30 April 2008

A preservation of favoured ideas


It would be worrying for 10% of any group of people to believe an anonymously written, two thousand year old book over the evidence provided by modern science, but the news that one tenth of first year medics reject evolutionary theory is utterly astounding.
It may be true that current scientific understanding doesn’t offer a fully comprehensive explanation for the diversity and origin of species, but micro-evolution has been clearly demonstrated and can easily be applied on a macro scale.
Those individuals pointing to gaps in the fossil record as evidence of the literal truth of the Bible are clutching at straws to preserve an outdated world view, and might like to follow the advice given to the unions and band together with another organisation for survival. May we suggest the Flat Earth movement?

GUU, you may now kiss the bride


The financial crisis at the Glasgow University Union (GUU) is a worrying development, but hardly surprising.
Student unions across the country – at Glasgow Caledonian, Aberdeen, Napier and, most recently, Stirling – have been beset by problems in recent years as they lose out to increasing competition from local bars and clubs and, so they complain, cut-price supermarket drinks deals. It might be tempting to think of Glasgow as being immune to the troubles that are crippling Scotland’s other student unions, but the current situation is proof that age and tradition are no protection against market forces.
The full reasons behind the financial collapse of the GUU will be revealed when accounts are completed later this month, and business students may be particularly interested to discover how it is that an organisation which neither has to pay for a building to house it nor pay the board members that ostensibly run the place can find itself in such a dire situation.
The plight of the GUU should be particularly illuminating when compared to the Queen Margaret Union (QMU), which has stated that it has no financial troubles to report. As the University decides whether or not to provide an emergency bail-out to see the beleaguered GUU through its present troubles, management may well choose to reconsider the unique situation that sees Glasgow boasting two student unions rather than the customary one. Though many university unions have a number of premises around their campuses – Edinburgh, for instance, has four – most only have one board of management to pay for, with all the free food, alcohol and clothing allowances that that entails.
It is entirely possible that those in charge of allocating University funds to the unions – which, though financially distinct from the University, depend on Court to provide a generous allowance each year – may decide that students could get by with just one board of management running the show.
The separation of the two unions was initially ensured by the male/female split between them, but this has long since disappeared. It may well be that in order to fend off the onslaught of professionally run catering and drinking establishments, the two Glasgow unions have to set aside their friendly rivalry and join forces. Everyone at the GUU knows that the QM-ers are a bunch of sweaty goths, while most in the QMU will happily warn you off the drunken rugby-playing chauvinists at the GUU – but, as controversial as it would inevitably be, it may soon prove necessary for the unions to set aside their differences and join hands in holy matrimony. It might be a marriage of convenience, but their very survival could depend on it.

29 April 2008

The face of moderate Islam?

