Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Lion, the Sheep and the Kiwi

“Now when I feel an earthquake I pause in bed to guess its ranking on the Richter scale and then fall back asleep”.

Aristotle claimed that everything we see is an imperfect replica of a better version in a more perfect world. This is how Ireland compares to New Zealand. In our antipodean equivalent every colour and contrast is enhanced. Visualise higher mountains, bluer skies, countless waterfalls – though existing in a landscape that’s strangely reminiscent of home.

Cinematically this country has worked as a canvas for Narnia, Middle Earth and Mordor. And business keeps booming, with Tintin, Avatar and Yogi Bear all recently calling it home thanks to the “Jackson Effect”. Far from claiming indie-style that you had heard of this island-duo before they were famous, embrace your inner hobbit. There’s nothing like cruising over New Zealand mountain roads with the Lord of the Rings soundtrack blaring.

The population’s identity is hard to place. Unlike their Aussie counterparts, New Zealand for the most part accepted their indigenous, and the Maori culture is revered, respected, and used to inspire fear in less worthy sporting opponents (Haka anyone?). However the historic British influence has not vanished completely. The South Island still boasts towns named Cromwell and Middlemarch, and discovering that locals had stayed up until 3am to watch William and Kate’s nuptials was certainly no surprise.

Yet your trip may start with a reminder of the fragility of nature. Christchurch is a broken city in the middle of paradise. The series of earthquakes have obliterated its heart, leaving only a shell of suburbs and memories. The city centre has been destroyed, and the locals pause while answering requests for directions to recall what still exists and what doesn’t. Surrounding rubble makes lingering houses appear prominent and guilty. But the unshakeable Kiwi sense of humour lives on, and to the unsuspecting tourist little the population say straight-faced should be unquestionably believed.

The South Island is easily navigated. A functioning car and a group of people who you can put up with for long periods of time are the dream. Leave a week to see everything, or an eternity to take it all in.

Franz Joseph should be your next destination. There is nothing cooler than trekking on a 12km long glacier. Above you on either side is rainforest, shot down the middle with a broad frozen cascade. Spikes and waterproofs are provided. As you ascend your able guide will hack steps for the less capable walkers, and possibly a table and chairs for lunch.

After the steady silence of ice, prepare for a shock. Queenstown is to an adrenaline junkie what a backstreet alley is to the real deal, and hearts in this town beat faster than anywhere else in the world. Whoosh through the air upside-down on the world’s largest swing. Go skydiving and bungee jumping all in one day, and spend the night celebrating your survival. And if fear has you reverting to your childhood, get the gondola up to Bob’s Peak and go luging.

Dunedin hosts a beautiful university, and more importantly Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world. San Francisco forgotten, this climb will have you crawling up and rolling back down.

Rangitata, close by, is where the backpacker’s rite of passage, that ever revered “white-water rafting”, is waiting to initiate you. The Rangitata hostel is also in the running for the record number of tourists that can be fit in one room. Each bunk bed is three stories high.

Milford Sound is highly publicised but unforgettable cruising spot and Mount Iron in Wanaka is another hike worth sweating for. Meanwhile Puzzling World is a shrine to the bizarre, and offers both a maze and a monetary prize to any psychic who can locate a hidden item, a challenge which six “professionals” have failed so far.

Supernatural activities aside, the allure of New Zealand at its base qualities is undeniable. The effect of your surroundings will alter even the most hardened urbanists, and soon you’ll find yourselves irresistibly drawn to previously unappreciated amusements like hiking, scenic cycling and bird watching. Aristotle said that personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference. So ignore this article and seize any chance to see for yourself.

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It’s a Man’s World

Forty years ago women couldn’t sit on a jury, collect children’s allowance, buy contraceptives, or drink a pint in a pub. Now discrimination on the grounds of sex is illegal, and feminism is almost a dirty word. But have women really won the war?

In Ireland women are paid on average 17% less than men. This isn’t just a national phenomenon. On a European level they represent only 11% of the governing bodies of listed companies. Globally women only constitute 2.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs, earn 10% of the world’s incomes, and own 1% of the means of production.

The elusive “glass ceiling” is usually acknowledged but not discussed. Mary Kershaw, national president at Network Ireland, states that its existence can’t be doubted. Her organisation was set up 30 years ago specifically to provide opportunities for business women that didn’t exist elsewhere, and so in a sense stemmed from it. “They couldn’t go then to golf clubs or anything so a few women from Enterprise Ireland set it up so they could meet and discuss things. At that time they found that there were younger men joining the organisations a lot behind them and they were helping them get on and then all of a sudden they were above them… so that was a very big issue then.”

