Atlantic Philanthropies investment in Irish Third Level Education, a memoir

Don Thornhill

I am delighted to contribute to this important online exhibition and archive. The remarkable and exceptional contribution of the Atlantic Foundation (later to become Atlantic Philanthropies(AP))[1], should be documented and recorded carefully and comprehensively. The Atlantic programmes and funding initiatives in Ireland covered a wide span of activities. Funding for higher education and research, in particular, the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) was the area of AP’s involvement in Ireland with which I was most closely, and indeed privileged, to be involved – initially in 1997 and early 1998 as Secretary General in the Department of Education and Skills and subsequently until 2005 as Executive Chairperson of the Higher Education Authority (HEA). As the exhibition describes the funds allocated through the PRTLI enabled a step change in investment in third level research following decades of underfunding and neglect. This was money well spent. According to an independent evaluation commissioned from PA Consulting in 2011, PRTLI produced remarkably positive returns in respect of direct commercial returns on investment, the development of significant research infrastructure, jobs and indirect economic benefits[2] as well as creating a culture of strategic research planning and prioritisation in all the participating institutions.

[1] For convenience I will use the term Atlantic throughout the text

PRTLI was the result of the serendipitous convergence of strategic thinking in Atlantic and in the Department of Education and HEA in relation to higher education and research. The first key development was the evolution of Atlantic’s thinking as regards the future direction and management of its already substantial philanthropic investment programme in the Irish universities. The second were the changes in attitude taking place in public policy towards research, technology, development and innovation (RTDI). This arose from a growing recognition that the route to Ireland becoming a more prosperous and socially progressive society could only be through developing a strong knowledge base based on investment in higher education and RTDI.

Chuck Feeney visits Limerick[3][4]

A visit by Chuck Feeney (founder and sole contributor to the Atlantic Foundation) to Limerick in 1987, and a meeting with Ed Walsh head of the National Institute of Higher Education(NIHE)[5], marked the beginning of a multimillion pound philanthropic programme of investment by in Irish universities throughout the 1990s. This programme had a profound and much needed impact on enhancing buildings and facilities in the universities. These donations were made anonymously. Secrecy was a key operational principle and condition of Atlantic’s philanthropy[6]. Grant beneficiaries, as described by Ed Walsh[7], had to go to considerable lengths to maintain this anonymity. But investing in much needed buildings did not fully satisfy Chuck Feeney’s desire to promote positive change. He, his advisers and senior executives began to reflect on developing a more strategic approach. This, however, raised the possibility of a partnership with Government which would put at risk the cloak of anonymity on the source of the donations. A further consideration was a well-placed concern that private philanthropy might displace state investment in whole or in part resulting in little or no net gain to the education system.

Public policy

Public investment in higher education and particularly in research had been very modest since the 1920s. The State had historically seen its role in education as primarily supplementing private provision to primary and second level education (mainly through the Churches). A more activist approach to education began to develop from the late 1960s onwards with the belated (by European standards) introduction of free access to second level education. This in turn drove an increase in undergraduate student numbers at third level. Funding for higher education began to increase both in the universities, in the newly established National Institutes of Education (NIHEs) in Dublin and Limerick, in the technological education and training institutions in Dublin, Cork and Limerick as well as in the newly established Regional Technical Colleges[8].

There had been a growing appreciation of the potential importance of investment in research and development at policy level, but developments had been fitful[9] . Financial support for research in the universities was meagre. Throughout the 1980s and in the first half of the 1990s most of the developments in research policy and funding occurred within the remit of what was historically the industry and commerce department[10] and its agencies. But by the mid-1990s the Ministers and Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) began to pay more attention to research policy and funding[11].

In 1996 the HEA published a report which it had commissioned from the CIRCA Consulting Group on the funding and management of research[12]. This report, principally authored by CIRCA Managing Director, Tom Higgins, was the seminal basis for PRTLI. It reported that

research in the higher education sector was seriously underfunded and that there were serious institutional and strategic short comings in research management and strategies in the universities. These were largely the result of underfunding which led to research activities being largely dominated by the search for funding. Outcomes tended to be opportunistic rather than strategic. The CIRCA and HEA recommendations were reflected in (what at the time were little noticed) policy principles for informing research policy for the third level sector set out in a 1995 Government White Paper on Education[13]. These included what subsequently became a key statement

"any additional funding for research will be provided as a separate budget, for which
competitive bidding will be the norm with independent assessment by international peers on research proposals".

