Seán Rowland is facing a fight for acceptance even though his private Hibernia has made the top grade
Seán Rowland owns Ireland’s largest teacher training college. Government solicits his views on new ways of paying for third-level education. His company, Hibernia College, is chaired by former Dell boss Sean Corkery and before him by Don Thornhill, who was secretary-general at the Department of Education until 1998. Other educational providers seek Rowland’s help when putting their courses online.
Yet he seems unable to shake the feeling of being an outsider. In the early days of Hibernia College, the e-learning business he established in 2000, the academic establishment was outraged that a private company had been approved to train teachers in their homes, studying mostly online.
This country has a fixation that, God forbid, someone might make a profit from education
While this battle has been won — Hibernia now has more than 4,000 full- and part-time students on its books — the war for acceptance continues unabated. Rowland is frustrated that with cash-strapped universities bulging at the seams and University College Dublin threatening to ration places for this year’s crop of Leaving Cert students, more of the third-level education sector is not outsourced to private operators.
“We have a fixation in Ireland about the private sector and the notion that, God forbid, someone might be making a profit from education,” he says. “Yet the best institutions in the world are private.”
Even Harvard University, where Rowland attended a reunion last weekend marking 20 years since his graduation, is privately owned, he notes. Hibernia makes a profit but the figures have been a secret since 2012, when it changed its status to an unlimited company, relieving it of the obligation to file accounts publicly.
Rowland insists there is not “a whole pile of money” to be made in education. “There’s yet to be a model for making enormous amounts of money while providing legitimate, quality education. It’s very much a slow burn.”
It does not stop people trying, however. Despite academic prejudice and a complete absence of state funding, private colleges such as Hibernia, Griffith College, Dublin Business School and the National College of Ireland educate about 10% of third-level students. Given the chance, they could take a lot more, according to Rowland.
“Why are we not used more, and why is there zero funding for students when they come to us? If your child goes to a state college, the taxpayer pays €9,000-€10,000 a year for their bachelor’s degree. If your child goes to a private college, the taxpayer pays nothing. Why are we discriminating between them? It’s not fair.”
From a farming family in Castlebar, Co Mayo, Rowland trained as a primary school teacher at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra. He taught at Beaumont in north Dublin for five years before decamping to Boston College, where he did a master’s in educational administration and PhD in curriculum instruction and administration. Rowland also has a masters in public administration from Harvard.
Rowland is president of Hibernia, whose students are taught by up to 400 professionals, all part-timers whose commitment to the college ranges from 10 hours a week to 10 hours a year. They are supported by a full-time administrative staff of 95, between the head office in Dublin and a support centre in Westport, Co Mayo, that employs up to 20.
“We’re not carrying people and properties we don’t need,” says Rowland.
The lack of state support means Hibernia charges €7,500 a year for its flagship postgraduate qualifications in primary and secondary teaching, which take two years to complete. With 1,800-2,000 full-time students enrolled on these courses each year, this adds up to an annual turnover of €15m, the bedrock of Hibernia’s finances. Rowland insists the private colleges operate to similar standards of accreditation and international oversight as state colleges and universities.
“All of our teaching students have honours degrees before they come to us. They’re all interviewed before we offer them a place — no other college can say that. Our graduation rate is over 96%.”
Even if government continues to drag its heels on educational reform, practical considerations will force its hand, he says. “The ability of parents to pay for a college education is limited if they’ve more than one child. They can’t afford the cost of student accommodation and it’s impossible to find somewhere to live because of the housing crisis.”
Hibernia’s model of distance learning would solve this problem by allowing students to learn from home, with the flexibility to combine their studies with paid employment.
“Parents currently send their children from Castlebar or wherever up to Dublin to do a degree where they attend lectures for maybe 16 hours a week, 26 weeks a year. Four years to do a part-time programme: it’s an incredible abuse of a young person’s life. It’s laughable to suggest they need this time to pursue their studies in the library. Some of them do; most of them don’t.”
Rowland says his vision is for blended rather than atomised learning, combining a mix of online learning with traditional face-to-face lectures.
“Blended learning has been proven to work. If you’re still debating its merits, you’re way behind the curve. It will suit some people; it won’t suit others. The way to find out is to try it.”
A growing part of Hibernia’s business involves designing bespoke e-learning modules for companies such as Novartis, Pfizer and HP, or helping other colleges put more of their courses online.
“Instead of trying it themselves, some colleges have decided to outsource it to us. We provide the e-learning, the technology, the advice and the personnel so they don’t have to start from scratch.”
Rowland is coy about which colleges have sought his help, claiming they prefer that Hibernia “remains behind the wallpaper”. His next big project is to develop a private nursing school, a complicated task that will involve winning approval from multiple agencies.
“We’ve been working on it for almost two years. I don’t want to upset anybody by talking about a possible launch date. Our student intake will depend on the number of clinical placements we can secure with hospitals.”
The scale of investment required would not have been possible without the sale in 2015 of Hibernia’s teacher training business in Britain to TES Global, a digital education business.
“We never expected to sell until suddenly we got a call. We said no but then they came back and we said yes.”
With more funding needed for continued growth, Rowland is considering taking on new equity investors.
“I’m absolutely not interested in selling. What I am interested in is growth, which costs money. We may grow from our own resources or we may bring in an investment opportunity this year if it’s attractive.”
The amount will depend on the extent of Rowland’s ambitions, with each new programme costing about €5m to develop. The one certainty is that growth will not be financed from debt.
“We’re fortunate not to have any debt. Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned.”
Opening the business to fresh equity would inevitably dilute Rowland’s majority stake of 67%. Could he envisage relinquishing control eventually?
“I’ve had 17 years to think about this, and the answer now is yes,” he says. “If you’re no longer worth having around, and the only thing keeping you there is your majority stake, the company isn’t going to thrive.
“When you read about people who have made a company work, most of them did not keep a majority stake.”
Control was essential in the early days when Hibernia needed to a clear vision to overcome obstacles, says Rowland. With a management team now in place, he no longer needs a casting vote.
Could it be that Rowland and Hibernia have finally become more mainstream than maverick?
THE LIFE OF SEÁN ROWLAND
Home: Dublin city centre
Family: I visit my siblings on the family farm in Turlough, Co Mayo, as often as I can.
Education: St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin; Boston College; Harvard University.
Recent film: The Man Who Knew Infinity
Recent book: I usually have three books on the go: modern fiction, history and an old classic. At the moment I’m reading The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo, and The Churchill Factor, by Boris Johnson. I recently finished Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
I don’t pretend to get up at 5am and work until midnight, although I find it difficult to separate work from play.
I don’t have a car, so I walk to work. The day begins with colleagues in the cafe next to the office. From Monday to Thursday, I usually meet somebody after work for a bite to eat in the early evening, usually work-related. I spend only about one weekend a month in Dublin; I’m either down in Mayo or travelling, often to London.
I cycle a bit but not as much as I used to. I cycled from Paris to Nice in six days in 2013. I’m going on holiday to Massachusetts shortly but there will be a lot of work involved, as it’s a centre of education.