Archive for October 2008

Memories of the Soviet Union

October 31, 2008

Exactly twenty years ago this week I was on a holiday in Yalta, the seaside resort on the Crimean Peninsula. At the time, where we were was still the Soviet Union. Yalta was an amazing place. It was full of history, from Chekhov’s house to the place where the Treaty was signed in 1944.  It was a favourite holiday destination for Soviet officials, but also for groups of workers or professionals. We were particularly fortunate because, while we were there, another holiday group consisted of a symphony orchestra from a provincial part of Russia, and on most evenings on the promenade along the Black Sea shore, the orchestra played a free concert, which on every occasion was of astounding quality.

Our fellow holiday makers, where they were not Russian or Soviets, tended to be from Eastern Europe (as it then was). The largest group we encountered was from East Germany, and it consisted mainly of younger professionals from Berlin who were amongst the budding entrepreneurs as the grip of old-style communism was weakening. They were particularly entrepreneurial when it came to getting their hands on Crimean champagne (or sparkling wine); I could never work out where they got it from, but they were keen to share it. It was a very sweet variety of champagne, and produced terrible hangovers.

The hotel we stayed in arranged public lectures for its guests every evening. The one I remember most clearly was delivered by a Moscow-based professor of history, also there on vacation. He gave us his assessment of the opening up of the Soviet Union at that time, of Mikhail Gorbachev and of perestroika. But he also showed that his heart was still in the old Brezhnev era. 

I am reminded of all this in the context of the news right now. Yalta is in Ukraine, not Russia, and so after the Soviet Union’s break-up the largely Russian population were left isolated from their compatriots. With Russia’s recent flexing of muscles, the issue of where Yalta should be politically is again being raised. I don’t believe that anyone should much miss the Soviet Union, but on the other hand, I suspect that Yalta would not be quite as fascinating to me now as it was back then. But I hope its future will be peaceful and secure.

Facing up to scientific discovery

October 30, 2008

A  few years ago I was doing some research for a talk I was due to give on science and religion when I cam across a sermon delivered by a London vicar at his church’s annual harvest thanksgiving service in 1885. The following passage struck me particularly:

“Today you see in this church apples and pears, carrots and potatoes, wheat and barley. They are the fruits of the harvest, for which we offer thanks to Almighty God. God, in His mercy, works great miracles, and in His kindness clothes us and feeds us.

But there are other miracles. We have the railways, which take us at previously unimaginable speeds to places we could never have known, over great bridges and viaducts which defy nature. There is iron and steel. There are great machines, which work mysteriously and mightily. These are all miracles as well, and miracles which perhaps will touch the people of this city much more than the ploughshare and the sheaths of corn. And some will say they are not God’s miracles at all, but the miracles wrought by our scientists and engineers. In this church we say weekly that God became man. Others say and think that, with our factories and our industry, man has become God.”

Leaving aside the particular religious frame of reference which informed the sermon, throughout the periods of scientific and technological progress in human history there has always been an undercurrent also of suspicion and fear, and the gnawing worry that overcoming what we thought were laws of nature cannot be done without punishment of some sort for our arrogance. And such thoughts have not always been without foundation – as medical progress was pursued, for example, in the Nazis’ barbaric human experiments, or as chemical or biological weapons unleashed by irresponsible and cruel warlords wiped out communities.

Right now we are again at a point in scientific discovery where we need to take certain decisions. We need to come to a view whether our known capacity for particular types of innovation should or should not be pursued. So for example, the programme for government of the current coalition in Ireland between Fianna Fail and the Green Party contained two key commitments: to secure the island of Ireland as a ‘GM-free zone’, and to ensure that Ireland would be nuclear-free.

The first of these two commitments will have come as a shock to all sufferers of diabetes, as the standard drug used to treat them, insulin, is a genetically modified (GM) product. Furthermore, globally the opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is increasingly seen as a western, middle class obsession, as the imperative to feed the populations of developing countries with food containing sufficient nutrition will be impossible without GMOs. Our principles, their hunger. It is also now being argued by some that nuclear power is the only realistic way of providing an environmentally sustainable form of energy for the world.

It may be, of course, that there are powerful and good and overwhelming reasons for adhering to these principles set out in the programme for government. I am not wholly sure myself where I stand on them; but what strikes me as dangerous is that we appear to be suggesting that, as a nation, we are hesitant about scientific and technological progress, which is a dangerous impression to create, not least when we are also trying to escape from recession by attracting global R&D. The programme for government suggests, in these two statements, that we are not open to dispassionate analysis, which is very dangerous; and thankfully, on both issues debate is being conducted in a sensible way, with trade unions actually playing a very positive role.

This week in Ireland, we have also had some discussion about embryonic stem cell research, prompted by the decision to allow such research subject to certain conditions in University College Cork. Without wishing to suggest here what the correct decision is, I hope that this debate, too, can be conducted in a way that addresses both the scientific and the ethical issues raised, but does so without being driven by inherent fear of scientific innovation.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the ending of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly.

Unloved universities?

October 28, 2008

An interesting – if, for some of us, depressing – feature of recent discussions on the funding of higher education has been the fact that there appear to be many people out there who, frankly, don’t think much of the universities. The Minister for Education and Science may be one of these people; he has launched, or rather he says he will launch, his ‘forensic audit’ of the sector, which in itself is a rather loaded term, suggesting that he suspects we do not make good use of our resources. But if he holds that view, he is certainly not alone. Widely held views include that universities are bad at managing their funds, allow systemic under-performance of staff, over-pay the academics (and in particular senior academics and officers), allow staff to avoid student contact, carry out too much research at the expense of teaching, fail to monitor quality adequately – and so on. This is backed up in media comment from time to time, as for example here. Because of all this, cutting university funding may be seen as justifiable.

Of course I would not suggest that all is perfect in the universities, but for anyone who spends any amount of time in any of them it would be hard to conclude that the above picture properly describes how they operate. I am not going to enter a defence of our institutions here (I may come back to that, however). Rather I am left to wonder why there really is nobody who offers a contrary view, apart from representatives of the sector itself (who of course may be taken to have a vested interest). For example, industry representatives in some contexts regularly affirm the importance of the Irish universities to our future, but absolutely no representative of the business community has come out to support the sector over the past weeks.

The answer probably lies with us. As institutions, we have I think not been good enough at making our case, and at explaining what we do and have done. We are not adequately and appropriately engaging in public debate, and too often we are wrong-footed by unfortunate stories of under-performance or questionable practice, stories which are not in themselves typical of what we do for society. University heads themselves, myself included, may need to think a little more also about how we appear in the public eye, and how good we are at representing the interests of our institutions, both in what we say and in what we do.

We have to conclude that, however well (as I would argue) we have been developing the sector in the interests of the nation, we have not been as effective as we need to be in articulating that and supporting our words with appropriate evidence. We need to think again, because if we do not have public support we cannot succeed as universities, and if we don’t succeed Ireland will have a much smaller chance of getting out of its current economic difficulties and returning to growth and prosperity.

All day and all of the night

October 25, 2008

A few weeks ago I was driving back late at night from Cork to Dublin and had to pass through Dublin city centre to get home, at around 2 am. As I drove down Pearse Street I came to a stop, caught in a major traffic jam. At 2 am! Not only were there cars everywhere, but looking at the pavement I could see crowds of people, weaving in and out of shops and other establishments. A significant proportion of them clearly had, as they say here, drink taken.

In my youth in Ireland, I got used to more or less everything shutting down every day at 5.30 pm or so, with the exception only of restaurants (not of much interest to me back then) and pubs. Things laid on specially for young people might close at 9 pm. In addition, on Sundays and bank holidays almost nothing other than newsagents was open, day or night.

In fact this was not out of line with Europe. I lived in Germany between 1968 and 1974, and it was the same there, even more so in fact as even newsagents were closed for most of the day on Sunday, and legislation on trading hours actually prohibited shops and other establishments from opening ‘after hours. The American ‘all night’ culture had not made it across the Atlantic.

Back in Ireland in the 1980s things began to change. Gradually all night convenience stores emerged, and towards the end of the decade Bewleys Café in Grafton Street extended its opening hours, and eventually was (if I recall correctly) open all night. More recently shops began to follow suit, and the major supermarkets (or some of them) have been open for 24 hours.

But the trend is not all one way. Shops and bars and night clubs are open all hours, but if you want to sit and have a quiet cup of coffee at 3 am, it’s much more difficult. Bewleys for example went back to cloding at night. The night time culture is hedonistic rather than thoughtful or peaceful. Beyond hedonistic, I know that a lot of people are worried that if they are out at night amongst the crowds they are as likely to face an assault as enjoy an amusing conversation.

