Thursday, April 27, 2006

FOI: Treasure trove for investigative types

Freedom of information (FOI) is opening the door to official files and records across the UK and Northern Ireland’s curious paperchasers are eagerly at work as well.

New figures from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister – babysat by Lord Rooker as it patient waits for new masters – reveal that government departments in the province received 716 FOI requests in the fourth quarter of 2005.

Readers may wonder what relevance this has to students. Well, the Freedom of Information Act gives anyone, anywhere in the world a right to access information from the civil service, schools, health trusts etc. and even universities. Letters and emails asking for info should be replied to within 20 (working) days and providing replies and photocopies is free – within reason.
Authorities may withhold information, though, and sometimes for good reasons. The right to know would naturally be abused if personal details were released. When it comes to security and foreign affairs, the Government are reluctant to give out too much as seen by the furore over releasing the Attorney-General’s advice over the Iraq War. Other interesting topics investigated range from how much civil servants spend on hospitality to contingency plans if a tsunami hit Britain.

Research shows that students are actually interested in politics and it seems that the environment, defence and international development are among the most popular causes.
The Act should provide a happy hunting ground for amateur investigators to find out if – or how often – the wool is being pulled over our eyes by people in high places. Public scrutiny in a democracy has just become easier, optimists say, while others may fear that it could become a free-for-all in a society that increasingly demands a right to know everything it wants to know at any cost.

Find out more about Queen’s University’s Freedom of Information section, also including the Students’ Union, at:
  • QUB Freedom of Information

  • More information can be found at:
  • Freedom of Information Office
  • Wednesday, April 26, 2006

    Northern Ireland Briefing: Here we go again.

    The recent IMC report is regarded as the most positive to date and it prepares the ground for local parties as they pack there bags and head to Stormont once more. The reconvened Assembly will commence on 15th May with no executive power. The Irish and British governments hope that the parties will come to an agreement about the future shape of devolution over the summer months. A final deadline of November 24th has been set by which time the parties must have agreed a way forward or the Assembly will once again be dissolved and the governments will implement 'plan B'. This plan has not be unveiled but the governments hope that hinting at some sort of joint authority will concentrate unionist minds.

    Peter Robinson has emphasised his willingness to work with Sinn Fein in a recent speech in the USA. But he and the rest of the DUP know they need to bring their electorate with them, something that David Trimble never achieved. Many within the DUP feel it may take longer to persuade their followers to give Sinn Fein another chance.

    Sinn Fein view the DUP as the stumbling block. Indicating their willingness to put the Agreement into practice, but warning they will not dance to the DUP's tune.

    Devolved government at Stormont was suspended in October 2002, but MLAs have continued to be paid. If agreement is not reached by November 24th, payment will stop. MLAs and their staff will be out of work. The governments appear to believe that the threat of removing salaries may be the only way to achieve political progress in Northern Ireland. Sad to say, they may well be right.

    Forever Cursed; Chernobyl's Legacy

    Today (April 26th) sees the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Estimates suggest that anywhere between 4,000 and 200,000 will die from Chernobyl’s deadly legacy.

    The truth is, we’ll probably never know.

    For many, Chernobyl, lying 110KM North of the stunning Kiev, and 2.5KM West of the abandoned city of Pripyat, is testament to the poisoned chalice of modernity – man’s desire to conquer the natural world through scientific progress.

    Others argue that this tragic event helped destroy the remaining credibility of the Soviet Union, buckling it to the point of collapse, and ushering in a new era free from the brutal regulations of the Communist bloc.

    What do you think? What does Chernobyl mean to you?

    Tuesday, April 25, 2006

    The Kids Are Back

    By Frank Talk

    All members of the student executive have arrived back from there respective junkets - i mean holidays. Little has emerged from those who attended the US conference about what they actually did, but it is believed there was much socialising, and one member of the student executive claimed "the girls were great".

    Mr Preston returns for the final term of what has been an uneventful Presidency. He will serve another year in post on a reduced mandate. Peter Quinn will also serve next year, making it 3 years service on the student executive...the real world awaits him, one day soon Peter!

    Monday, April 24, 2006

    Student Finances Under Labour

    The cost of being a student has risen substantially under the current Labour government.