A natural instinct when first meeting someone is to offer your hand in greeting. But as I introduce myself to Imam Zaid Shakir, even this simple exchange highlights our cultural differences. My hand is left empty as Shakir shakes his head at me, though I notice he has no qualms about shaking my male colleague’s hand. I am able to look past this snub but it leaves me feeling very aware of the fact that my gender could affect the way I am considered.
Shakir was not born a Muslim; he was raised in Berkley, California as a Baptist. Having seen the effects of drugs, alcohol and domestic violence within his neighbourhood, Shakir turned to religion for advice on how to address these issues. It wasn’t until he began to study Islam that he found satisfying answers.
Shakir’s study of the religion did not cease with his conversion and he eventually became an imam, a teacher of Islam. He currently teaches at the Zaytuna Institute in California and is an internationally respected lecturer.
In Glasgow to deliver a talk to fellow Muslims about their rights and responsibilities, Shakir is aware of recent media emphasis on radical Islam. He is keen to emphasise that such Muslims are in the minority: “It’s very important to put a more balanced message out there, and for the good to really come to the fore; not only through words but through actions, and having a positive attitude toward others.”
Asked his opinion on the actions of groups such as al-Qaeda, Shakir tells me he does not believe that the motives of such people are purely religious.
“Most Muslims understand that in no way, shape or form are we to constitute a threat to the public order and security of anyone in this society. I think that those groups are more political than Islamic and are probably more interested in advancing a particular political agenda, as opposed to Islam itself. A lot of what they do in some quarters actually sets back the cause of Islam.
“Anyone who murders innocent civilians, no matter what their religion or justifications, is committing a crime against humanity and I don’t think such crimes would be viewed favourably by God.”
Halfway through the interview, I realise that I still have my coat on, due to the fact that I’m unsure of how my clothes will be viewed by the Imam. I’m no stranger to a short skirt and, in the light of his refusal to shake my hand, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that I might be judged for what I’m wearing. With this in mind, I decide to find out what a moderate Muslim thinks about women.
I query the Zaytuna Institute’s current lack of female scholars, and Shakir admits that, whilst there are some female staff who work part-time, none of them teach men. He claims there is nothing to prevent women from teaching male students, but that at the moment, “there’s no need”.
“We could do better in that regard,” he says, “Circumstances haven’t led to that outcome currently, but there’s nothing inherent to our understanding of Islam to stop us from doing that.”
Imam Shakir is noticeably more uncomfortable with this line of questioning, but I continue, wanting to understand why I was feeling such pressure to keep my coat on.
The issue of whether or not a woman covering her head or face is indicative of oppression has been long-debated. Imam Shakir tells me he feels women are free to make that choice, and that a bigger problem is found when someone is prevented from wearing a headscarf.
“In France, if a girl wears a scarf she can’t go to a public school. I think this is an expression of repression so we say a woman’s free to do as she chooses.”
Although keen to stress that women have an absolutely free choice, the Imam admits that he would prefer that the scarf be worn as he thinks it an “obligatory” part of dressing modestly. Shakir tells me he accepts that some women might feel forced to cover their heads or faces, but that this is extremely rare.
“There might be come young girls whose fathers force them to wear a scarf, but that’s not very common at all. If anything, you have more women complaining that their husbands are trying to force them not to wear a scarf because they don’t want to draw attention.”
The Imam also counters that if a Muslim woman did feel pressure to cover up then that was no different to pressures faced by non-Muslim women.
“In the summertime all the girls are running around with their bellybuttons and midriffs exposed, not necessarily because they have the figure for that style but because there’s a cultural climate. Have they made a free choice?
“I think there’s more pressure on the people who follow Vogue; I don’t think you will find any Muslim girl who feels tortured because she really doesn’t want to wear the hijab. In comparison, how many women out there feel they’ve been reduced to such an inhumane level by following a style or tattooing this, or piercing that? In the end they just give up and end up either suffering from anorexia or committing suicide or something.”
The Imam concedes that countries like Saudi Arabia may have gone too far in their treatment of women but is quick to point out that other Islamic countries are much better.
“There can be abuses anywhere people don’t understand the religion properly. Some policies that some governments engage in are not enlightened and might be viewed as being oppressive to women but if you go to somewhere like Malaysia, you will find extremely enlightened approaches.” Imam Shakir then tells me that he would like to hear his colleague delivering a lecture and so the interview is over.
While it’s clear that the Imam represents a much more moderate interpretation of Islam than is sometimes depicted in the media, I feel confused by his claim that Muslim woman have a free choice over whether or not to cover their heads. Throughout the interview I had a free choice as to whether or not I take my coat off, and yet I didn’t; not because I preferred to keep it on, but because I was uncomfortably aware that my choice to wear a short skirt could be thought of as immoral. Perhaps if Shakir had explained his reasons for not taking my hand, rather than simply shaking his head at me, I would have felt more at ease. As it was, I completely understood why some women ‘chose’ to cover their heads or faces, in order to not be judged immodest.

by Sarah Smith

Cairn Properties named worst student letting agents

Cairn Properties has been named as the worst letting agent of the year by the SRC. The company is the recipient of this year’s Student Letting Agents Prize. The annual awards were set up to identify problem landlords in the west end.