Those of us working in the Department were unaware in 1995 that this statement might lead to a future “moment of serendipity” through engagement with the mysterious philanthropist.

An unusual partnership

Conor O’ Cleary has described the developments from 1997 and later which led to the joint funding of PRTLI by Atlantic and the Irish Government[14]. By 1997 the Department had become aware that a single donor was responsible for the greater part of the philanthropic funds received by the universities, but we were advised to be very careful in making any direct contact. My immediate colleagues and I were intrigued when we received a request from Tara Consultants for a meeting with two of their principals – John Healy and Colin McCrea. We sensed that Tara was connected with the “mysterious” donor. I was joined at the meeting by the late Oliver Cussen, Assistant Secretary in the Department responsible for higher education. We were on our best behaviour but learned nothing about Tara’s intentions. We were encouraged, nonetheless, by the careful and close (and in our view relevant questioning) from John and Colin about the planned IR£5m[15] expenditure on recurrent R&D in line with the approach set out in the White Paper. This meeting was followed by a vaguely worded invitation to a celebratory dinner where I found myself seated with Chuck Feeney and Harvey Dale, President of the Atlantic Foundation. Conor O’Clery has described how Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, the Guest of Honour and star attraction at the dinner, delivered an eloquent tribute to Chuck Feeney.[16] I spent much of the dinner responding to an intense interrogation from Harvey Dale (who was also an academic lawyer and taxation expert) about my knowledge of the principles of taxation! Chuck Feeney was the essence of courtesy but, as I learned subsequently was his style, there was no substantive conversation between us in this initial encounter.

The next move, and the beginning of substantive engagement, took place in early 1998 after I had moved from the Department of Education and Science to the HEA. John Healy invited John Dennehy (who had succeeded me as Secretary General in the Department), Paddy McDonagh, Assistant Secretary in the Department and myself to a breakfast meeting in Dublin’s Westbury Hotel. John Healy asked a straightforward question – “If Atlantic put up IR£75m (for investment in research and development) would the Irish Government put up the same amount?”[17]. We were unprepared for his question and the scale of the offer! I recalled trying to suppress my enthusiasm and offered to “write a paper to flesh out a few ideas”! My resolution was strengthened by surmising from working with the then Minister for Education and Science (and currently Taoiseach), Micheál Martin and his demonstrated commitment to setting up the Scientific and Technological Education Fund (STEF) that he would be enthusiastic about availing of this proposal[18] . But I was also under no illusions about the inevitable objections from the Department of Finance.

Immediately after the breakfast meeting I arranged to meet my long-term associate, Tom Higgins, of the CIRCA group, who had authored the CIRCA report for the HEA. Trusting his discretion, I spent a few hours in Tom’s office where we began to sketch the outline scheme for

what eventually became the PRTLI. I recall that I subsequently spent several weeks preparing a position paper for Atlantic and in the process having many face to face meetings with John Healy and Colin McCrea in their Tara offices. During this time while the negotiations and iterations of the paper continued and there were occasional meetings with Harvey Dale. We eventually reached the stage where we had to widen the consultative net. We debated how we could engage with the Department of Finance. John and Colin saw this as a big risk given the Atlantic policy of secretive donations. We arranged to meet Paddy McDonagh, Assistant Secretary in the Department (who had been at the Westbury meeting) and Peter Mac Donagh, Political Adviser to Mícheál Martin. Both men impressed the Tara side and came fully on board. We agreed that Paddy would engage at official level with the Department of Finance while Peter would “work” the political processes. John and Colin also agreed to my briefing the late John Hayden, CEO of the HEA - an essential step as our paper proposed that the PRTLI would be managed by the HEA Executive. This allowed us to begin operational planning.

An excruciatingly painful period followed with Finance officials first of all refusing to engage and then coming forward with minimalist counter proposals. As described by Conor O’Clery[19] an intervention by Chuck Feeney with the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, broke the log jam. But even then, the Finance approval was delivered with less than good grace – in the form of handwritten amendments to a formal proposal made to the Department by Paddy McDonagh - delivered late on Friday evening November 13th, 1998. The following Saturday morning John Healy, John Hayden and I met Danny O’Hare, DCU President and Michael McGrath, Chair and Director General respectively of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities to brief them on the agreement. Both were delighted. We agreed to divide our efforts in confidentially briefing the heads of the third level institutions in preparation for a public launch by the Taoiseach and Minister for Education and Science on the following Thursday. In the intervening days, John Hayden and I with our HEA colleagues worked on recasting the agreed document with Atlantic into an invitation for the submission of proposals from the third level institutions with accompanying rules and requirements. As Conor O’Clery described “Bertie Ahern announced a IR£150m programme to be called the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions”.[20] The announcement was enthusiastically welcomed by the third level sector. As the third level representatives left the press launch room HEA staff members presented them with copies of the invitation to submit proposals. The documentation was also posted on the HEA website. There was no explicit mention of Atlantic. One of the rules of the competition was that applicant institutions had to satisfy the HEA management team that they could raise half the funding required from private sources.

