CEO Q&A: Dr Sean Rowland

Business, Interviews | Mon 13 Mar | Author – Business & Finance
Dr Sean Rowland
Dr Sean Rowland, founder and president, Hibernia College

Dr Sean Rowland, founder of Ireland’s first accredited online third-level institution, talks to Deanna O’Connor about skills gaps, SaaS delivery models and funding in education.

Q. What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

I have to say my highlight over the past year has been working with our new management team on the development of our business and the identification of new opportunities. We have a fantastic team in place who are wholly behind the college, our students and our long-terms goals and I am looking forward to seeing where this takes us in 2017 and beyond.

Q. What new trends are emerging in your industry? 

New technology is rapidly changing the education sector in Ireland and around the globe. The learning space is reinventing itself as a result of employer demands for global skillsets. Online institutions are becoming the leaders in disruptive innovation in the education sector, while online programmes are providing an opportunity to reach a global audience, increasing accessibility and connecting students to world class resources remotely. There will be an increased demand to provide students 24/7 access to information, where they can learn anytime and anywhere.

Within our own business we are seeing increased opportunities with regard to the provision of educational services under an SaaS-type delivery model, whereby we provide the necessary online expertise to enable a variety of organisations offer their own in-house online, professional and executive development programmes.

Q. Some business leaders are worried that we need to have a more focused strategy to ensure we maintain our position as a country with a well-educated workforce to attract foreign investment. Do you see particular skills gaps and what do you believe the focus should be over the next five to ten years?

A significant proportion of professional learning comes from experience and practice in the workplace. Employers are increasingly looking for young professionals to graduate with work-ready skills. It is not solely about what you know, but rather how you plan to utilise that knowledge. There must be a balance between learning and practical hands on experience.

Work experience gently introduces students to the world of work. Students get to learn the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, and get workplace savvy. It gives students an idea of the essential skills needed to thrive in the workplace.

Presenting students with instant access to almost infinite data and information, educators enable students to become more reflective and inquisitive problem solvers. Students also become innovators in a collaborative environment. As a country we need to encourage deeper and more creative thinking among our students and move away from narrow rote-based learning.

In the education sector, there is an urgent need to develop a third-level finance model so that students have affordable access to the funds they need

On a personal level, I see skills gaps in areas such as data analytics, which will be vital to the growth of all businesses in the future. Learning analytics, for example, is now a major driver in the education sector. It is helping to predict learning outcomes and the optimisation of resources to enhance the participation of all stakeholders in the learning process.

Innovation is vital. There is a need to constantly develop the offering to close the skill gaps. Education is one sector in which there can be a reluctance to change what is seemingly working, we can at times underestimate the need to evolve and develop.

When Hibernia College first allowed students to study online from their home anywhere in Ireland, many commentators felt it was a step too far. Now it is more commonplace than ever, making education accessible to the four corners of Ireland.

Q. Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

In the education sector, there is an urgent need to develop a third-level finance model, so that students have affordable access to the funds they need to progress their studies. Irish students should be funded regardless of whether they choose to attend public or private third-level education.

Currently, if one member of a family chooses to attend a public college and the other chooses a private college, only the one attending the public college will receive funding, despite both colleges being accredited. This is a legacy mindset that needs to be changed to ensure our younger generations have equal opportunities.

Q. Will, or how will, Brexit and Trump affect your business? 

Nobody knows how President Trump will lead America over the next four years, so any answer would be mere speculation. It may be that he has more scope to affect matters externally than internally in the US and this is something we need to be aware of. With regards to Brexit, we’re seeing a lot of interest in partnering from institutions that see us as a future link to the EU.

Depending on how Brexit ultimately evolves, there are likely to be increased opportunities for the Irish Higher Education sector.

Additionally, in the long term there is likely to be increased demands placed on the sector, as a result of the curtailment of education opportunities in the UK for Irish and other EU students.

Q. On a personal level what are your biggest challenges as a CEO/president? 

At the moment my biggest challenge is to ensure that we are in a position to take advantage of the increasing range of opportunities, available to us nationally and internationally. We need to utilise our resources in a manner that will allow us to take advantage of increasing online education opportunities in the global higher education sector. As well as exploiting our ability to deliver outsourced digital based services to the wider corporate market.

Q. How do you keep your team and staff motivated?

Hibernia College is very fortunate, in that we have a highly motivated and professional team who are committed to the highest quality of standards. We continuously encourage our staff to challenge everything we do with a view to looking at continuous improvement in how we operate and deliver services to our students. We constantly strive to be the best that we can in everything we do.

We regularly communicate with staff on future plans for the college, such as new programmes and new systems. We also continuously look to improve access to training and educational development opportunities for all levels of staff in order to underpin our own development and commitment to quality.

Q. What opportunities or plans for growth do you see in 2017?

When it comes to setting up and guaranteeing the continued growth and development of your business, the importance of having people you trust and having a positive morale in an organisation can’t be emphasised enough.

We are currently finalising a new strategic plan for Hibernia College which includes the development of a number of new programmes. The new programmes will enable the college to reach the ambitious targets we are setting ourselves over the next phase of our journey. We will develop a strategic vision to guide Hibernia College and the education sector to a new era of affluence.

Q. Where do you want Hibernia College to be this time next year?

I would like Hibernia College to be on the road to further expansion both in terms of the programmes that we offer and the geographic territories that we serve.