TERRY PRONE: Cash in on education: Let’s turn the five-star hotels into third-level colleges

YOU remember the pictures. Of course you do. Guys in good business suits, standing on the sidewalks of American cities, selling apples. It was the definitive visual representation of the onset of the Great Depression.

It never made sense to me. I couldn’t figure out where they got the apples or why so many former millionaires decided that apple-flogging constituted a strategic career plan.

But at least they got out and flogged something. That’s the problem here at the moment. We’re fixated on NAMA, on banks, on developers and on business plans that are proving to be inaccurate, loans worth less than they should be, and the desire to punish.

That last one will be on full display today, when Sean FitzPatrick applies for bankruptcy. We’ll get a replay of every stupid interview the man ever gave, every daft thing he ever did, including the recent party allegedly held at his home, every short answer he’s ever given to a journalist.

Holding Sean FitzPatrick to account seems to be a national objective. It’s certainly a media objective.

The man himself has said he’s responsible for his own ruin, and it’s an unparalleled ruin. He must wonder what more he can do to satisfy the public hunger for his destruction — and the answer is: nothing.

If he ends up living in a shed and begging in the street, it won’t be enough. Three years ago, he could do nothing wrong. Now, he can do nothing right.

Sean FitzPatrick didn’t change utterly within that period. He didn’t have a sudden alteration in the way he operated.

While he was lauded and toasted, he was doing at least some of the stuff that now has him condemned and ostracised. Yet there’s a remarkable shortage of media examining its conscience as to why and how we in journalism contributed to the making of the FitzPatrick myth. It’s much easier to give the impression that we always knew him for what he is, even though the reality is otherwise. Let’s be honest. We bought him, hook, line and floating loans.

The problem with our relentlessly negative focus on FitzPatrick, NAMA and the banks is that it solves nothing, creates nothing, achieves nothing. It is a shocking and shameful waste of time, at a point in Irish history where we have no time to waste.

Worse, it contributes to a pervasive sense of collective helplessness.

We hear vague noises about exports saving us, and in the background, that tune about a “smart economy” plays away, with its equally vague implications that somehow, some time, a bunch of people with high-tech skills will rescue us from the puddle we’re in. True, the pharmaceutical industry alone and largely unsung is growing, providing great careers for highly qualified graduates and continuing to earn us money through high-quality exports.

But it’s not going to be able to employ the nearly half a million people — many of them highly qualified graduates in other disciplines — currently lining up to collect the dole.

The question has to be asked: Do we prefer to bitch than to act? Would we rather complain than create? Out of that question comes the logical follow-on query: Where’s our contemporary Sean Lemass? Where’s the big new idea?

Instead of concentrating on finding that big new idea, we’re like mad oul’ misers taking out the bit of cash secretly stored under the mattress and obsessively dividing it between jam jars.

And, at the same time, the picture that defines the pickle we’re in is arguably the sight most of us pass at some point in our work day: the hotel with a huge sign on the equivalent of a king-size sheet, hanging down across several storeys, announcing that a room costs only €79 a night. Or €69 a night. Or €59 a night. Or, if it’s a hotel being run by a receiver, even less per night and you can bring your entire extended family to stay in the room for that price.

THE way we’re managing ghost hotels makes no sense. It’s a bit like the crazy suggestions that because Coillte, the forestry state body, owns acreage all over the country equivalent to the size of Cork and Tipperary put together, they should be forced to sell it all immediately. For the national good.

This ignores the value of trees, but more importantly, ignores the drop in the value of development land. Lashing the number of sites Coillte owns onto that depressed market will not serve the national good, and — were it to happen — would justify a tribunal at some stage in the future when we can again afford tribunals, to work out which looper sold off such an incalculably valuable asset for half-nothing.

The same daft, desperate abandonment of logic and of what Tony Blair used to call joined-up thinking affects the hotel sector.

You have receivers running hotels to keep them open and operational. But because that’s the extent of the business plan, because each receiver is from a different accountancy firm and because none of them have any responsibility except to the particular entity they’re trying to keep afloat, they throw out any kind of commonsensical costing, offer bed-nights for minuscule rates, and through their actions put hotels which are not in receivership under yet more pressure.

Nobody seems to have stood back and said “Look. We have all these beautiful modern hotels with conference rooms wired for every kind of A/V requirement. These centrally located establishments have WiFi. They have catering facilities, break-out rooms, swimming pools, gyms and bedrooms. Instead of allowing each to limp along in isolation, why don’t we, as a state, turn the whole lot into third-level educational facilities?”

After all, what does a third-level college require? It requires space broken into lecture theatres and study rooms. It requires gyms and catering. All you need to add are lecturers and students.

Remember, the one market that is growing, incrementally, from a high baseline, globally, is education. A major part of Australian’s GDP is the education it sells to students from all over the world.

It’s a market Ireland has yet to exploit in any coherent way, with the possible exception of the Royal College of Surgeons, which provides medical education for huge numbers of foreign students, earning loads of dosh in the process.

Back in the 1960s, dapper young lads from the IDA took their shiny briefcases and boarded planes for destinations all over the world, but perhaps especially the United States of America, to seduce overseas investors into setting up their manufacturing plants in Ireland. The IDA, at the time, had three things to offer: grants, advance factories and willing workers.

The nation has now been handed the equivalent of those advance factories, courtesy of the collapse of hotel operators.

They could be cost-effectively adapted (giving construction jobs in the process), staffed (given our high level of new and existing Masters and PhD degree-holders) and operational within a year. They could be the beginning of Ireland as an educational hub.

And they’d give us something a lot more hopeful to focus on than Sean FitzPatrick, NAMA and the banks.


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