According to their members that discrimination still remains to a lesser extent today. ”I think one of the factors is that they feel that girls in their thirties are going to be taking time out to have families, and that’s probably part of the problem, apart from that and the old boys, the men feel more comfortable in their own company.”

One of the figures put forward by those who doubt the existence of discrimination is the impressive percentage of women now attending and excelling at higher education. Leadership, Learning and Organisational Development Coach Mary Holland provides an interesting theory on why this trend doesn’t continue into the workplace. She points out how the introduction of student numbers have played an unsung but influential part in improving the condition of women, stating that that it was proven in previous research that women were systematically downgraded by about 10% when their name appeared on a submitted paper. “So in terms of the anonymity factor that greatly helped women in education”, but unfortunately in the workplace it is far more difficult to be gender anonymous.

Children do also play a major role in changing women’s priorities, but also their opportunities. In the US 62% of women recognised having children as a barrier to promotion, while a shocking 96% of graduates from France’s elite grandes écoles would agree with them. But with increased equality, why do women continue to shoulder the majority of the responsibility when it comes to kids?

Kershaw says that the sacrifice of career development for a family is a choice, but one that women shoulder a lot more than men. “I think that having kids probably… emotionally it’s more the mother isn’t it? The mother always seems to be the one that will run the home and the work and everything. They’re better at multitasking”. Holland also points to a feeling of guilt that can be endemic in mothers more so than fathers.

Achieving success can also come at a price. A report by McKinsey & Company found that 49% of the best paid women were childless, compared to 19% of men, and a Harvard Business Review Survey concurs that the further women climb up the corporate ladder, the fewer children they have.

Solutions to the status quo are debatable. Holland suggests that mentoring and the introduction of flexible working hours can benefit both sexes whilst decreasing the gap between their incomes, whilst Kershaw proposes that gender quotas may be necessary because of the breadth of the disparity.

Achieving that elusive concept of equality is a complicated process, involving more than just matching statistics. Freedom of expression, and being allowed to play by women’s, as well as men’s rules is a significant factor. Holland states how a cultural expectation of men can lead to an assumption that they’re better leaders and therefore more worthy of promotion. They’re seen as “striving, they’re competitive, they’re authoritative, they take no prisoners, whereas the role perception for women is that they should be much more accommodating, understanding”, a form of leadership that is perceived as weaker and less valued.

And because much sexual discrimination in the workplace goes unexpressed, the lack of awareness that there is a problem itself impedes development. Kershaw described hearing a man speak about his ignorance of the “glass ceiling”; “he said that he never thought there was any discrimination against women in the workplace, and it was only later on that he realised why he thought that, because the women that got into those positions changed their personality and changed themselves to fit in with the male ethos.”

Hunger for Knowledge

Sally Hayden asks whether recent revelations about the 1981 hunger strikes warrant a new investigation into what really happened.

Six years ago I was unlucky enough to get caught in the Dublin riots, a backlash to the scheduled Love Ulster march. At the time I also volunteered in Oxfam. Every Friday at four o’clock a friendly young man would come in and donate part of his paycheque to the charity. The 25th February 2006 saw this same man in the midst of the fighting, throwing bricks and smashing windows. I realised then how deeply anger can lie, and how utterly it can engulf one.

2011 may have brought us the Queen, donned in emerald and proving genuinely adorable all around, but its closing days also brought new revelations about the historical relationship between Ireland and our nearest neighbours.

On the 1st March 1981 using a scrap of toilet paper as his manuscript, Bobby Sands wrote; “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.” Sixty-six days later he died, causing a surge in IRA activity and an escalation of extremist attitudes and violence on both sides. He was only the first of the hunger strikers to succumb to starvation. Ten political prisoners ultimately lost their lives.

The strikes were a reaction to the loss of political status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland, abolished during the policy of “criminalisation” by the British Government in 1976. This meant that the republicans were treated like normal convicts, having to wear uniforms and do prison work, among other differences. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later stood by this decision, stating that to grant them special status would be “tantamount to saying that they had a licence to kill for political reasons”.

Secret British files just released by the National Archives in Kew dealing with the 1981 hunger strikes reveal that secret discussions between Downing Street and the Provisional IRA leadership occurred during the weekend before the death of Joe McDonnell, the fifth protestor to die. The documents contain details of eight phone calls between an MI6 officer and a Mr Brendan Duddy, and suggest that the Thatcher government were willing to make concessions provided the strike was called off first.

