Dr Harveen Chugh (MSc Bioinformatics Birkbeck 2002)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Interview with Andrew Liddell, Corporate Partnerships Manager with Development and Alumni at Birkbeck

Hello. I am Andrew Liddell, Corporate Partnerships Manager with Development and Alumni at Birkbeck and I am joined by Dr Harveen Chugh, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School. Thank you so much for joining us for this podcast interview Harveen. It would be great if you could tell us about the work that you do?

Brilliant. Well, thanks Andrew. Thanks for having me today. I recently joined Warwick Business, in – where are we now – in January 2021, as Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship. So, I’ve been involved there in teaching on our undergraduate modules and still actually learning about how our university works and getting stuck into the role. Prior to that, I joined Warwick from Imperial College Business School where I was for around four years. I’ve had previous experience at Royal Holloway University. I’ve also had experience with government in consultancy. I also had my own start-up as well. So, over the years, I’ve had a strong background and history in the world of entrepreneurship leading to the academic life that I lead now.

AL: Fantastic, such a rich professional and academic history. You have built your career around expertise and innovation and entrepreneurship. What made you specialise in this field?

HC: Well, that’s a really good question. I would say partly I fell into it with a little bit of design and a bit of not knowing where I was going! For my undergraduate degree I did biology with business studies at Queen Mary (QMUL), so that I knew I had a strength in science. I knew I was really interested in the business aspects of it and that led me to my masters that I did at Birkbeck, in Bioinformatics, which again had science and computational model and protein modelling.

Entrepreneurship wasn’t really a subject when I was an undergraduate or masters student, to be honest, but then I saw what was happening at Imperial. What really drew me to it and keeps me going today is the sort of mindset you can build in encouraging entrepreneurs and new ideas and innovation. This is something that often ideators and innovators have doubts about: is my idea good enough? Is it going to work? There’s a really strong need to build that base and build that empowerment and encourage and help those ideas get off the ground. That’s what really drives me today because there are a lot of ideas buzzing around in people’s minds and a with a little bit of a nudge or guidance in the right direction, those ideas can really go somewhere. That is, I think, what is really needed. That is what entrepreneurship is all about. It is playing that role and that is what really keeps me going.

AL: That’s so interesting and I can see how that is such a powerful motivator. You are a leader in mentoring for entrepreneurship. Can you tell us a bit more about what this means about what makes an effective mentor?

HC: Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of mentoring and coaching that takes place now in the field of entrepreneurship. Students and entrepreneurs are looking for guidance. They’re looking for mentoring or coaching. Equally, there are educators or people who work in the entrepreneurial community who are required to provide that guidance and it’s really a question of – because it’s still a new field – looking at that practice and how we should do it better. What is the right kind of guidance to offer? What does the entrepreneur need? What does the company need at the different stages? Are we asking the right questions, or should we be providing the answers for entrepreneurs?

So, this practice has developed through my work Imperial and continuing at Warwick. I co-founded with a colleague the Network for Coaching and Mentoring Entrepreneurs to develop this practice. So, it is an exciting niche to be in because there is a lot of development.

What makes a really effective mentor is listening and I think this applies to coaching as well as we often jump in to give advice but have only heard part of the issue. So being a good listener is a skill we really need to develop. But also, with a mentor, specifically, it’s having the experiences and examples to share – having been there and done it – and then guiding and providing options and signposting, not necessarily pushing towards something specific but presenting the options available and leaving the decision there for the entrepreneur.

With coaching, it is a little bit more about asking the questions and helping the entrepreneur to generate the answers, or find them within, rather then providing the options. So, there’s a difference there and ultimately both mentoring and coaching, as much as they are about business knowledge are about building the entrepreneur’s capacity and developing them as individuals as well. They’re both interesting and impactful practices on how we develop our entrepreneurs today.

AL: There have been some substantial changes to the economy and life over the past year. We anticipated Brexit. One we didn’t was the pandemic. What do you see as some of the biggest opportunities and challenges in the year ahead?

HC: Yes. That’s another good question There have been quite a few things to think about and consider. You know, with Brexit, it’s really a double-edged sword. Opportunities ae equally challenges. Opportunities are opening up for businesses. Equally, there are a lot of challenges in keeping up with the legislation and the guidelines and the time businesses have to spend in order to make sure they get it correct.

