2008 Coleraine Chronicle: Gerry Looks to the Future

Former vice-chancellor speaks for first time about his time at the university, the credit crunch, the future of post-primary selection and his belief that a united front will help place Coleraine at the forefront of any economic upturn

Gerry looks to the future


The former vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, Professor Gerry McKenna, claims he remains the university’s number one supporter, despite the acrimonious nature of his departure from the top job.

Speaking publicly for the first time since relinquishing his post in 2005, the Tyrone native said he retained a lot of very happy memories from his 35 years association with the university and, in particular, the Coleraine campus.That relationship culminated in Prof. McKenna being awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Coleraine in 2001 for his role in promoting the University of Ulster as a leading player on the world stage.

However, things soured just three years later when allegations arose over his management style. A subsequent report found that there were grounds for investigation. Prof. McKenna, whose association with the university began as a first class honours graduate in 1976, was on sick leave for seven months before officially stepping down from his role in 2005.
In the intervening years, the married father-of-two has advised a number of universities across the world on matters of research and development, written numerous articles and maintained a keenly developed interest in the fields of academia and business. He retains close links with the United States.

Now for the first time, in a wide-ranging interview, the one-time public face of Northern Ireland´s largest university talks of his time at the head of an institution boasting over 25,000 students, 3,000 staff and an annual budget of over £190m. He also offers his own take on the current global economic crisis, the future of post-primary education, the importance of excellence in education and the key role to be played by local politicians and civic leaders in promoting the Coleraine area as an important innovation centre in the event of an economic upturn.

However, he refused to be drawn on the controversial nature of his exit from the university, preferring instead to concentrate on the future and what it might mean for Coleraine.
We meet in the front room of Prof. McKenna’s home in Portrush on a cold winter’s afternoon, the grip of recession biting hard. Not unnaturally, the deepening economic crisis dominates our early conversation.

"We are experiencing a global recession the likes of which none of us has ever seen before", is Prof McKenna’s take on the current climate. "There is a massive loss of confidence in banks and businesses and there’s no doubt that the immediate future looks bleak. It’s necessary for that confidence to be restored for any type of recovery to begin.There is a sea of unjustified and unsustainable debt out there which will have to be sorted out over time and its going to be very difficult.

In my opinion, the main priority of government should be retaining jobs. After that, we should be looking to engender new businesses and new jobs . For me the number one resource which we have in Northern Ireland and on the north coast is brain power.
If we look at how the future economy is likely to shape up, the growth areas are mostly going to be knowledge-based. For example, biopharmaceuticals will probably pick up sooner than other areas because people always want better health, while there are other important areas such as nano-technology and information technology.

The environment is also massively important: anything which reduces energy usage, increases energy efficiency or promotes alternative energy is going to be very important. More locally, tourism is an area where we have potential to grow, assuming people have money to spend. Indeed, the promotion of tourism and environment go together, while the agri-food industry here is still very important.

All these things may well tie together and Coleraine is well positioned to benefit - provided we are properly focused to avail of the opportunities in the future. Coleraine needs to present itself as an innovation locality. There will be inward investment again in the future: the question is – will we be well placed to benefit?"

For Prof McKenna, the key to success lies in a joined-up approach involving three main drivers - education, including schools and the university; the extent of political and civic support; and that of the business community, It is essential that they are closely coordinated.

Recession shouldn’t put people off developing long term plans for innovation and new developments, argues Prof McKenna. In fact, you could argue that now is a good time to start planning. It requires a coming together of all the drivers in the local community, but it can be done. To emphasise his point, he cites the example of the US state of North Carolina, once derided as an example of the worst elements of America´s deep south, but which has successfully reinvented itself as one of the leading centres for inward investment in the country. That success was achieved only through a shared vision, he adds, one he would like to see replicated in the north west of the province.

An academic for almost all of his adult life, Prof McKenna naturally has strong opinions on the current post-primary education debate which goes to the very core of education as we know it. With politicians no nearer solving the eleven-plus riddle, there is a vacuum which need to be filled, and soon.

"I think it’s an appalling situation that schoolchildren and parents do not know what’s happening with regard to transfer procedures, continues Prof McKenna. My personal opinion is that children have different aptitudes and abilities and these should be recognised for their ultimate benefit and that of society : some have great sporting ability, some intellectual ability, some artistic ability -  they can all be catered for in excellent but differently focussed schools.

Grammar schools have proved consistently excellent over the years and it seems to me perverse to dismantle that system of the basis of ideology. Secondary schools have proved less successful. I think they need to become more vocational in outlook. That way, students will be optimally catered for, whatever their particular aptitudes or abilities".He is equally strident in his views on further education, and its future. Arguing that further education lost its way in the seventies and eighties by becoming more academically orientated and less vocational and skills focussed in nature, he argues that FE colleges need to be both responsive and flexible to local needs, harking back to his earlier view that a joined-up approach is the best way to tackle economic problems.

"I have enormous loyalty to the University of Ulster", he maintains. "I spent nearly 35 years there and the university helped make me and I in turn helped make it. The university has helped the economy and society enormously by producing skilled graduates and by conducting high quality research in a number of fields, including world leading strengths in Biomedical Sciences and Celtic Studies at Coleraine. It was a remarkable achievement for the university to achieve, in a relatively short time, world class research excellence. In the last, 2001, national Research Assessment Assessment Exercise, 78% of the top rated 5* researchers in Northern Ireland were housed at UU. As a result of investment then, I am hopeful of a good performance in the next such exercise, the results of which come out next week. The Science Park, too, has contributed, even though it was always designed as a long-term project. Regrettably, I do not feel that either have had the attention they deserve in recent times.

We attracted over £30m of philanthropy along with matching government funds for new initiatives such as the Centre for Molecular Biosciences and the Science Park which have added new dimensions to the university and the Coleraine site, but for me the greatest asset of the University of Ulster is the quality of its staff, from cleaners right through to academics. They are a very professional and committed staff who take pride in their work and I am glad to have played a part in the successes of the university.

In my time as vice chancellor, we were the eigth most popular university in the UK, in the top three for offering access courses to students from disadvantaged areas and the UK´s leading institution for e-learning courses. Senior management are working to the best of their ability, but I do have concerns for Coleraine and Magee and the apparent lack of a north west plan.
We don´t want everything to be located in Belfast but, naturally, it takes a disproportionate effort to entice things away from the city or to avoid letting them shift to there by following the line of least resistance. It requires a concerted strategy for the betterment of the province as a whole, but at the moment I don´t see evidence of a north west plan. It´s a question of drift I suppose. I deeply regret the Catering College moving to Belfast; that was  just one example of what I am talking about". For the former vice-chancellor, it is now time for local politicians to begin lobbying to ensure that Coleraine isn´t forgotten about and prepared for if - and when - the economic climate improves.

"We have many admirable local politicians who serve the community well and, while they all have their own pet projects, it´s important that in the future they all focus on one thing - the economy and jobs - and the need to market this area. We need to lobby in Belfast, government departments and Invest NI, and in this instance politeness is not a virtue. The present Belfast--centric approach needs to be challenged".

After an hour and a half´s conversation covering a range of issues, all pertaining to the economic future of the north coast, an area, incidentally, he calls home now after over three decades living here, it´s clear that Prof McKenna, feted academic and one-time vice chancellor, still has a role to play in the future regeneration of the area.

Whatever about his departure from the university, it´s clear that his knowledge and experience may prove vital components if the Coleraine area is to successfully survive the current economic crisis: as he says himself, "the greatest resource we have here is brain power". Let´s harness it.       

Copy of interview published December  2008                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   


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