This is notable because of Thatcher’s insistence that she would not negotiate with the republicans, tied to the denial to recognise them as political actors. The projected hard-line British position was for a myriad of reasons, including worries about angering Unionists, controlling international opinion, and fuelling more press. “Better to let them fade into obscurity”, said one Conservative MP, John Farr, but due to the staggered nature of the strikes and deaths this was becoming increasingly impossible.

International attention, both sympathetic and critical, was turning on Northern Ireland and the Thatcher government’s way of dealing with the situation. The Hong Kong Standard said it was “sad that successive British governments have failed to end the last of Europe’s religious wars”. In Oslo demonstrators threw a balloon filled with tomato sauce at the visiting Queen Elizabeth. Iran sent an ambassador to Sand’s funeral.

Among the refused proposals coming from the IRA prisoners was that senior republican Martin McGuinness be allowed in to visit them. However the documents show that the more extreme yet “unpalatable” idea of complete withdrawal from Northern Ireland was considered by the British government.

That the Prime Minister was directly involved in talks is now certain. One statement sent to the IRA was altered in her own hand. The alleged concessions are not unlike those that were ultimately accepted months later when consultations with the strikers’ families led to the hunger strike being called off on October 3rd, seven months after it had begun.

The aftermath of the peace process led to bitter debates on where blame lay at specific times during the Troubles. Accusations that the strike was deliberately prolonged by the IRA leadership and that the prisoners were not in complete control of their fates have been made, and possibly substantiated to an extent. Others say that the British were attempting to stop the strikes by controlling who the hunger strikers were permitted to see, the suggestion of which was also evidenced by a released letter from Humphrey Atkins, the Secretary of State for the North.

Could things have been done differently? Probably. Are we mature enough to deal with what may emerge from an investigation? I don’t know. With conflicts like the Troubles idealistic intentions precede evil actions on both sides, and few emerge innocent. Though anger remains dormant in many, the Queen’s visit was noticeable for the tolerance displayed, and a willingness on both sides to begin the long process of moving on. If blame cannot be determined, we must not dwell on the idea of finding it. Let us not forget to learn from the past. But let us also remember that the past can’t be changed like the future can.

What’s in a Name?

Following mooted plans to upgrade the status of Institutes of Technology,Sally Hayden explores the ramifications for Ireland’s Higher Education system.

Amidst the cut-backs and funding crisis throughout third level education, the government’s proposal to upgrade certain Institutes of Technology (IT) to technological universities has been met with a lot of criticism and a unanimous outcry from the country’s seven university presidents. Suggested in the Hunt Report, this move could see a whole new type of university emerge with a different focus from traditional institutions.

Regions where the suggested reforms are being considered include the Southeast (Carlow and Tralee ITs), the Border Midland and Western (BMW) region (Athlone, Dundalk, Galway-Mayo, Letterkenny, and Sligo ITs), and Dublin (DIT and Tallaght IT). The idea has also received strong support from several senior Cabinet figures, including Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, who represent Kilkenny and Wexford in the Dáil.

Athlone Institute of Technology President, Prof. Ciarán Ó Catháin, explains the ambitions of the project. “We are looking to create a differentiated institution, one that will be known for the excellence of its teaching and learning, and for its close collaboration with industry. Such a technological university will be much more than the sum of its parts, it will be a powerful agent of change in higher education for all the communities and stakeholders involved.”

However, the plan is still in its infancy according to Higher Education Authority spokesperson Malcolm Byrne. “First of all there’s no decision that has been made about giving university status to anybody yet. What’s provided for in the National Strategy for Higher Education, the Hunt Report, is for the concept of a technological university and it’s essentially a university along the lines as we know it but it would be more focused on technology and indeed industry.

“What has happened is that the HEA has drawn up the criteria for what that technological university should be. Those criteria will be published in February and it will then be up to either individual institutions or groups of institutions to come together and to apply to become a technological university,” he says. “It’s not just going to be a name change from X Institute of Technology to X Technological University, they will have to meet the very rigorous standards that will be set out and that will be checked by both an Irish panel and an international panel … if it’s determined that they reach the standards that are set out in the criteria then a recommendation will come from the panel that the combination would be able to be a technological university.”

The debate on what exactly these criteria will be is ongoing, and rumoured to now be involving various ministers. So far it has been accepted that the new universities would be expected to move away from the arts and humanities courses and focus on technology and the sciences. But what actually is the difference between a university of the type that currently exists, and one that is ‘technological’?