Export levels are down 15 per cent, which is data from 2020, so it is interesting to think about what is the competitive advantage of a business, what we can offer and how we can continue to encourage exports. There is also more access to finance and to talent, so it’s a bit of both. The challenges are in the opportunities in Brexit too. But equally with covid, we have seen opportunities in tech and online education, in online payments, health tech and a move to more online consultation. So, the digital transformation has definitely accelerated. There have been those businesses that have seen opportunities in covid and have seen new needs arising and needs that are not being met. I think that a lot of people have business ideas. For the people in jobs it’s been a question of what should I do? It’s about the timing, which is quite exciting because it’s a tough time to explore those opportunities.

Unfortunately, at the same time, a number of businesses are closing down as well. So, I think that it’s really bringing about that agility and adaption which for entrepreneurs is a real test, as well as, of course, environmental conditions. It’s a real test of the entrepreneurial spirit and personality as well. Some external conditions make it hard to continue, so people will think about other things that they should do.

Yes, overall, I think that there are opportunities. One thing that is quite big in the entrepreneurial research community is that with opportunities, you have to be alert to them. So, I guess that alertness may be increasing for some and for others it may be coming to an end and it may be time to explore other opportunities in life, not necessarily entrepreneurial ones.

AL: You graduated from Birkbeck with an MSc in Bioinformatics in 2002. What brought you to Birkbeck?

I did my undergraduate project I was at Queen Mary (QMUL) at the time. In my undergraduate project I was really interested in molecular biology and that sort of led me to bioinformatics. It was a new and emerging field. This is going back to 2001 – 2002 and I had a look around and I know this programme is still going strong at Birkbeck today. But it was a unique and emerging subject and Birkbeck was already there doing it. It was already up and running and so for me it was something that others were not doing at the time. Birkbeck was ahead of the game in that sense and, given my personal interest in it, it seemed the natural choice for me, so I put all my eggs in one basket and I said, ‘that’s the masters programme I want to do’. It had a central London location – and I won’t lie that helped. It was an amazing location and I loved being around Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and places like that!

AL: What is it, do you think that makes the Birkbeck community special?

HC: I’ve kept some of my connections with the Birkbeck bioinformatics community, but I’ve also made new connections at Birkbeck and what I’ve really noticed is that it’s warm and friendly and there’s a genuine interest in that student experience and doing great things with students and that, you know, as a person on the academic side looking to do that myself, that really resonated with me as a sort of shared goal and a place in which I could get involved. I’ve specifically seen that on two programmes I’ve been involved in.  In one, I worked with colleagues on the Pioneer programme (a programme designed to encourage entrepreneurial success for students involved in new or existing businesses), doing workshops for students and encouraging them and encouraging business ideas. Another project, I was involved with, which was nominated for a Times Higher Education Award last year, was the Ability programme which helps students with mental health issues or neuro-diverse conditions. With both projects that I have been involved with personally, I cannot speak more highly of them and my experience with the colleagues who are involved in designing them. So that for me is what’s really special and why I keep that relationship with Birkbeck going.

AL: For those thinking of starting their own entrepreneurial venture, or who are interested in innovation, what would be your strongest piece of advice?

HC: My strongest piece of advice would be to research ideas – I don’t know if it is one piece of advice, or two or three tied together – to research and explore ideas, and that comes from starting off with good assumptions and good hypotheses. But ultimately looking at your assumptions, testing them, but also being really honest about what that data is showing you. In some cases you might test a business idea and that idea is backed by the data. In other cases you might test a business idea and that business idea is not supported by the data, in which case – face the feedback, be open to it and don’t ignore it and say ‘OK this is telling me that this isn’t going to work but I am going to continue anyway’ – as sometimes happens. So, I would say: research and try to read the data correctly and decide, making a fair decision about what you need to do.

AL: That is fantastic advice for all students at Birkbeck and alumni community. Thank so much for your time Harveen and for sharing your story with us on this Birkbeck podcast.

HC: Brilliant. Thank you, Andrew. It’s been great.


Dr Jus Singh (PhD Computer-based Drug Design)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to the Our Birkbeck podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series, you’ll hear from our alumni, students, staff and friends, whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry, or shaping the lives of those around them  – we celebrate their story. To find out more about the Our Birkbeck initiative, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk.

In this episode of the Our Birkbeck podcast, Finn Judge from Birkbeck’s development and alumni team interviews Dr Jus Singh.