Struan Campbell, Students' Representative Council Vice President, said Cairn Properties had developed an awful reputation over the course of the year.
He explained: “Cairn repeatedly failed to take responsibility over repairs and had an aggressive attitude to students who sought help from advice agencies or the HMO Unit.”

The main aims of the SLAPs are to provide students with reliable information about landlords’ services and to make sure the latter improve their practice in dealing with students’ accommodation. Countrywide Letting, Guardian Property, Kohli Properties, Scottaslands and Thistle Property Services also received nominations for a SLAP. Last year’s winner, Grant Management, was not nominated this year due to huge improvements that lead to a decrease in the number of complaints by students.

24 April 2008

GUU in 'serious financial trouble'

  • Executive forced to ask for bail-out
  • Bar closures discussed in crisis talks
The future of the Glasgow University Union (GUU) is under threat as the Board of Management looks set to declare bankruptcy at the end of this month.
GUU President Chris Birrell has admitted that bar closures have become an option as the Board struggles to deal with financial troubles that have escalated out of control in recent years.
Board members will not know the full extent of the Union's financial troubles until accounts are finalised on April 30th, but Guardian has learned that student leaders are in crisis talks with the University to request an emergency cash injection as a last ditch attempt to secure the Union's survival for the immediate future. The GUU has completely exhausted its financial reserves after several consecutive years of losses..
A source close to the Board of Management predicted that the current crisis could be the beginning of the end for Glasgow’s oldest union.

She said: “They’re really ruined, worse than ever. They’re struggling to pay the staff, and if their cash situation doesn’t improve pretty quickly I think they’ll have to shut down.”

The GUU reported a loss of £148,000 in the last year for which accounts are available, and Union sources have predicted that the losses announced this month will dwarf the problems in recent years.

Science fiction... or science fact?

Writers like HG Wells, Phillip K. Dick and Douglas Adams may not feature in most English Literature classes – but they could find their way onto the science syllabus, if a visiting lecturer has his way.

Kenneth MacLeod, renowned Scottish science-fiction writer and Glasgow University alumnus, will this week deliver a lecture asking ‘Does science fiction contribute to the public understanding of science?’

Mr MacLeod, who has degrees in Zoology and Biomechanics, will argue that science fiction provides an open and lucid forum in which to discuss the implications of new technology.

10% of medics don't believe in evolution

One in ten first year medics at the University of Glasgow rejects evolutionary theory in favour of creationism, a new survey has found.

The poll of first year students, conducted by Professor Roger Downie, also found that 7.5% of Biology students disbelieve current scientific thinking on the origin of species. The Department of Biomedical and Life Sciences teaches that Darwin’s theory of evolution is the best explanation for life on Earth, and does not hold biblical or other creationist theories as a credible alternative.

Professor Neil Metcalfe, Head of the Department of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, was worried by the findings.

He said: “There are students out there who are hearing lectures on evolution, but clearly don’t believe them. Of course they’re entitled to do that, but the idea that people reject hard evidence because of their own intrinsic beliefs or because they believe false propaganda is a bit depressing.

“Evolution is fact,” he added, “And creationism is absolutely not something we’d teach as an alternative. We might mention it in passing, saying that some people do believe it, but we certainly wouldn’t give it any air time other than that.”

Kennedy : work begins now

April 10th saw glorious sunshine as Charles Kennedy was installed as Rector. Following a multi-faith service, Mr. Kennedy was officially welcomed as Rector in the Bute Hall, with addresses delivered by the SRC President, the Chancellor and the new Rector himself.

Following his installation, the Liberal Democrat MP told Guardian that he was pleased with the day. He said : "For me, the day went well and I hope everyone enjoyed it - I certainly did. "I am very much looking forward to the next three years but I'm aware that the hard work begins now."

Mr Kennedy will now begin his job representing the student body on University Court, a role which the previous holder of the post, Mordechai Vanunu, was unable to fulfill due to his imprisonment in Israel. The new Rector will be holding his first surgery on Friday 25th May, giving students a chance to talk to him about their ideas for the next three years.

Sarah Smith