The Interview Ireland
The Technological University of the Shannon
Vice President of Student Education and Experience

Frances O'Connell

Universities should support students in more than just academics. They are places where individuals can grow as people and develop holistic skills, preparing them for the working world. This can be achieved through student support services, flexible teaching and dedicated work. 

Frances O’Connell, Vice President of Student Education and Experience at The Technological University of the Shannon, sat down with GoodCourse’s Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews to discuss the concept of the individual, the importance of belonging, and the lessons learned from Covid. 

Frances's Journey

Kira: Please introduce your current role and institution.

I’m the Vice President of Student Education and Experience at The Technological University of the Shannon. In Ireland, we’re creating technological universities which have evolved from institutes of technology. I have been part of that management and creation in the past year. 

We’ve been The Technological University of the Shannon since 1st October 2021, which came from the merging of two institutions, both of which I had worked in. We have a lot of mature, international and apprenticeship students. We have about 14,500 students now and a large geographic footprint with six campuses; our ethos is to enable our students to attend university at their nearest location of residence. 

Kira: Before you moved into HE you worked in various sectors — what attracted you to HE?

I worked as a civil servant from a very young age and studied at night and day colleges. I experienced first-hand what having access to education — or the lack of it — did for individuals concerning their progression in life. I worked with and directly witnessed people that were born into deprivation or socio-economic disadvantage or never went to college themselves, which stayed with me. 

Even though I worked thereafter at management consultancy companies and in the private sector as well as public, at the back of my mind I thought about how I had been fortunate in my own career and wanted to invest it back. 

I particularly wanted to go into the institute of technology sector, which is not only about teaching knowledge, skills and confidence — but making students work-ready. There’s a unique skill set you need to support students, particularly those who haven’t come from a family with access to education. 

I think I’ve won the lottery regarding where I am now with my career. It’s a huge privilege to shape what we need to do to support all students, irrespective of where they came from. Every individual has the equal opportunity to achieve their best in our university, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that we maximise their experience in their education journey and in the support we give them. 

Kira: It’s interesting to hear about how students from different backgrounds need to develop a skill set to be work ready. What skills do you equip your students with?

I will answer this on two levels. Both in terms of the individual and concerning the skill set they need to survive in the employment industry. 

My background is in applied psychology, particularly the concept of individuals, which is framed around a ‘hero’ model. The hero starts with hope, esteem, resilience and optimism. We can build and support these aspects in our students, even while they’re studying. We’ve seen it in terms of Covid — why students didn’t do well when they were at home. Because resilience and optimism don’t just come from within. External factors help to build it, such as one’s academics, the faculty, and our student support services. We need to make students feel part of the learning community. 

If you know how to care for yourself then the chances of having emotional intelligence when interacting with others are higher. Students should have resilience and motivation. We support them by building that person. 

The second element is how we frame our graduate attributes — what attributes enable students to operate in the twenty-first century? Creating and critical thinking, group work, personal care. If you know how to care for yourself then the chances of having emotional intelligence when interacting with others are higher. Students should have resilience and motivation. We support them by building that person. 

Kira: Many universities have spoken about the struggle of motivating students during Covid and the lessons they have learned. What has that looked like for you?

My mentality is to never waste an unexpected event, like a recession, change of government, or pandemic. There are always lessons to be learned. We’re on a huge journey of change. 

We wanted to ensure that our students remained connected to us. We invested in technology, learning platforms, and how we engage. There was an awful lot of change around the ‘how’ which was beneficial because digital learning is effective too. But we must ensure we’re using it at the right place and time, with the right people. 

I’m involved in a national project working across all higher institutions in the technological universities sector. It’s to do with how we transform HE’s teaching, learning and assessment environment, using lessons from Covid, but also in the context of enabling the largest participation. Mature students, students who want a blended learning experience, entirely online or only face-to-face. We need to have multiple sets of experiences to suit our students’ needs. 

Kira: How do you support your different demographics regarding student experience and belonging?

The first thing students need to get a sense of belonging is in relation to why they came here. We explicitly involve them in our reviewer programmes — class representatives are always part of academic governance. We explicitly enable their voice to be heard. 

I meet weekly with the SU, who bring to my attention tactical and strategic issues that we can work on together. I’m responsible for the main areas that address this — student services, learning support, health and disability. I am also responsible for the library and its range of services, including developing our students’ research abilities.  

Finally, I have a dedicated department that supports the academic community’s practice with students. We use the most up-to-date research, technology and training to make them the best academics for their students. 

3 Quick-fire Questions

Kira: What is your top tip for anyone getting into the HE space right now?

The most important thing to remember is that we are here to serve the public. Sometimes we miss that. The investment in our students has a multiplier effect. A graduate will inspire their family, participate in society, and benefit their community — it lifts all the boats. Your footprint can be immediate, but it has a long-term effect as well. Also, just because we’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean we don’t have the opportunity to change. 

Kira: Who do you admire most in the HE space? 

This might sound strange, but I admire our students. One thing I have learned is that we never really know what’s going on in someone’s private life. Even our young students have challenges. I admire those who can come together to achieve success. My colleagues, and those who work in the charity sector, who work purely because they will leave the space they’re working in better. 

Kira: What is the most important book you have read?

There are a few. As a child, I read a lot of Dickens, which made me think a lot about poverty, disadvantage and deprivation. Equally, Jane Austen and the power of women. Her women were so intelligent, but didn’t have the chance to be in positions of power — but they had huge personal intellect and ability. I’m conscious of using my own personal power, expertise and position to include people who are normally excluded. Ensuring that our institution is about valuing its diversity because the sum of our parts makes all of us better. I have also done a lot of reading in applied psychology, which I have lectured on for over twenty years. I always think that if we understand ourselves, we understand each other. 

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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