Finn Judge: Hello I’m Finn Judge, development officer at Birkbeck, and welcome to this Our Birkbeck podcast. I’m joined by Dr Jus Singh, founder and chief scientific officer at Ankaa Therapeutics. Thanks for joining us for this Our Birkbeck podcast interview Jus, it’s great to have you with us, and it would be really good if you could just start by telling us a bit about yourself and the work that you do.

Jus Singh: Yeah, well thank you for the opportunity to speak. Start by saying that I studied at Birkbeck from 1981 to 1984, I’m a scientist, an entrepreneur and had the opportunity to do my PhD at Birkbeck in the early eighties. I now work in the United States and have worked for the last thirty years in the field of biotechnology. Married with three kids, four grandkids and live in Massachusetts. In terms of my work, it focuses on the intersection of computers, chemistry, biology and pharmacology – and the idea is to create drugs and impact human health. In terms of before I came to Birkbeck, I grew up in the North of England, in a place called Stockton-on-Tees, and my mother who is an inspiration to me, raised us on her own, three girls and two sons – and to some extent it was an area of the country that was pretty poor and opportunities were not that many, and I think at that point I realised the importance of education, and I think Birkbeck highlights that importance of education to students, and how it can create opportunities. I think at an early age I realised that education was the way to get out, and to be able to make an impact. I learnt how to basically teach myself certain subjects, and to some extent I think that teaching of myself, helped me try to be able to create things, and I think that’s helped me a lot in my scientific career. I wanted to study geography, history and economics at school, but when I went into my sixth form college they told me no you’re going to study chemistry and biology – which I knew very little about – and from there I ended up going to study Bio-chemistry at Sussex, and then I did my PhD at Birkbeck. What happened there, in terms of Birkbeck, was that I got a telegram from Tom Blundell, who was setting up the crystallography unit of Birkbeck, and he said would I be interested in coming to Birkbeck, and checking out the PhD programmes. And he had this very interesting project which was using computers to design drugs, and it was an area that was emerging at that time and I found it very exciting and I ended up basically going there and spending three years on my PhD. Now after the PhD I did a short post-doc, and I decided at that point I wanted to basically move to the US, because I thought the US would be a greater opportunity to develop drugs, and that’s where I’ve been now for the last thirty years almost, so it was a tough decision to leave England and move to the US, but I think in hindsight it was good because I think America at the time was a great place to be in terms of infrastructure, expertise, people, to be able to do some very, very exciting things in terms of developing drugs.

Finn Judge: So Jus, you’re now at the forefront of developing covalent drugs after your time at Birkbeck and after you moved to the US, and if you could tell us in layman terms, what the science is behind covalent drugs and how these have made an impact on treatment of cancer patients which I know you’ve recently been recognised for, by the American cancer society.

