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‘We don’t serve the elite’: How Diarmuid Hegarty built Ireland’s largest private third-level institution

Griffith College president says there has been an ideological bias against the private sector, but that is changing

Back in the 1970s Diarmuid Hegarty was in high demand among aspiring accountants.

Failure rates for the chartered accountancy exams were incredibly high – seven out of eight students flunked them – but the quality of Hegarty’s grinds was legendary.

While a promising career as a tax consultant lay ahead of him in a top accountancy firm, his sideline business grew to the point where he had a choice to make.

“I remember at the time thinking, will I look back and say that I was responsible for that amendment in the tax act? Or will I look back on having helped students?” says Hegarty. The decision, he says, was easy.


He left the firm and founded Business & Accounting Training on Dublin’s Morehampton Road which, much later, moved to the former Griffith Barracks site in Dublin 8 and changed its name to Griffith College.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it is now the largest Irish-owned private third-level institution with 7,000 students across campuses in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, as well as partnerships in China and India.

Accountancy is a just a small part of the operation these days: it provides undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes in computers, engineering, law, creative arts, among other areas.

For all its success, though, the private college – like many other independent institutions – exists in a kind of twilight world. Its graduates are not included in official data compiled by the Higher Education Authority, while its lower income students are not entitled to State grants.

Private colleges are also excluded from regional skills forums, which were established to forge closer links between employers and the education and training system.

The State – and especially the Department of Education – has traditionally been reluctant to engage closely with private education at third level. The stance frustrates Hegarty, a disruptive force in education, but he says the attitude is changing.

“Ireland has no problem with private medicine,” he says. “Our medical system wouldn’t cope without private hospitals. But there is an ideological bias against private education. It’s totally misinformed.”

He has little truck with the notion that education can be tainted or compromised when delivered in a for-profit institution.

“I agree that education is a public good, but it doesn’t follow that it should be provided publicly... it should be funded by the taxpayer, like any public good, and the taxpayer deserves the best value,” he says.

Some of the resistance to private colleges like Griffith, he thinks, has been the notion that they were an insurance policy for well-heeled families whose children didn’t get enough CAO points. Hegarty says the idea is misguided.

“We do not serve the elite. They are well served by the existing system... The people not served by the system are, generally speaking, the people who are less well-off in terms of their family background or wealth.”

There have been numerous battles with the State. He launched a High Court action in the 1990s over being locked out of an initiative to provide publicly funded computer science courses. Despite being able to educate students for a fifth of the cost, he says Griffith has been frozen out of the initiative.

These days, he says, there is a growing recognition that private colleges such as Griffith and others can help meet national objectives, whether in tackling skills gaps or boosting access to education for underrepresented groups.

He points to Springboard – an initiative where private colleges can compete for State funding to provide courses in areas where there are skills shortage – and the funding of disabled students in private college as key developments over recent years.

Some obstacles rankle, though. Irish students typically pay about €6,500 a year to study in Griffith and they are not eligible for Susi grants. A “wake-up Susi” campaign to extend grants to the private sector has been led by students, while an Oireachtas committee has also recommended it.

“If a student of limited means chooses a course in the private sector and gets it at a lower cost to the State, and the public good is delivered, what is the issue? If the public good can be delivered more economically, I can’t see the logic in excluding it.”

Hegarty feels Simon Harris is “more open” than previous ministers with responsibility for the sector. “He’s done an awful lot to open up education,” he adds.

If there is a key defining factor which marks the private sector out from the public, he says, it is agility.

Private colleges respond to changing needs, put courses together quickly, and dismantle them again if they are no longer needed. “We’re at the margin all the time,” he says.

It has led to innovation, he says, such as deep links with industry and mandatory work experience modules – now standard in universities – and opening up to international students.

Many international students typically start a course in their home country and complete their final year in Griffith. These students – who pay about €12,000 a year – now make up about 40 per cent of the student population.

“We were in China before any of the universities. We grew through development in the international marketplace, and that’s how good can be done for the country and for people,” he says.

There must, surely, be a temptation in the private sector to loosen standards, given that students are customers?

Hegarty, however, insists all students need to reach the same academic standards which are policed externally by the State’s education quality watchdog and others.

“I would say to you that Chinese and Indian students are very hardworking, very committed. You have to remember their parents are incurring a significant sacrifice. They cannot go back to their parents with a failure ... we have to support them, but they have to meet the standard,” he says.

“Time when we were told that the private education was for the cream of the country: rich and thick. That was the big joke at the time. That is not the case. Our students are very committed. They have to be.”

He adds: “You can’t be 50 years as a fast-buck merchant in education without being found out. We’ve managed to maintain our high standards and establish a respect within the academic community for what we do,” he says.

For Hegarty, Griffith’s anniversary is a major milestone. The business – worth an estimated €120 million – has continued to expand.

It is owned by two other shareholders and early employees: Hegarty owns 75 per cent; Reg Callinan, an accountant, owns 20 per cent; and Tomas MacEochagain, an engineer, owns 5 per cent.

Over the coming years, he sees further expansion in upskilling, apprenticeships and online offerings. Ultimately, however, he says it is the commitment of staff that will see it through the next half-century.

“We survive on the base of our commitment to learn. Our teachers are very committed, they really are. They see it as a vocation. They’re not in it for the money, they’re in it for the joy of teaching and the joy of delivering results,” he says.

“For me, that is the most important thing. You have to be an educationist first and a business person second. And the reason you have to be an educationist first [is that] you have to have the value system. Can you imagine if we went to the wall? Can you imagine the mess, how many lives we’d mess up?”

Private colleges in Ireland

The independent higher education sector enrols about 10 per cent of all third-level students – about 27,000 – in areas such as teaching, IT and business skills, healthcare and other industry-specific skills. The larger private colleges include:

Griffith College

Dublin Business School

CCT College (computing, IT, business)

Dorset College (business & IT courses)

Galway Business School

Hibernia College (initial teacher education)

ICHAS (Irish College of Humanities & Applied Sciences)

IICP (counselling courses and psychotherapy)

St Nicholas Montessori (education programmes)

Open Training College (social care and management)

Setanta College (sports courses) and SQT (in company training).