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Why is a British leftie NGO in charge of deciding who gets Irish academic research funding? 

In one of the letters written to the Sunday Independent in support of Éilis O’Hanlon on the issue of transgenderism, Colette Colfer who lectures in Religious Studies at Waterford Institute of Technology referred to the role of workshops in promoting gender ideology within third level institutions. 

She wrote that: “These workshops are often linked to the Athena Swan Charter, in which all Irish higher education institutions must participate in order to be eligible for research funding.”

And what you might ask is the Athena Swan Charter when it is at home? Well, it claims to be a set of “progressive” guidelines that are expected to be adhered to within third level education in order to advance “gender equality in academia.”

All very commendable you might say, if you think of that in terms of eliminating any barriers that remain in the path of women students and academics fulfilling their potential. Reference is still made in the Charter to “tackling the gender pay gap,” and difficulties faced by women in transitioning from post-graduate to academic employment.

However, as with most things gender related these times, the Charter seeks to meld such traditional and valid concerns with issues completed unrelated to women, qua women. Thus, Principle 7 seeks to “commit to tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people,” while the last one states, without any academic or scientific foundation as one might expect from a body claiming some sort of supervisory role over teaching:

  • All individuals have identities shaped by several different factors. We commit to considering the intersection of gender and other factors wherever possible.

Earlier this month, Advance HE – which is responsible for the Charter – sought to update and radicalise that decree on transgenderism to demand that there is a “”collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine their own gender identity and tackling the specific issues faced by trans and non-binary people.”

That brought an immediate response from within academia with some members of the faculty at Cambridge University refusing to sign up to this, forcing Advance HE to back down. The Cambridge academics claimed that the issues which the Charter was seeking to turn into binding axioms were not uncontested and needed to be debated.

So who, or what, is Advance HE and the Athena Swan Charter and more to the point why are Irish educational institutions expected to conform to them? And why has there been no similar questioning of this, as there is in the UK, within Irish higher education other than the letter from Colette Colfer referred to above?

Advance HE is referred to by critics quoted in the London Times as a “money making exercise”. Professor Kathleen Stock, who was forced out of her job at Sussex University by far-left gender extremists, has described as “sinister”. It is a body with charitable status which was formerly known as the Higher Education Academy, which was founded in 2003.

It is very much then a creature of the British educational system and indeed came about directly as a consequence of the 1997 Dearing Report that was commissioned by the then Labour government of Tony Blair, best known for its recommendation to introduce tuition fees.

Professor Stock has made the point that Universities already operate under the aegis of British equality legislation, and that “There is no need to insist on extra performances of obeisance to radical political positions.”

Unless of course you are talking about the Irish Republic in 2022 where extremist liberalism remains in its pomp. Even granted that, and even accepting that this is something that all the parties of the Irish establishment from Fine Gael to Sinn Féin to People Before Profit want – not least because many of their members and supporters have shares in this lucrative NGO driven economy – why should the Irish Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority have handed responsibility for enforcing this agenda to a British NGO with its roots in New Labour and the British university Left?

It is surely ridiculous that the Minister with responsibility for Higher Education Simon Harris ought, on June 21, to have stated that one of the “metrics” his Department uses to measure “gender balance” and “diversity” within Irish third level institutions is a bronze medal awarded by a British NGO.

Indeed, on April 7, Harris said that “Only higher education institutions that have at least an Athena SWAN bronze institutional award can apply for funding from Ireland’s main research funders.”

In a response to a written question from Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway Walsh on May 17, Harris stated that:

In response to another question from Rural Independent TD for Laois/Offaly, Carol Nolan, Harris referred to Athena Swan as the recipient of €42,743 in 2020 from the Gender Equality Enhancement Fund for “Supporting Athena SWAN in the Mathematical Sciences: Benchmarking and Networking” in several third level institutions.

More than €286,000 was provided in 2020 to fund “gender equality initiatives,” with the Athena Swan “capacity building activities” being one of the main beneficiaries. The full extent of Advance HE’s involvement in all of this, and the overall income which this British NGO receives from the Irish taxpayer, is the subject of ongoing research.

If you Google “Athena bronze award” you will sadly find a whole list of esteemed Irish universities and third level institutions boasting about the fact that they have been thought to measure up to the standards of a of British leftie cultural commissars.

Is this pat on the head for Dr. and Professor Paddy and Patsy the 21st century equivalent of the bata scóir which was used to measure Irish National School children’s progress towards anglicisation in the 19th century?

Not surprisingly Athena Swan has earned the kudos of left liberals such as Ivana Bacik and Alice-Mary Higgins, while Heather Humphries in June 2018 referred to the Athena Swan Charter as “the internationally recognised ‘quality mark’ for gender equality.” At a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee on April 6, 2017 Dr. Graham Love who was then Chief Executive Officer of the Higher Education Authority and is now a partner in Mazars consultancy which supplies services to the higher education sector, referred to the Athena Swan award as “like an ISO standard for an institution’s gender policy.”

Is it though? The International Standards Office has 167 national affiliates. Whereas, if you look at the list of current “providers” of Advance HE guidelines the vast bulk of them are in the United Kingdom. Ireland – with 15 of the fewer than 100 “international members,” Australia and the United Arab Emirates are the only countries which bolster any sort of claim to Advance HE and its Athena Swan Charter setting “internationally recognised” standards in anything.

It is hardly the gender equality equivalent of the ISO – unless you subscribe to the world view that would regard a heavily pink shaded map circa 1890 as representing the World.

So the question really does need to be asked: Why is this foreign left wing NGO in charge of deciding how third level research in this country should be funded?

Is it not a sad commentary on the intellectual subservience of the elite that is in charge of a state that is celebrating its 100th year in existence that this is the case? That valid fields of study and research and those involved in them might be blacklisted because they don’t get a medal from Julian sitting under a poster of Trotsky in some British red brick comprehensive university?

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