Jus Singh: Yeah, in terms of, if you look at the last century – the 20th century – one of the major advances has been the discovery that proteins in the body can impact disease, and that therefore modulating the activity of those proteins can ultimately lead to treatments, for diseases such as cancer and autoimmune diseases. I find that actually pretty remarkable, that a single protein can have essentially a direct influence on a disease. Now, that whole area which is called ‘rational drug design’ – that you know the protein, and that if you can impact the right protein you can impact very complex disease – has led to companies and academic institutions working very hard to try to figure out what is the right drug for a particular protein that is essentially not working properly in a disease setting, and if you look at what those drugs in terms of their mechanism, there’s essentially two types, one which is essentially the predominant mechanism, it’s called ‘reversible drugs’ which drugs come onto a protein in your body, and then they come off. There’s what ends up being in a thing called ‘equilibrium’ and companies work very hard to develop drugs which will essentially stay on the drug market, but it’s not an easy thing, it costs lots of money to be able to develop the right drug to do that. There’s another area called ‘covalent drugs’ and what they do is they come onto a protein target and never come off, it’s called ‘irreversible’. It’s a very scary term that word ‘irreversible’, and essentially its led to companies avoiding that mechanism of action because they felt as though there was risks associated with that concept of a drug not coming off its target. Now, that area I found very interesting from a historical perspective and the reason is some of the most important medicines in our Pharmacopoeia, work through a covalent mechanism of action. Drugs like aspirin and penicillin which potentially many of the people listening to this might have taken. They work through a covalent mechanism of action, and they were discovered a long time ago, and the interesting things is people didn’t realise the mechanism when they first discovered those drugs, and yet they’ve had a profound impact on human health. The thing was there seemed like a disconnect with historical impact of covalent drugs, and yet modern drug discovery programmes didn’t use them. And I set out to figure out if there was a way, what problems could you solve through a covalent mechanism of action, that could not be done through a reversible. That was the formation of a company called ‘Avila’ and we ended up targeting two proteins in the body, one is called ‘mutant EGFR’ and it turns out that’s very important in terms of lung cancer, about fifteen years ago a pivotal discovery was that a mutation happens in EGFR in the body of patients, and it turns out it leads to lung cancer and it’s not due to smoking, its due to that mutation. That disease became essentially the poster child for targeted therapies, if you could inhibit that epidermal growth receptor EGFR, you could essentially see these profound effects in these cancer patients where their tumours would shrink, and they didn’t need to be on these toxic chemotherapies, the drugs themselves are relatively mild. So that was a breakthrough, the problem was, within a relatively short amount of time, all of those cancer patients, their tumours would come back, and it was due to a thing called ‘resistance’, and it turns out the covalent drugs are able to work on those resistant mutations, and completely knock them out. And that ultimately has led to a new generation of drugs called ‘covalent mutant EGFR drugs’ which one doctor at Mass general hospital called it a miracle in the patients’ lives. That those drugs were able to be well tolerated, and give these people hope, so that was one area that covalent drugs made a profound impact. The second is a disease called ‘chronic lymphocytic leukaemia’, it’s the number one Leukaemia in the United States and Europe, and up until the point where these covalent drugs came up, it was a disease that was very difficult patients, they were on chemotherapies which weren’t very effective, it’s an elderly population who essentially don’t do well with these chemotherapies, and these covalent drugs have literally revolutionised the treatment of chronic lymphocytic Leukaemia. Once again, you’re seeing survival curves which essentially lead to patients being able to survive longer, and not have to take very toxic regimens of chemotherapy. So I’d say, those are two examples of drugs that have been impacted-sorry diseases which have been impacted by covalent drugs, and it has changed the perception of covalent drugs in the industry.

Finn Judge: That was fantastic, and of course you’ve had to combine that scientific acumen with business acumen in taking these drugs out to market and you were successful founder of Avila which was acquired by Celgene and I’d be curious to know, what does it take to combine both kind of business sense and the science in pushing those drugs and getting them developed?

Jus Singh: Yeah, I think that in terms of the advancement of drugs, it’s a rocky road, and it terms of Avila I think we made a lot of great progress in terms of advancing the whole field of covalent drugs, but getting a drug to market is not an easy thing. It takes lots of money, lots of patience, and in terms of if you look at people who basically want to go down this path, I think that’s the key to have a vision of what you’re trying to do, and often it isn’t something that you’ll succeed in on your own, and just lay the foundations and ultimately others will move these platforms forward. But to some extent I think that’s the key, have a vision, try to stick to it, and it’s going to be a bumpy road, it’s never easy especially with drug development, it’s one of the hardest areas. I’ll be upfront, it’s not been an easy path to be able to go down that road, drug development is basically a graveyard of great ideas that never-ever see fruition, but I think that’s ultimately the slow, steady progress of science, ultimately can lead to ultimately decisive impacts. I think for entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs have got to look at the long term, and that’s not easy because investors want essentially returns on investment within a reasonable time frame, and there is essentially a certain tension between the advancement of, essentially drug development and ultimately what the science dictates. I’d say for the people, it’s having a longer-term vision, to be able to be ready for the ups and downs and believe in what you’re doing.

Finn Judge: And of course, you quoted five years ago that you followed the Pauling principle which is to have lots of ideas, and throw away the bad ones. I’d be interested to hear, and I’m sure listeners would too about how that’s manifested itself throughout your career, and if you’ve had to throw away just as many, if not, more bad ideas.