I am a great fan of a 24/7 society. I know there are arguments – based on religion for some, on health and well-being for others – that we should shut everything down at certain times, but instinctively I like the idea of society being open at all times for those who want it. But I am not sure that this is what we have. There is something brash (and not in the good sense) about our night time culture. Dublin is also now the ‘city that never sleeps’ – but I hope it might become a night time city that can provide a positive culture, and ultimately not just one fuelled by drink and drugs. More thought should be put into this by policy makers.

Cafe culture

October 23, 2008

When my family first moved to Ireland in 1961, Mullingar (where we moved to) did not boast too many cafés or coffee shops. I was really too young at the time to take much notice of this, but as far as I can recall there was only one coffee shop, called Shaw Murrays (although the Greville Arms Hotel did also serve coffee, on special request). Shaw Murrays had coffee, but it was instant coffee made with hot milk, a particular way of preparing it I never warmed to.

Dublin had Bewleys Oriental Cafés, and you could get a good cup of coffee in the Hibernian Hotel, or the Shelbourne, or (best of all) the Hotel Russell. But in truth it was not just that there were very few places where you could get a cup of coffee, there were even fewer where that cup of coffee came in the kind of social setting that might have marked out, say, one of the Vienna coffee houses.

Even when I worked in Dublin in the 1980s, there was really still only Bewleys, and perhaps the Kylemore Cafés. And while Bewleys was a really important institution, and almost every Dubliner will remember the smell of freshly roasted coffee if you passed by it, it could not possibly satisfy the entire cultural needs of a major city.

Now Dublin is a city where you can find a coffee shop around every corner. Bewleys is still there on Grafton Street, though not quite the same as in the old days; but in addition there are several international varieties, such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee, and a whole host of local coffee shops, such as West Coast Coffee and Insomnia. Dublin has finally embraced the global coffee culture, and while there are many things I would like to see changed in Dublin, I love it that I have so many coffee choices now. It makes this city a civilised place.

For all that, I miss Bewleys as it was: a place where you could find a good cup of coffee, sticky buns and several varieties of local eccentrics.  Not every café in Dublin needs to be of the Italian variety, defined by cappuccino and latte.

Is it the end of the road for the Irish Universities Quality Board?

October 23, 2008

As I mentioned last week, the Irish Budget and Book of Estimates published on October 14 included, more or less in passing, a commitment by the Government to transfer the functions of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) to a new state agency to be formed from a merger of three existing ones. I confess that I am deeply uneasy about this move, for a number of reasons.

1. There was no consultation or even advance warning that this step was to be taken. Such a step – and as I shall explain in a moment, it is a major step – should not be taken without proper analysis and discussion.

2. The three existing bodies that are to be merged (and then have the IUQB functions added) are the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC), the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC), and the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI). These bodies, while significant, have no formal role in relation to universities, and it is doubtful whether min merged form they are an appropriate entity to supervise quality assurance for the university sector.

3. The IUQB, while it has its imperfections, has performed its role well on the whole, and is aware of what it needs to do to improve further. More importantly, it (and the processes it coordinates) has the confidence of the wider academic community.

4. It may be feared that what is brewing here is a move towards a higher education quality ‘inspectorate’, which would be a very wrong approach to quality assurance and improvement in Ireland.

But the chief concern is that the Government is adopting a heavy-handed approach to the universities, and appears to be eager to demonstrate that it does not trust them and is not prepared to work with them. This, if it is true, is serious, and will need to be corrected, no doubt by an effort on both sides. On the Government side, one step in the right direction would be to stop publishing new decisions and initiatives in the media and press statements which have not been the subject of any prior discussion with the universities.

For the universities, it may be important to recognise that we do not appear to have the confidence of this key stakeholder; we will need to work constructively on a policy of engagement that helps us to overcome that.

Football: an update

October 22, 2008

As readers of this blog will know, I support two teams in the English Premier League: Newcastle United FC, and Hull City FC. Well, I cannot remember a season that has been quite as exciting as this, so far. The Newcastle saga, with its cast of villains and personalities making cameo appearances, runs on, but now we have expletive-driven Joe Kinnear acting as interim manager - and actually, he appears to be stabilising the operation, and for the past two games the team have put in decent appearances. Mind you, the comment on the NUFC fan website, nufc.com, that the game against Manchester city could be described as ‘Crazy game, crazy goals, for Joe’s new Crazy Gang’ was more or less spot on.

