General Teaching Council Northern Ireland

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WITH a career that has weaved between both the private and public sectors John D’Arcy has taken up the role as Director of the Open University in Ireland at a challenging time for universities throughout the country.

The Browne report, reviewing England’s higher education system, has thrown up many questions for universities and once again the topic of tuition fees for higher education has been brought into the spotlight.  

The fact that the system in the South of Ireland is also undergoing a period of change means that John’s job is more complex as he oversees the Open University across the whole of the island.  He is, however, undaunted by the difficulties that this could throw up and instead is looking forward to taking on the challenge.

“It’s a really exciting time to be joining a university that is in itself changing and is also in an environment that is subject to a lot of external change,”?said John.

“We’re the only region of the Open University where we have two jurisdictions so the set-up again is different in the Republic and their higher education sector is going through a period of change too.”

John feels that his career, to date, will hold him in good stead when undertaking these challenges.  He has previously worked in the education sector with roles at both CCEA and, more recently, as Chief Executive of the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges.

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to join a leading university.  My previous job was the Chief Executive of the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges (ANIC), which is the six FE (Further Education) colleges, in many regards it was a natural step with that experience to move into the university environment.

“Before I joined ANIC I was Director of Management Consultancy with BDO Stoy Hayward and I was with them for seven years.  I’ve got a bit of a mixture of an education and a business background and I think that in terms of how you get your message across to people and how you present your courses and make them fit for market, I think that blend of education and business skills is quite good,” explained John.

It is his role with ANIC and, specifically, the merging of the further education colleges in Northern Ireland, which reduced the number from 16 to just six, that John points to as a highlight in his career.

“I was involved with all 16 colleges and in 2007 we merged them into six colleges.  I was pleased to be a part of that.  I worked with a lot of dedicated people who made that happen.  My role was to facilitate that and I do have a real sense of achievement that the 16 colleges moved into six colleges and the level of service to the student wasn’t impacted,” says John.

Prior to taking up his role with BDO John was Head of Research and Statistics with CCEA, the exams body in Northern Ireland.  John claims that his “chequered career” that has seen him move from mainstream education, to the private sector and back to a quasi private-public sector role with the ANIC may not be a typical career path but it has felt like a natural progression for him with each position helping to prepare him for the next job in his career.

“For example the ANIC role was on the fringes of the formal education system but a lot of my work there would have been liaising with employers, community groups and the Assembly and I think that skill set will be really useful in this job, particularly when people are discussing the education system and what is right for them and also whether they think they can afford it.  It put me in a great position to come here.”

Looking to the future John sees some positives in the recommendations that have come out of the Browne report and, indeed, the fact that many people are looking at whether they can afford to go into higher or further education.

The flexibility that the Open University has been built on will now prove to be its greatest strength, according to John, as people are more uncertain about their need, desire or ability to afford higher education. 

“I think the debate over full time higher education and the associative costs make people maybe consider part time higher education as more of an option than it might have been otherwise.  

 “The current programme of change is gong to be challenging for all universities, including the Open University, but those processes and systems that we have evolved over 30 years that have always targeted those people who need flexible provision will put us in a good place.”

John is looking forward to the job ahead and feels that he has shared values with the Open University, an institution he has admired for many years.

“We have a lot of really good champions out there who extol the virtues of the open style university.  If you go back to the original premise of the Open University, when it was set up by Harold Wilson’s government, it was to make higher education accessible to people and it had a strong social justice emphasis as well.  People who had fallen through the net or didn’t enjoy school would have the opportunity to increase their learning and increase their life chances and that remains the same today.”



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