Jus Singh: Oh definitely, I mean in terms of doing drug discovery, I think one of the things that you realise is, a lot of things that you do will not work, and in terms of my career in bio tech I’ve worked at some other companies, I worked at Parke-Davis in the early nineties, they’re the ones who developed drugs, breakthrough drugs like Lipitor, which has changed the way we treat cholesterol, and also I worked at a bio tech company called Biogen, and what I realised from being at both of those companies, is that most of the ideas never-ever moved forward. To some extent I think that was part of the thing that I found frustrating, that you had all these ideas that you’re permanently stuck in early drug discovery, nothing ever got to humans. I can say with satisfaction that for the work that we did at Avila, we were able to move drugs within a relatively short time frame, about five years into clinical trials and see impact on patients. Ultimately, because we got acquired, we didn’t see the fruitions of it going all the way to a product, I mean those are longer time frames and require much larger organisations, but I say that to some extent, most of the ideas don’t move forward, and even the work that we did at Avila, is still yet to see the light of day. The other thing to point out, is my career itself has not necessarily been smooth, when I was at Biogen – I was at Biogen about ten years – one of the oldest biotech’s in the US, very successful company, but in 2006 Biogen had a hiccup with one of its drugs in clinical development and they had to restructure so most of the workforce was let go in research. After ten years of building up a group and being very excited, half the work I was doing, I was suddenly left in a situation where you no longer have your group, you no longer have that permanent job, so what are you going to do, and that’s when I started Avila. It wasn’t at the most, like, strongest point of my career, in some respects it was at the weakest point, I decided at that point I wanted to start my own company to advance drugs. Not an easy task, I remember the conversation with my wife saying I was going to start my own drug company, she thought I was a bit crazy because I mean I didn’t have money to start a company and you need all these resources, but I think to some extent it shows that a good idea at the right time in the right place, can ultimately lead to an impact. That isn’t to say I did it on my own, I was fortunate to have people who were very supportive of what I was doing, European investors as well as US investors, and ultimately be able to build up a great scientific team. But I think to some extent it just shows that it’s the idea that’s important, and then you have to nurture that idea and you have to deal with the ups and downs of it. When we were developing our company, we essentially were raising money at the collapse of the financial markets in 2008, probably the worst time to be able to raise money, but ultimately, we succeeded. I think that’s just one of the ups and downs, the ups and downs of drug development and the ups and downs of actually trying to make a company succeed. I think it’s complicated but it can be done, and I think it requires essentially a passion for what you’re doing.

Finn Judge: And of course, an environment that encourages and allows for innovation as well, and it was interesting that you moved to the US, so early in your career after your studies, where do you think are the current best places for Pharma and biotech in the 2020s, would you still say the US? I mean you mentioned European investors too.

Jus Singh: Yeah, I don’t know as much about the European landscape, but I do see that there is a huge amount of energy in places like Boston and San Francisco. I worked in Cambridge for a long time, and just looking at the landscape in terms of biotech innovation there, it’s remarkable. Being able to create those hubs of innovation, it’s not easy because you have to have the right intersection between people who are innovators, you have the right group of investors around you who are willing to take these difficult bets, and I think that the US, historically, has just been a very good place to do that, and I think that Europe, when I was there, was not optimal in terms of that. I think things have changed, but I suspect it’s still not got the same level of intensity as you have in the US. If you look at the financial markets in the US, you look at the listings of biotech’s going public, I think there’s just a lot more US companies going public. And that’s a little bit frustrating to some extent because when I was at Birkbeck and looking at the people around me, there were some remarkable people who could have essentially if they’d had the infrastructure of the US, probably could have made companies from that, and the academics that I worked with at Birkbeck like Janet Thornton, and Tom Blundell, I mean you could have seen multiple companies coming out of those innovators.

Finn Judge: Well that was along the lines of the next question I was going to ask you Jus, which was, earlier on in your career at Birkbeck doing your PhD, perhaps far away from the commercial environment in which you have to enter afterwards, what was special about the Birkbeck community that kind of fostered some of the ideas that you eventually took forward. What parts of that community helped you do it?

Jus Singh: So, a couple of things. First is that I think that I was in a great department to do computational drug design. Now, the thing was I started out with a degree in bio-chemistry, and had no idea of computers, and then ended up going to a place where the project was on computers, so it was a steep learning curve, but it was great to be around people who had a lot of expertise in that. I think Birkbeck in terms of the department I was in was great, in terms of getting a theoretical background, and I was around people who were experts in that area, and at a time when things like the human genome project were on the horizon, and the idea of looking more systematically at proteins which are why these critical components to the way your body functions, and ultimately dysregulated in disease, so Birkbeck gave me the underpinnings, the theoretical underpinnings, and then I think moving to the US allowed me to combine that with the experimental. It would have been great if both of those had been available to me in the UK, but I thought the US was the way to combine those two. Another thing that I think was great about Birkbeck was if you just look at the people in the actual offices that I shared, they were just a great bunch of people, very innovative, very diverse in terms of their backgrounds, I think that is a fantastic thing about Birkbeck, it’s just a hub of activity coming from lots of different backgrounds. I shared a room which I think at the time was just a focal point, it was called EP10, and there was a great bunch of friends that I made in that room, who went on to do great things and it was just-I still have friends from that time at Birkbeck, and highly respected the people that I worked with.

