Trinity graduates spearhead new awards for academic excellence

Traditionally, the Irish third level education system has focused on exam results rather than coursework as an indicator of excellence. The Irish Undergraduate Awards aim to
correct this imbalance, writes Kiera Healy

Traditionally, the Irish third level education system has focused on exam results rather than coursework as an indicator of excellence. The Irish Undergraduate Awards aim to
correct this imbalance, writes Kiera Healy

The Irish Undergraduate Awards were launched on the 20th of October in the Royal Irish Academy. The new initiative, founded by Trinity alumni Paddy Cosgrave and Oisin Hanrahan, is open to students at all seven of Ireland’s universities, and will focus on the papers, essays and projects submitted by students in all years of their degrees.

The Awards aim to celebrate Irish excellence at an undergraduate level, and the programme has created a unique opportunity for achievement. The awards panel is currently accepting submissions over the coming weeks and months in six academic fields, and all third level disciplines are expected to be opened for entrants. In October 2009, the first issue of the Undergraduate Journal of Ireland will publish the papers, projects, essays and dissertations considered most outstanding by the judging panel.

In addition to the national recognition that publication in the Journal would bring, and the possibility winning a spot prizes, the Awards give students the chance to have their unique voices heard by experts in their chosen field.
Judges for the Awards include leaders in the fields of academia, journalism and the corporate sector. Maeve Donovan, Managing Director of the Irish Times, Peter Sutherland, Chairman of BP and Goldman Sachs, and Danuta Gray, CEO of O2 are among the members of the panel, while the board of the awards includes the Presidents of UL, DCU and NUIG, along with Trinity’s Vice-Provost, Professor Paddy Prendergast.

Sub-panels to peer review each specific field will be formed and announced as the competition progresses. Essays that are to appear in the Journal, along with those that make the shortlist, may appear in abridged form in the Irish Times later in the year, and shortlisted authors may be invited to present thezir works at conferences organised by the Awards and its partners.

In addition to putting together the Journal, the panel will award a number of medals to outstanding students. The best essayist from each university will receive a medal, along with the best in each discipline. There are also to be a number of spot prizes presented throughout the year, allowing students who may not have won the top awards to be recognised.

As Paddy Cosgrave puts it, “the Awards and Journal don’t just focus on the guys and girls at the very top of the class, they focus on everyone in the class… So, you might not write an essay that gets top marks, but you may happen to be asking questions or investigating issues that Forfás, the government’s policy development unit, recognise. So what happens? Well, you’ll get a phone call from us saying that you’ve won a scholarship to attend a think-in with Forfas. Everything is paid for. All you have to do is bring your brain. We will be repeating that with all sorts of organisations.”

The newly-launched website for the scheme,, presents the Awards as “career-changing opportunities for undergraduates capable of producing interesting and insightful work outside of the exam hall. That work will now be read by many of Ireland’s leading minds across academia and the public, private and citizen sectors.”

“For Ireland to survive internationally we need to create a generation of knowledge creators and innovators”

The Awards launch took place in the Royal Irish Academy. An assembly of academics, politicians and corporate partners were addressed by both the founders of the scheme and several members of the board, including Professor Ferdinand von Prondzinsky, President of DCU, and Martin Curley, Global Research Director for Intel. Von Prondzinsky spoke about what he considered to be the failings of the current academic climate, sharing an anecdote about John McGahern’s receipt of his honorary doctorate from DCU. McGahern had lamented a system where “it took 80% of effort to get in, and only 40% to get out.” The Awards were highlighted as a programme where students would have more reason to strive for excellence. Later, Paddy Cosgrave agreed with Prondzinsky’s assessment, and said that the Awards are “all about supercharging the minds of our students.”

Cosgrave was inspired to work on this new project by the realisation that “millions and millions of pages of pages filled with the ideas of our young people” were left to sit “on a shelf gathering dust” each year. It is estimated that, in the field of economics alone, Irish students write around 25,000 essays each year, and Cosgrave believes that the launch of the awards will not only help to unearth the most brilliant ideas contained therein, but also create a system whereby students will “be encouraged to create even better ideas”.
In addition to helping to inspire students, Cosgrave believes that the launch of the Awards will be good for the country as a whole. “You’ve got to remember that for Ireland to survive internationally we need to create a generation of knowledge creators and innovators,” he said. “It’s no longer about a handful of super-bright students; it’s now about creating an entire generation of world class knowledge creators and innovators.”

The enthusiasm with which he and his board and panels have approached the project is undeniable, and although it is recognised that it will probably take at least three years for the Awards and Journal to fully develop, the atmosphere surrounding the scheme in its infancy is one of wholehearted enthusiasm.

Particularly in the current uncertain economic climate, with many undergraduates facing worrying employment prospects, the project will give students who participate a new weapon in their job-seeking arsenal. The founders say that they are “enabling undergraduates and future employers at fourth level and beyond to find each other in an entirely new and efficient way, while also giving undergraduates the recognition and reward they deserve.”

The Irish Undergraduate Awards may be just getting started, but for their founders, and for the packed crowd of academics and corporate leaders who attended the launch, it is hoped that they will be here to stay.