    An official survey suggests that student expenditure has increased by 44% in real terms. The average expenditure for a student graduating in 1999 was £6,161, by 2005 it was £10,273. Since 1998-99 total borrowing has gone up 66% for part-time students and 74% for full-time students. The average debt for a student graduating in 2005 was ££7,918, the poorest students had the most debt.

    This September the government’s new fee arrangements come into effect. Students may have to pay up to £3000 in tuition fees compared to the present £1,175 contribution. The new system means the poorest students will not have to pay fees and no student will pay their fees until after they graduate.

    56% of full-time students are working to fund their studies, earning an average £3,250 after tax. This work was more likely to be permanent or continuous employment than casual work. 39% of full-time students and 52% of part-time students felt that working while studying had an adverse impact on their health and academic performance.

    The survey was complied for Department for Education and Skills by the National Centre for Social Research and Institute for Employment Studies.

    Wednesday, April 19, 2006

    Vice Chancellor says it will be 'Business as Usual'

    Prof Peter Gregson, University President and Vice Chancellor has written to students regarding the ongoing industrial action by the Association of University Teachers (AUT). Prof. Gregson said, "The University's priority is to ensure that students do not suffer because of the dispute between the AUT and employers nationally, and it is hoped that an agreement will be reached quickly.

    "The University is continuing to plan as normal for the completion of all student-related activities, including examinations and assessments, and Heads of School are being asked to ensure that this work is undertaken on a timely basis and completed in accordance with the normal deadlines. I will be keeping the President of the Students' Union informed of developments."

    The AUT took similar action last year with little impact on student assesment or graduation.

    Sunday, April 09, 2006

    HELLO World!

    The Gown Team would like to say a BIG 'HELLO' to our growing readership in America and New Zealand! Last week readership, seen from these two states accounted for more than 25 percent of our total! Whether this has something to do with the Exec members holiday'ing in the States and the land of Kiwi's we are unsure, but we'll let you draw your own conclusions on that! We have also seen readers drift in from Portugal, Mexico and parts of Asia, to name a few.

    Overall the team have been very pleased with our growing readership and success seen since the launch of our website in January and we would like to thank all our regular (and not so regular) contributers and readers. We plan to release a hard-copy issue after Easter as well as keeping our loyal readership, whether abroad or at home informed of the lastest news from the little aul' world of Queen's.

    If you want to contribute to the growing succss of 'The Gown' - the only Independent Student Newspaper at Queen's, and have a passion for writing and reporting then please feel free to e-mail us at

    Best wishes and have a very Happy Easter,

    The Gown Team

    Saturday, April 08, 2006

    What's that BIG tent for?

    If you've been wondering what the big marquee (or tent) is, sitting outside Queen's is for 'The Gown' can reveal that it is all in aid of the Queen's hosting of the 2006 annual conference of the Association of University Administrators next week, from Monday 10 April to Wednesday 12 April.

    The theme of "Taking giant steps forward", will cover a range of major topics facing higher education, as well as giving delegates the opportunity to update their knowledge and skills. Delegates are also expected to talk about the impact of variable fees on the higher education sector.

    Queen's Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Gregson, who will be delivering the plenary address, said in a statement that "higher education is facing a period of rapid change in a globally competitive environment. At Queen's we are responding to the new challenges through the University's new Vision for the Future. We will ensure that Queen's competes with the best universities nationally and internationally whilst embracing our leadership role in Northern Ireland."

    The Chair of AUA, Sue Holmes of Sheffield Hallam University, said that the "Conference gives delegates a unique opportunity to look beyond their own institution and be exposed to ideas from elsewhere, both nationally and internationally."

    The AUA is the professional body for higher education administrators and managers in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

    The conference will take place on the main university campus with additional facilities provided by marquees on the front lawn and in the University quadrangle.

    Above: A replica tent

    Left: Queen's VC Peter Gregson with local AUA Conference organiser, Una Reid

    Thursday, April 06, 2006

    HMO's in the Holyland's and beyond...