Finn Judge: It sounds like you had people from which you could draw inspiration, and that leads nicely to our last question, which is, who has inspired you most? Not just in your career, it could be in your career but in your life generally, leading up to now.

Jus Singh: Yeah, I think that, well I’ve been fortunate to be around some very great women, and I have to give my inspiration to my mother and I think to some extent it ties in with the whole Birkbeck story, and that is, my mother came from India, and I think she ultimately became a single parent and brought up five kids, but what she instilled upon us was the importance of education, and that education was the means by which to basically make opportunities, and there wasn’t many opportunities in the part of the country that we were growing up, and I think to some extent, to see her resilience and her grit and her ability to deal with difficult situations, I think set an example for me throughout my life, she recently passed away and I think to me it basically just speaks to the fact that even to this day, I see her as a shining example in terms of what I could do. In fact, one thing that I was very happy about was that I got the opportunity when I got that award in the US, to take her to San Diego, and I think that award for me was more for her, than it was for me. I think it was just a testament to a lot of mothers – it was Mother’s Day yesterday in the US – who do a great job in terms of basically guiding their kids and obviously parenting in general. I think also, I just want to emphasise again, Birkbeck, a great institution, gives people opportunity through education and I can’t speak enough about how important that is, it’s all about opportunities and keep doing the great work

Finn Judge: Well Jus thank you very much for your time, and I know things are very busy at the moment for you, in the lab and elsewhere so I’ll let you get back to that, and yeah just to say a massive thank you to you once again.

Speaker 1: And that’s the end of this episode, we hope you have enjoyed hearing from Jus and Finn. If you’re interested in finding out more about Our Birkbeck, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community is having around the world. Thanks for listening, and until next time.

Sir Andrew Cahn

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

INTRODUCTION: Hello and Welcome to our Birkbeck Podcast. #OurBirkbeck is exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact of members of the Birkbeck Community are having around the world. In this podcast series, you’ll hear from our alumni, students, staff and friends, whether they are making difference in their community, bringing about change in their industry, or shaping the lives those around them. We celebrate their stories. To find more about our Birkbeck Initiatives, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk.

In this episode of the #OurBirkbeck Podcast, Helen Shaw from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni team interviews Birkbeck’s Chair of Governors, Sir Andrew Cahn.

Helen Shaw: Hi, I am Helen Shaw, welcome to this edition of the #OurBirkbeck podcast. I’m joined today by Birkbeck’s Chair of Governors, Sir Andrew Cahn. Thank you so much Andrew for joining us today and I’ll turn it over to you to give us a brief introduction about yourself.

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Thank you very much Helen, well I’m delighted to participate in this podcast about #OurBirkbeck. I’m very proud to be associated with Birkbeck. It was an opportunity which came out of blue, but the more I found out about Birkbeck, the more impressed I was in the year and half I’ve spent here. I was more and more impressed by the history and traditions of Birkbeck, all of the academic staff, administrative staff, people who make the organisation work and by the students. They are remarkable and unique and a very different group of people from any other educational institution I’ve worked for. Just a word about myself, I was civil servant for most of my life. I joined the Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and food which ended in 1973. Most of my career was spent dealing with the European Community, and then the European Union. I have actually worked in Brussels three times. I was twice a diplomat, but also worked twice as a European Civil Servant.  I think what I am most proud of in my career is that I was part of small team that created the European Single Market. Leaving aside all the controversy about Brexit or no Brexit I think almost everybody accepts that  the single market has been a force for good, force of prosperity and force of unity. Whether or not Britain wants to be part of it, it’s a good thing.

I certainly feel that and I am very proud to have part of the team that created that led that. I left the Civil Service in 2000, having been the Chief of Staff of Neil Kinnock former Labour leader, when he was European Commissioner, which was great fun. When I left the civil service I joined British Airways and worked with them for six years, which was very interesting, becoming a business person, after having been a public servant, but I was then headhunted back into running a government department of UK Trade and Investment. This is the body which promotes exports and attracting investment, it’s largely the equivalent to what is now the Department of International Trade with about 4000 staff, all around the world in embassies and home and an annual budget of about 300 hundred million pounds, and I had a wonderful six years doing that, travelling to over 80 countries at that time, and, and overseeing a huge increase in investment into this country.