But in the meantime, Hull City FC have been confounding all the pundits. Promoted via the play-offs to the Premiership, Hull were the subject of knowing comments from really everyone that they would be this year’s Derby County and would sink without a trace. And, after eight games, where are they? Number 3 in the table! Hard to believe, but true. Not only that, but by now most neutral commentators have really taken to this team and their manager, Phil Brown, and are willing them to win. The next big test for that will be the home game against Chelsea in two weeks. I am betting on Hull winning…

On four wheels

October 21, 2008

Roughly 36 years ago, I got my first car. At the time I was a trainee with Dresdner Bank in Germany, and in order to be able to commute between my home (or rather, my parents’ home) and the office I acquired a car. The car in question was the Fiat 500; the exact model and colour that I got can be seen here.

In many ways the 500 was just a biscuit tin on wheels. It had absolutely nothing that we would now regard as standard in a normal spec. It had no radio, back wiper, heated windows, head rests; it didn’t even have seat belts. Its non-synchromesh gearbox required the driver to conduct intricate exercises for every gear change (press clutch, disengage gear, let go clutch, press accelerator, press clutch, engage new gear, let go clutch – every time!). The only instrumentation told you the speed and the car’s mileage, there wasn’t even an indicator for fuel. The fuel tank itself was in the boot in the front (leaving very little room for any bags or the like), and the noisy, air-cooled engine was in the back. But it did have a fold-back sun roof, and a kind of cruise control (you could engage a lever which would hold the accelerator at its current location and you could remove your foot). And it was mustard yellow, and it was mine.

I was reminded of this glorious car, which I loved more than any car I have ever owned since, when I saw one of the new Fiat 500s last week. Fiat has not done an at all bad job in recreating the styling and ‘feel’ of the original car, and I’ll bet its fuel consumption is good.

Maybe we all need to get off our fixation with large cars, SUVs and other big beasts of the road, and rediscover the sheer fun of driving small cars with plenty of style, like the Mini and the Fiat 500.

Students as academics

October 20, 2008

Today I attended the launch, in the Royal Irish Academy, of the Irish Undergraduate Awards. This very interesting scheme was devised by Paddy Cosgrave and Oisin Hanrahan, and are intended to give students an opportunity to submit course work in order to be considered for an award. The decision on the award recipients will be made by an expert panel of judges with representatives from all the universities.

It is arguable that for a long time Irish undergraduate education has been too passive, and that students have been encouraged to acquire information rather than critically assess it and develop it. This new programme, launched on a voluntary basis but with support from all the universities, has the potential to encourage students to develop their own thinking and to publish it.

I strongly welcome this initiative and hope it will be highly successful.

The future of trade unionism

October 20, 2008

My professional academic life began when I became a Lecturer in Industrial Relations at Trinity College Dublin. This was in 1980, and at the time industrial relations were in a mess. The previous year, due largely to a major public sector dispute, Ireland had lost a record number of working days due to industrial action, the number of trade unions was on the whole still growing, the recently agreed ‘National Understanding’ (the then national pay agreement in Ireland) was looking like an unaffordable luxury that hadn’t bought industrial peace, and so on. In Britain industrial relations issues were sounding the death knell for traditional motor car production, and the miners’ strike was only four years away.

In fact, the British miners’ strike, and the arrival of generally non-union hi-tech companies in Ireland, were later in that decade to change industrial relations fundamentally. From then on trade union density declined, unions became a rare sight in certain industries and more generally became weak in the private sector, and the focus in management shifted from industrial relations to human relations. Back then, I was a strong and public advocate for trade union rights, but by the mid-1980s was arguing that trade unions needed to re-think some of their objectives and methods. The emerging younger population, and also the growing female part of the workforce, were unlikely to find the traditional trade union model to be attractive.

Some 25 years on, and much has changed, though some things have stayed. We still have social partnership, which on the whole has helped to sustain the recent period of economic growth by allowing for increasing productivity. But in the workplace trade unions don’t on the whole have the clout they used to have, and in very many workplaces they are not there at all. The main strength of the unions is in the public sector, but the increasing drive to eliminate waste and restrictive practices in the public sector will probably also call their role their into question.

Of course, trade unions too have moved on, and have become much more professional, and have become better at identifying with their members’ and their potential members’ aspirations. But they have not become good enough at selling the case for trade unionism to the public. But unless they do this effectively, they will find it hard to secure their own future.

It is still true that well led trade unions are an important ingredient to secure democracy. Important, but not essential. As the ground shifts once again under our feet, it will be vital for trade unions to consider what role they can and should have in the society of the future, and then to communicate that. I have views on this issue, and will express these in one of my next posts here.


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