The President of the University of Limerick, Dr Des Fitzgerald, has announced that he will step down from the role later this year.

In a move that has greatly surprised people working at UL and across the third-level sector, Dr Fitzgerald said he had taken the decision to resign "in the context of Covid-19".

Dr Fitzgerald, who is 66, said that the virus would "directly impact my ability to serve the university and limit my ability to fully engage once we get our community back onto the campus". 

In a statement announcing his decision Dr Fitzgerald, who took up the UL presidency three years ago, said he believed the university had made important progress in tackling "controversial issues" which predated his appointment and which resulted in a State-commissioned investigation that was highly critical of HR and other practices at the university.

The Thorn report was commissioned by the Department of Education following revelations made in an RTÉ Investigates programme.

Dr Fitzgerald said he was particularly proud of UL's response to the Covid-19 crisis, "in recognising its gravity early, in rapidly and successfully moving online, and in contributing to the fight against the pandemic in our community".

He warned that the Covid-19 crisis would shape the future of the university sector for the next decade and beyond, forcing universities across the world to re-examine both their business and academic models. 

He said significant changes and investment would be required to support the sector.

Dr Fitzgerald also said that during his term as president the university had made important progress on key issues "including successfully taking the first steps in establishing a campus in the city, developing our healthcare programmes, growing our research output, and increasing the university's engagement in education globally". 

The Chancellor of the University of Limerick, Ms Mary Harney, said Dr Fitzgerald had been "a transformational president" and that she regretted that he had had to take this decision "as a result of Covid-19". 

Dr Fitzgerald was appointed as President of UL in late 2016. Prior to his appointment he was Vice President for Research and Vice President for Health Affairs at UCD.

His shock announcement coincides with news of the approval of the first technological university for Munster.

The Government has announced that a consortium made up of Cork Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology, Tralee has been successful in its bid for technological university status.

Munster Technological University will come into being on 1 January 2021 when the two institutes of technology are dissolved.