Ireland’s economic transformation in the past few years is remarkable. After years of austerity, the recovery  is now substantive: it’s there in figures – the fastest growth rate in the European Union and the fastest employment growth rate in the OECD; and it’s there in policy reports like the American Chamber of Commerce’s recent ‘Ireland as a global center for talent’.

It’s also there in ground-breaking university research. Recently, for instance, Google acquired ‘Thrive’, a 3-D audio technology developed by engineers at Trinity which will change users’ experience of virtual reality and gaming headsets. And the team who worked on this exciting technology have been recruited into Google which, in 2003, chose Dublin as its headquarters for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Google is not the only major player in Ireland where the list is like a Who’s Who from the sector– Apple, SAP, Intel, IBM, HP, Cisco, Ericsson, Analog Devices, Oracle, EMC, Dell, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft etc. The numbers employed in the sector increased by 40 per cent in the past five years, partly because of the key role played by Trinity and other Irish universities. Indeed - Ireland is home to 9 of the top 10 global software companies.

When I became Provost of Trinity in April 2011, the mandate was to advance its position among the world’s top universities and further develop our strengths in research, education and innovation.

It was a tough time to be delivering on such a mandate: five months earlier the Troika – the IMF, EU and the European Central Bank (ECB) – arrived in Dublin to bail out the country. Terms were stringent and meant salary reductions and spending restrictions on the public sector, including universities.

Faculty and staff faced pay cuts of up to 25 percent, and headcount reductions were imposed by government despite increasing enrollments. Investment in capital infrastructure dried up – there was simply no public money available for upgrading university buildings and facilities. After the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, it was a cold, sharp shock - like the annual Christmas Eve plunge into the Irish Sea, but without the attendant sense of invigoration. 

I knew that the government didn’t have much choice. But I also knew that Trinity didn’t have much choice either: we had to continue to deliver on our historic mission. For centuries we’ve educated radical leaders and carried out ground-breaking research in arts, humanities, and sciences. If we buckled and stopped delivering, not only would the campus and faculty and students suffer, but the competitiveness of the whole country would be affected.

We decided the only way to approach austerity was to get more ambitious: to boost our creative arts practice by founding an Academy for Dramatic Arts; to build on our strengths in nanoscience by opening a new Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering; to fortify the Trinity Education by incorporating Launch Box, a business incubation scheme aimed at releasing the entrepreneurial potential of undergraduates, and then to further capitalise on this potential by opening a new state-of-the-art Business School.

Efficient use of public monies was critical, as was increasing our other revenue sources. Non-government private funding now accounts for over 50 per cent of our total budget, up from 30 per cent in 2008.

Other Irish universities were similarly resilient and venturesome, and this approach paid off. Last year was Ireland’s best ever in terms of European Research Council (ERC) grants which reward basic, or frontier, research. Ireland jumped from second-lowest ERC performer to second-highest. Only Israel did better in per capita terms.

Famously (or mythically) the Irish monks saved learning during Europe’s last Dark Ages.  I’m proud that in Ireland, in the higher education sector generally, and in Trinity in particular, we managed during our own dark years to focus awareness on the importance of what we held, and maintain it, and even grow it. Without the universities, the Irish recovery would be less sure and less exciting: it’s the interplay between multinationals like Google and local spin-outs that makes the Irish ecosystem so viable and compelling.

Now that we're emerging back into the light, renewed investment - including government support - in universities like Trinity is Ireland’s safest bet for sustained economic growth and for the country's continued social and cultural development.

Dr Patrick Prendergast is Provost and President of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin.