Comment, Education, Politics

Norwegian Egalitarianism is a Detriment to the Education System

Norway’s egalitarian attitude to most things has rarely been viewed in a negative light. The national insistence upon democracy and equality (although at times irritatingly self-congratulatory) is an inspiring sentiment for a country. Especially, for a rich one – the Norwegians could have just hoarded all the oil money and run off into the Norwegian woods eating pølse and vaffler, whilst refusing to help any struggling minorities. Yet they didn’t, and although the new government may be posing a threat to this attitude, Norway has created one of the largest welfare systems in the world. Even as someone coming from a relatively liberal place like England, the rhetoric around welfare is refreshing.

Inevitably, this attitude manifests itself within other social areas of Norway, particularly its education system. Whilst the Norwegian government has plenty to spend on creating the best education system possible (if the marble pillars outside the library are testament to anything), the University of Oslo, the biggest university in Norway, is only rated 185th in the world by The Times Higher Education. Norway has the tools, not to mention the money, to become one of the best in the world, but it’s not. If employing the best academics and offering research grants is doable, then where exactly is Norway going wrong?

The attitude to learning, particularly when it comes to the humanities, is a problem. In a society set up to benefit the largest number of people rather than the privileged few, entry into university is undemanding. Although this system may be best for a society with education inequality lower down (see England’s unforgivable perpetualisation of the private school system), Norway’s school system is equal enough to allow it to be more selective when it comes to university education.

At the risk of making even more generalising statements about the Norwegian community, their total lack of competitiveness bodes badly for an education system that needs people to aspire and fight for the best they can achieve. Students are reticent to argue in order to avoid conflicting in their views. Unfortunately for a subject like English Literature or History that requires frequent critical analyses, often at the expense of fellow students, this attitude creates a fruitless environment for work.

Indeed, the University of Oslo even struggles to find teachers for its humanities department. A conversation with a masters student exposed the sheer desperation of the Norwegian system, after he has been employed to teach irrespective of his perhaps inexperience in the subject. After all, he has only been studying English for 4 years, only one year more than some of the students in the class. The informal nature of employing staff who are not quite up to scratch, and the desperation that has lead UiO to be put in this position must say something about the education system. What exactly is to blame for the dire lack of teaching staff in certain departments?

It is truth universally acknowledged that teaching can be irrevocably dull if the students aren’t interested. Teaching is a fulfilling career, but only if you are around students who want to learn, and with this fact we have highlighted one of the painful truths about the Norwegian education system: whilst more demanding subjects like medicine or law may draw more ambitions students (as they are more difficult to gain entry to at UiO), subjects like English or History are full of clever Norwegian who aren’t fulfilling their potential, because of a cultural reluctance to challenge and engage. So academics don’t want to come and teach. Compared to the English University system, the system it is less demanding, with fewer students willing to take risks and contribute in class.

Norway’s total defiance towards creating a combative environment in all areas of Norwegian culture is admirable but flawed. This egalitarian attitude to learning means although many are able to have a higher education, the standard is low. Students need to fight the Nordic urge for everyone to be equal when it comes to education, as the classroom is a place of critical thinking, not ignorant equality.

By Ruby Lott-Lavigna

Originally published for The Moose in October 2013

Comment, Politics

Cameron’s ‘Um-ing and Ah-ing’ Porn Guidelines Show a Party Unwilling to Commit to Important Issues

Cameron’s endearing attempt to curve the unruly eyes of the nation seems to have gone tits up. After this week announcing his intentions to get those blasted gosh damn ruddy images away from our eyes, his decision has been met with a backlash of skepticism.

Too afraid to take a clear moral stance on porn, Cameron’s tokenistic legislature advice is shaky at the best of times. Not to mention, that it has come conveniently at a time when Tory Strategist Lynton Crosby has been facing the heat on a variety of impressive failures (encouraging private health care companies to take advantage of ‘failings’ in the NHS and advising the party to drop the blank packaging for cigarettes on behalf of Tabacco Company, Philip Morris International – to name a few). Whilst Toeing the party line, Cameron’s bumbling inability to talk about porn, let alone define where he and his party stand on porn, trivializes his vague attempts to make any change. He oozes ambiguity when addressing such issues; his approach underlies this wider party policy making devoid of clear moral foundations.

Even superficially his guidelines don’t really work, and the ISPs know this. The idea of computers having built in porn filters is flawed for a variety of reasons. The World Wide Web is a glorious retreat because you can do whatever the hell you want to, without having to have an awkward phone conversation with someone from BT about your sexual preferences. Limiting the nation’s ability to watch ‘Busty Blonde Takes it in Various Orifices’ seems counter-productive for an industry marketed on that freedom. Furthermore, making porn an opt-in package will fail to hoax a 7 year-old; in an age where most children can use a Mac before they can read, they’re certainly going to be able to circumvent a ticked box. And, even if they can’t work out how to hop over this fence unaided, Google’s always there with its wealth of knowledge. Displacing the responsibility from the government to internet service providers makes for an unstable policy, one that won’t protect anyone except the Tories themselves.

Yet the essential problem with Cameron’s guidelines is that they’re floating in an abyss of ideology. Apart from the overused assortment of pejoratives he employs to describe porn, it‘s unclear where the Prime Minister himself actually stands on the issue. True, it is a ‘tricky area’ – is porn bad because of the way it depicts women? Or is porn bad because it’s too explicit for children? By taking the soft route, Cameron implicitly avoids making any genuinely persuasive arguments about porn. A glorious moment occurred on Radio Four’s ‘Women’s Hour’ when Cameron was faced with the question ‘How do I watch porn without my wife knowing?’. It was an opportune moment to define his ideas, yet all he managed was to blusteringly avoid the question, exemplifying this lack of commitment to any important beliefs.

The problem is that porn is not innately ‘evil’, and understanding what sex is from a young age is not necessarily damaging. Amateur porn is probably better than Hollywood style vagina-like-a-Barbie porn. Exploring your sexuality, especially for those from the LGBT community, is far from problematic. Sex is always going to be a fundamental part of society, and writing off porn because it’s ‘vulgar’ or uncomfortable is a painfully naïve approach to the subject. The real issue, for many people currently, is that porn homogenises the power dynamics in a relationship. Porn is oppressive. Porn is degrading. Condemning porn for being too sexually graphic for children – being anti-sex rather than anti-sexism – skirts around the real issues in the debate.

Even though Cameron took extra care to show us how much of his ‘personal time’ (wink wink, nudge nudge) has been put into these guidelines, they are frustratingly emblematic of a political system filled with people unable to consistently make decisions founded on clear morals. The Prime Minister is representative of, and even typifies, this dangerous trend. This was demonstrated brilliantly when Jane Garvey pulled out a copy of The Sun on air and turned to page three with ol’ Davey Cameron sitting next to her, and all he could offer was a barely mumbled argument about ‘choice’. Good job, mate.

Feminism for the Conservative Party (or indeed any party bar Green) needs to become an overarching issue if they want to be on the path of freedom from the restrictions of a coalition. Cameron’s reservations to commit to any true feminist legislation show a party too tied up in its loyalties to the backbenchers. The ‘war on porn’ needs to stop being a vague mess of semantic changes and British awkwardness, and become a real commitment to controlling something that, at the moment, is violent and pernicious for men and women alike.

Comment, Feminism, Politics

On Board With Equality

Norway is not unaccustomed to being a trail-blazer when it comes to gender equality. It was ranked first in the world for its gender gap index, and has legislation implemented to encourage gender equality that most countries haven’t even attempted yet. Norway, all in all, is pretty much the closest we have to a feminist haven.

Yet Trond Giske, the Trade and Industry minister, doesn’t think it goes far enough. After a law in 2006 required 40 per cent of boardroom seats to go to women (or men, in female dominated boardrooms), Norway has been ahead in acquiring an equal distribution of candidates in the top companies. Compared to the whole of Europe, which as of March 2012 had around 13.7 per cent of women in boardrooms, and Britain, where only 15.6 per cent of FTSE 100 board directorships are held by women, Norway is very clearly already ahead of the game. However, according to Giske, the process to incentivise more women into the boardroom “is going much too slowly”.

 The use of quotas to destabilise the masculine dominated areas of industries and companies is a great technique, and one not to be dismissed for being ‘patronising’ or ‘unfair’. They are often misconstrued in their purpose, and as a consequence, underestimated in their power to smash the glass ceiling. Mai-Lill Ibsen, a woman who at one point held 185 boardroom seats rejected the idea of quotas as “they are discriminatory in a way. I feel we [women] are so strong we don’t need that.”

Ibsen is indeed right when she says women are strong, but completely misses the point of quotas when she calls them ‘discriminatory’. The problem with getting women into boardrooms is not that there aren’t enough good, fully qualified, intelligent women to get there, it’s that they don’t apply. Without being able to perceive your ability to achieve, say, a place on a top film, there’s little chance you’ll aspire to acquire that place. Women don’t want to go into a company that have no other women in it, and definitely don’t want to go into one with a culture that works largely to detriment women. In 2012, Forbes surveyed 600 heads of Human Resources in the world’s largest employers in 20 countries. They found that the most prevalent barriers to women entering into leadership positions, far ahead of flexible work and work-life balance policies, were “general norms and cultural practices in my country” and “masculine/patriarchal corporate culture”. Quotas allow these things to change, as well as resulting in a more meritocratic, fairer system.

Norway is nowhere near perfect when it comes to gender equality in the boardroom. Let us not forget that approximately 40 per cent, whilst ahead of most other countries in the world, is still a minority. Furthermore, whilst Norway has around 40 per cent female non-executive directors, only two per cent of its chief executive officers – who have the real sway – are women. Businesses were also found to avoid the new quota law by converting into private limited companies. Two-thirds of them admitted the quota rules were behind their decision to delist from the stock exchange.

Considering all these things, it’s clear that reticence and sexism when it comes to women in boardrooms is not totally eradicated. The insulting, gendered, dated, 1950s esq term of ‘golden skirts’ given to those women who achieve in the workplace just shows how much more there is to be done. Giske is right to be encouraging the pace of gender equality, and not just becoming complacent with the success of Norway’s quota system. After all, although the system is great for women, it’s also great for companies – expanding your employment pool to 50% of the population can only be beneficial.  Indeed, Norwegian agricultural co-operatives voluntarily adopted the 40% rule, as a way to improve business. This is clearly “an industry goal [and] not just a gender issue,” Giske said speaking in 2010, and one that should be seen to benefit not just women.

For companies, as well as women, Giske’s incentive to speed up the progress of the quota system is another good idea for Norway. Getting more women in boardrooms not only sets a great example to other European countries, but also improves the companies for everyone. Keep up the good work, Norway.

By Ruby Lott-Lavigna

Written March 2013 for The Foreigner, a Norwegian online newspaper written in English