be your biggest challenge you might say since you took office?

Oh absolutely my biggest challenge, I didn’t expect that I would be spending as much time trying to balance budgets as I have done and trying to make decisions about which aspect of the student experience would have to suffer in order for us to balance our books. I think and I’ve said this at the student council that I think we’ve done our level best to maintain the quality of the student experience but it has suffered in ways that the students at the council have indicated to me and naturally I take no joy in that and regret it and we continue to minimise ways that this affects the most important people in the university and that is the students.

4. There are roughly one hundred Higher Education employees in Ireland earning €200,000+ a year. Considering the current government stance that the state cannot continue to fund higher education at current levels, do you believe it’s fair on students to have to pay fees when there are staffs earning these types of salaries?

That’s a pretty hard question to answer. Well the first thing I want to say is that the only employees of the University of Limerick earning over €200,000 a year are joint appointments with the H.S.E. and are consultants in the local health service and nobody else in the University of Limerick is paid more than €200,000. I think that one of the things I have been following with interest around medical consultancy is the change in pay structure around health consultants and that the HSE are unable to fill many of the consultant posts that are currently vacant and that is something we really need to think about. And this isn’t a very popular thing to say I suppose. The easy thing to say is we should cut these salaries so the students don’t have to pay fees but at the same time we need to try and attract the best people into our health service and what always amazes me is people don’t complain about the salaries paid to the likes of Wayne Rooney or Robin Van Persie because they know if you want the best people you have to compete in terms of salary. And unfortunately the same must be said for the positions in the University of Limerick that if we want the best consultants in our medical school and our local health service then we are competing in an international market. There is no easy answer to that.

5. In terms of the Union itself, ULSU has not been a part of USI since 1991. The last review of our membership took place in 06/07, as you began to take office. Do you feel there is a benefit to students in joining, in terms of national representation, or do you think that ULSU and you yourself do enough to represent us nationally already?

Well I’m reluctant to comment on this issue because I presume that any decision concerning ULSU and USI will require a referendum of the student body. But I do think that it’s important to review that relationship every now and again to see what’s in the best interest of ULSU and I presume in that situation a lot of consideration would have to be given to the public line that is being pursued by USI and whether that aligns with what ULSU do and think. There is no point in being associated with a national union unless they are in sync with your own views and I would presume that that is the central argument that will be played out during the course of a student referendum on this issue.

My own view on this issue is that ULSU does a tremendous job in representing the students of the University of Limerick both internally and externally in the broader community and I would hope that that would continue regardless of any decisions taken in regard to affiliation with USI.

6. Thank you very much for that, and now for some more light hearted conversation. A book everyone should read and a movie everyone should watch? And why?

Well let’s start with the book question. I have a favourite author called Phillip Roth and I think everyone should read at least one of his books and I am confident that should they read one they would want to read them all. Perhaps to get people started I would recommend a book called American Pastoral that he wrote some time in the last ten years. I have read all his books and I think anyone that hasn’t experienced Phillip Roth is missing out on a great pleasure.

I read a lot more books than I do films I guess but my favourite film of all time is Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino in it, but I have no idea why it’s my favourite. It’s just a fantastic movie. In terms of a movie you might learn something from I think the Godfather Trilogy is something worth watching. They are fantastic movies in their own right but I think they have a lot of lessons about the complexities of managing the people around you. There’s some really interesting politics, albeit with a small p, that show the problems that can arise with people trying to work together.

7. If you could have dinner with three people, dead or living, who would they be and why?

Well Philip Roth would be one of them as I have never met him and he’s one of my favourite writers.

I have had dinner once with Bill Clinton and I would like to have dinner with him again at any time as he is an extraordinarily interesting man.

I think the other person I would like to have dinner with is Mary O’Rourke who was a real fine Minister of Education and has a really articulate way of expressing views that can be provocative and revealing on other prominent figures in Irish politics and I’d like to be in a position where I could learn what she knows about the recent politics in Ireland.

8. Are you a rugby, soccer or G.A.A. man?

Well I’m from North Cork so I’m really a hurling man although in my role as president I try and portray myself as a rugby man seeing as this is Limerick.

Maybe we’ll touch on that one so. What are your own personal views on the six nations so far this year? Do you think we have a chance of doing the Grand Slam?

I think we actually have a very good chance of doing the Grand Slam, unfortunately we’re in the position where every second year we have to face England and France away from home and this is one of those years, but we’ve got off to a hell of a good start and although we are going to Twickenham and going to Paris this year we have a hell of a better chance than we did this time two years ago or indeed four years ago, the other time we went to these venues. I think we have a much better chance when England and France have to come to Dublin but I think we have played really well in the first two matches, especially against Wales and if we can replicate that performance against England in the next match we’ll have a good chance of winning the Grand Slam.

So you’ll predict an Irish win on Saturday?

I think that England are favourites but I think Ireland have a decent chance of winning that match especially considering if we win we’ll have an Irish Triple Crown. Going to Paris is a different kettle of fish altogether.

9. Biscuit or cake? What is your ideal snack?

Biscuit. I’d say I’m one of the major consumers of Yorkie bars in Ireland, whereby Yorkie bar I mean the one with raisin and biscuit in it. Do you know the ones I mean?

Aye, the one in the purple wrapper? Harder to get these days, you don’t see them around
as much….

It’s because I’ve them all bought (laughs), I buy them in bulk.

10. Before I get to the last question I just want to take the opportunity to say thank you very much for the time, it’s a huge boost that we’ve got back on track with the paper and to kick off with such a high profile interview. Is there anything you would personally like to say to the students that we have not covered here?

Well can I first say that I am delighted that An Focal will be back in action, I have arranged that I get a copy as soon as it’s printed. I prefer getting the print copy as opposed to the online copy, I’m of that age.

What I really want to say to the students is something I say to a lot a people, it is about the positivity that comes out of the student body in UL and I notice it in particular at graduations where I spend a lot of time meeting the students that have just graduated and their parents. The parents are of the same generation as I am and they have been in the last couple of years, depressed about the current state of the country where as the students come up to me and are full of enthusiasm about the future be it in Ireland or anywhere in the world, and they have a tremendous love for UL and the campus in particular. So the defining characteristic about the students of UL, for me, is the positivity. I haven’t come across the same level of enthusiasm towards the institution in any other university that I’ve worked in and I hope that continues. UL students also have a concern for the reputation of the university, and of Limerick, that is exemplary.

Perfect, well unless you have anything else thank you very much!

Thank you.

By Mark Nother