    In response to the CU Holylands clean up (see here) David Farrell, Chairman of the Holyland's Residents Association has claimed that the problems seen in his community can only be solved by a change in Government legislation "similar to the recent cap placed on further property development in the countryside".
    He said that: "The DOE Planning Service continue to allow houses, right across south Belfast, to be over developed into HMO's (Houses in Multiple Occupancy) these areas should also be capped to a maximum % limit in any area/street." Further stating that "unchecked development gives free range to developers/landlords to pack young people into a small number of densely overpopulated streets close to Queen's University. The result of these actions destroys any sense of community throughout the area as any mass of one single type of resident from one age group, with a majority acting in a similar fashion, results in the classic behaviour patterns that are more than evident; a time shifted, generally antisocial approach to the area, which indicates a selfish attitude with little self esteem and confidence."
    He added that: "Landlords should refrain form treating the area as a building site and actually engage with their tenants to improve their lifestyle." and that "with 90% of the 2,000 properties in the Holyland having an average of 5 bedsit (boxes) each, everyone can see who is being taken advantage of and what the overall cost is. Young people should vote with their money and demand better living conditions that allow them to manage their waste easily."
    In response a Planning Service spokesperson said that "The Planning Service is aware of the growing concern there has been at the increasing level of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) and the concentration of student accommodation in certain parts of Belfast. In addition to being involved in the Belfast City Council led multi disciplinary group examining the issue, the Planning Service intends to prepare a Subject Plan that specifically addresses the issues of HMOs within Belfast.
    "To inform the draft Subject Plan and prompt discussion on the matter, an Issues Paper on Houses in Multiple Occupation was launched on 15 August 2005. The consultation period ended on 21 November 2005. The response to the Issues Paper was very positive and included a number of constructive suggestions.
    "Planning Service is currently preparing the Subject Plan for publication in due course and is meeting local elected representatives shortly."
    Queen's University has also been asked for a repsonse.

    Tuesday, April 04, 2006

    El Presidente Goes State Side

    By Frank Talk

    It emerged today that the President had in fact received The Gown's questions before he left 'work' last week.

    Mr Preston has been on leave for some time and is currently on his way to a Young Leaders Program at Boston College. Perhaps feeling a sense of inadequacy at his own leadership skills, Mr Preston, who has stood for a leadership position twice, will be at the conference until 14 April .

    The program will feature academic seminars and meetings to examine how young people in the U.S. acquire leadership skills, are empowered to influence public policy and improve community life. Participants will look at how youth are inspired to become active in public policy issues at local, national, and international levels.

    It is not known if any seminars will be held on 'How to deal with the Media', or indeed 'How to reply to emails' but we look forward to a newly empowered and refreshed president returning in a few weeks.

    Peter Quinn, Deputy President, is also believed to be half way around the world, but perhaps he would have been better to stay in Belfast and keep Mr Preston's seat warm. After out-polling Mr Preston in the student poll, he may well feel that seat rightfully belongs to him.

    Monday, April 03, 2006

    Executive learns to lead!

    A number of members of the SU Executive have jetted off to the United States to take part in a Young Leaders Program, run by the Irish Institute of Boston College.

    Members to include President Ben Preston, Gareth Keating and Edward Hanna are all believed to be in attendence. Whilst it is not regarded as 'official' Union business all sabbatical members are expected to take it as part of their 'annual leave' but it was suggested that it may form part of their duties in representing Queen's.

    The program is described as where fourteen young leaders (aged 18-24) - seven from Ireland and seven from Northern Ireland - including leaders in politics, university life, business, and nonprofits, "participate in a ten-day exchange program in the U.S. The program will feature academic seminars and meetings to examine how young people in the U.S. acquire leadership skills, are empowered to influence public policy and improve community life. Participants will look at how youth are inspired to become active in public policy issues at local, national, and international levels."

    The program is sponsored by the Irish Institute at the Centre for Irish Programs, Boston College, and the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. All costs with regards to the program are to be covered.

    The seminar starts tomorrow - April 4th and runs to the 14th. We hope to keep you posted in anyway we can.

    St Patrick's Day Festivities Praised

    St Patrick's Day had become renowned in the Holyland area for all the wrong reasons. There are normally many reports from local residents about anti-social behaviour, and last year the police made several arrests; none of these turned out to be Queen's students.

    The University laid on an unprecedented programme of activities to provide entertainment for students in a controlled environment.

    The Gown asked David Farrell, Chairman of the Holyland Residents Group, if he felt the day went off peacefully; he said, "Relatively, until about 18.00, then it reverted back to a similar riotous mood to previous years." However, in what will be interpreted by the University as a veiled complement, he added, "Considering the amount of drugs consumed the officials and universities did a good job!"