The key features of PRTLI were.

  • It encompassed all areas of scholarly activity including the humanities, social sciences
    (including business and enterprise), science, technology and engineering
  • An assessment panel of international and non – Irish institutional leadership figures and
    eminent scholars21 and, crucially, Ministerial agreement to accepting their decisions
  • An assessment template based on 3 criteria – institutional research strategy (including
    statements and evidence of institutional research priorities, and in later rounds, inter
    institutional collaboration), research quality and impact on improving the quality of
    teaching and learning.

This approach galvanised the development of research strategies and prioritisation within those third level institutions which were successful in securing funding. It also introduced international benchmarking and independent selection of research programmes - a much needed model in a small society and country. It also contributed to the development of research infrastructures and capacities which was an essential underpinning for the subsequent investments made by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). SFI subsequently became the principal Government research funding agency for scientific and engineering research.

There was a total of three rounds under the cooperative framework with Atlantic (PRTLI 1-3). A further two rounds fully financed by Government followed. (PRTLI 4&5) The step changes in the funding of research excellence introduced by PRTLI as well as the, soon

to come on stream, SFI programmes enormously strengthened the “knowledge and human capital” endowments of the Irish third level sector. This contributed in no small measure to increasing the potential for increased economic value added in the Irish economy. This improved competitiveness encouraged foreign direct investment and innovation by enterprises already based in Ireland. It also provided the foundations for the export and technology-based recovery of the Irish economy in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse.

[2] PA Consulting Group, August, 2011

[3] The Billionaire Who Wasn’t” , Conor O’Clery, Public Affairs, New York, 2007 pp 138 - 142

[4] “Upstart Friends, Foes and Founding a University”, Ed Walsh (Cork,2011) pp.234-245

[5] Soon to be established by legislation as the University of Limerick

[6] “From the start, Chuck Feeney was adamant that he did not want recognition for giving. There would be no

plaques on buildings he funded, no black-tie “thank you” dinners, no honorary degrees. People should not know.

that he was behind the foundation” The Billionaire Who Wasn’t” , Conor O’Clery, Public Affairs, New York, 2007


[7] “Upstart Friends, Foes and Founding a University”, Ed Walsh (Cork, 2011) pp.263-226 and 318-19.

[8] Later to be designated as Institutes of Technology. More recently, the Dublin Institute of Technology and the

Institutes of Technology in Blanchardstown and Tallaght have been incorporated in the new Technological

[9] “Developing a Research Culture”, Don Thornhill, Chapter 3 , in “Science and Ireland – Value for Society” Charles

Mollan ed, Royal Dublin Society, 2005

[10] Currently the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment

[11] Thornhill, op cit pp 84-86

[12] CIRCA Group Europe, “Organisation, Management and Funding of University Research in Ireland and Europe”

(Dublin CIRCA Group, 1996)

[13] Government of Ireland “Charting our Education Future”, White Paper on Education, (Dublin, Stationery Office,

1995) p 115.

[14] The Billionaire Who Wasn’t” , Conor O’Clery, Public Affairs, New York, 2007 pp 267-276

[15] Later reduced to IR£4m; this funding provided for a programme for research in science and technology in third

level institutions which became a useful “pilot” for PRTLI; also see Thornhill, op cit, p 86.

[16] O’ Clery op cit p 268

[17] O’ Clery op cit p 270

[18] On his first day as Minister for Education and Science in 1997, Mícheál Martin told me that he regarded

investment in higher education, including post graduate education and research, as “vital for national

development”. This conversation was the cue for an intense funding struggle with the Department of Finance

(ending in a memorable (for the participants) head to head debate in late 1997 between officials from both

Departments in the presence of their Ministers). The outcome was the setting up of the statutory multi- annual

IR£250m Scientific and Technological Education Fund (STEF). This fund which was mainly allocated for IT education

and facilities in the third level institutions also contained a IR£5m allocation for recurrent research and


[19] O’Clery op cit p272.

[20] O’Clery op cit p273

[21] Usually 5 members