Gerard Casey, UCD Professor of Philosophy, is sceptical of what he says is politically- fuelled “creeping universityitus” and claims there has always been a fundamental gap between the two kinds of institutions. He says that one of the traditional variations has always been in the way a student is trained to think. “The main difference, let’s say in relation to something like engineering, because they both do that, was that the ITs, whether they’re designed to do this or not, were producing people who were employment-fit almost immediately. That is to say they fitted into the existing employment structure, they went out into the job market with the skills they needed for that job market. The difference [with] a university education, however, in engineering is that you’re training people to devise the solutions to problems that don’t yet exist.”

The proposed promotion then seems at variance with a view President Michael Higgins echoed last week when speaking about the “intellectual crisis” he believes Ireland is facing. He spoke about the special role of the university; “And were universities not special places, the citizens of the future may ask, for the generation of alternatives in science, culture and philosophy? The universities have a great challenge in the questions that are posed now, questions that are beyond ones of a narrow utility.”

However Professor Joe Carthy, principle of the UCD College of Science, does not agree that technological university can’t make a contribution to thought and development. “I think there’s a good tradition of technical universities in other countries, in Germany and in the United States, the best known being Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and no one would dispute its contribution to global education so I wouldn’t be too concerned. I think university status would mean that the university academics would have the freedom to do the kind of research that they need to do. I think, and one assumes, that they would be able for excellence in their areas.”

Assurances by Byrne that “the standards that would be expected in academic terms would be the same as any other university” lend weight to this appraisal.

Outside of the debate over educational approach, the way upgraded existing ITs to university status would benefit rural areas is also something that has been highlighted. Irish universities are currently very urban-centric, and there has long been a desire by some to alter this. It is hoped that new university status will promote and develop rural regions, not only by keeping students in the area, but also through the work that they hope to carry out.

“How a BMW Technology University will best serve the needs of this region is at the heart of our discussions,” according to Dundalk Institute of Technology President, Denis Cummins. “Research and innovation that supports indigenous and multinational industry will be central to its operation, which will be a catalyst for job creation. This will build on our substantial track record of supporting enterprise.”

Yet research is another topic that causes controversy. Byrne says that “One of the requirements [to becoming a university] is in the area of research and there is that issue between research and learning, so those criteria are going to have to be set out. I’m not going to pre-empt what the criteria are because they still need publication, but obviously research would be one of them. Clearly anyone who wishes to apply for designation as a technological university would have to reach or exceed the criteria that [is] set out.”

If the extra funding required to research and publish is considered, Casey believes that these reforms don’t make sense right now. He points out the much larger teaching involvement in ITs means that they currently don’t have time to research, and questions whether the new dispensation would result in more staff being required to provide time to do both.“It’s not like waving your magic wand, like Cinderella’s fairy godmother turning the mice into horses, it doesn’t quite work like that. You have to think it through. It’s a change in emphasis, it’s a change in what you do. A significant change. It’s not just a name, it’s a different reality.”

He passionately outlines the real crux of the issue as he sees it. “Has anybody thought this through? We’re being systematically cut in here, right now we literally have an embargo on tea and biscuits … soon they’ll have us out cleaning the floor. The universities in Ireland are plummeting down the rankings for whatever they’re worth, which is not much as far as I’m concerned. The bottom is falling out of the market. There’s an embargo here on buying books for the library. We cannot buy books for our library. This is in a research institution. It’s pathetic.”

Carthy, while supportive of the overall idea, echoes this sentiment. “There’s almost an implicit thing that it’s not going to cost anything, and it’s difficult to believe that that could be the situation … Some people kind of think it’s almost like you’re just changing the name plates, like the current institutes become universities and there’s no cost change. I suspect that’s not the case.” He continued by saying that there was a certain snobbishness associated with gaining university status and that the plan could affect CAO choices, even if no structural or budgetary changes were introduced. University status, even as just a name, can affect an institution’s ability to attract top students.

It is likely that real reform will require investment in existing ITs and the question is, do we need to spend to aid recovery? In a joint press release by the Presidents of DIT, IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown it is suggested that perhaps these new institutions would respond to what Ireland is currently lacking, which could in turn aid the economy. “In the context of Ireland’s national recovery plan, we will work towards building a new and exciting civic and technological institution, providing a world-class experience for our students, and developing graduates who will respond to the needs of society.”

However the issue of cost will not simply disappear. The exact criteria for the upgrades will be revealed in February, when we can expect the funding debate to reach a climax. Technological universities exist successfully worldwide, and lend to the production of a more diverse and skilled workforce. The benefit that would be brought to rural areas is also undeniable, but it is a sad fact that in Ireland education cannot function or compete internationally without substantial money coming in. Without funding these new technological universities could not get off the ground and into the rankings. Without substantial funding and genuine re-organisation, a superficial change in label will do little to paper over the cracks emerging across the Irish higher education system.