And then I left, I’ve had 10 years as a non-executive director at a variety of companies. I turned myself into a city person by being a non-executive director of Nomura. A Japanese ban and Lloyd’s of London, the oldest insurance organisation in this country.

I was also and I still am a non-executive director of Huawei, the rather controversial Chinese company. I am a firm believer in them as the part of China we should be doing business with rather than them being the part of China we shouldn’t be doing business with. And then for six years, I was a chair of WWF, Worldwide Fund for Nature, or World Wildlife Fund, as you might think of it, which was a huge privilege and very exciting. And I’m still on the global board of WWF as a trustee.

I’ve also been a trustee for 26 years of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation – which most people will have not heard of. Helen you’ll have heard of it. It was the second largest charity in the country in terms of the money we disperse. We give away so much, almost 2 billion pounds so far. And we’ve still got about a billion to go. It’s David Sainsbury’s personal charity and that’s been a wonderful thing to be involved with. I’ve been a trustee of about four or five other charities as well. So that’s what I’ve done with my career.

Helen Shaw: That’s amazing. It’s fascinating to kind of hear you talk about the breadth of your career, you’ve had some highly distinguished roles. It sounds like it’s spanned so much from kind of public servant into the private sector and these trustee roles and non-executive places that you’ve held. It’s so much work. You touched on some of the highlights there around the European single market and some of the fantastic organisations you’ve been involved in. It all seems to have an international angle, has that been something that’s kind of motivated you or you’ve been passionate about, or is it a consequence of circumstance?

SIR ANDREW CAHN: I think in most people’s lives and careers, luck, and happenstance plays a big role. I wouldn’t say I set out to have an international career. But I think I always had an international perspective. My father was a German Jewish refugee from Hitler, and turned himself into an Englishman, but he was an Englishman who always spoke with a rather heavy German accent.  I always felt like an international person, did a lot of travelling in my time, and I got on in perhaps an idealistic way. I really do believe that if mankind is to confront the challenges of today, of which climate change and the loss of biodiversity are probably two of the biggest, far bigger than this passing pandemic is, we can’t get on the basis of a nation state, we have to do it on a on an international and global basis. So, a certain amount of internationalist ideology or passion has underpinned my career. But as I say, never underestimate the impact of blind fate and luck on the way your way your life develops.

Helen Shaw: That’s amazing and I leads quite nicely. I mean, is that another thing that’s guided you? Is there something in particular that has been a guiding principle or passion that led you through such a career that seems so many different institutions and positions?

SIR ANDREW CAHN: I think, a number of different principles or visions or ideals of government, and it changes over time. I think in my early career, I just wanted to be a good public servant. I was always motivated by the idea that you have the ideology of private being good and public being bad. I was completely wrong and I was somewhat out of sympathy with the regulate, that seemed to say, the private sector is always better at doing anything than the public Sector. The private sector is often very good at doing things. I’ve worked in the private sector, and I have great admiration for business and commercial people. I think that there are all sorts of things which the public sector should do and does better and indeed can only do. I’m a great believer that a successful society and effective community needs to have really effective public sector workers and that goes all the way up from the parish council, through to the United Nations and every level in between. So I began being motivated by public service. I hope that doesn’t sound wishy washy, but I do believe in the public service. Over the last few years, I suppose the thing which has driven me most of all, is the experience I had as chair of WWF. Coming to realise just how threatened humanity is. In the way we run ourselves currently everyone mentions climate change as an existential threat but I think that the loss of nature, the loss of biodiversity, the loss of natural habitats and ecosystems is in some ways an even bigger challenge. They’re both enormous and if you ask me, what am I proudest of over the last year or what I’ve done, it’s probably the fact that David Attenborough made a film called ‘The Life On Our Planet’, which came out a few months ago. That film wouldn’t have been made owithout me. I mean, I had nothing to do with the content of the film, which was all David and a wonderful person called Colin Buckfield from WWF. However, I made the money available, and if I hadn’t done so, and been a rather naughty chair, and said, I don’t care what the Finance Director says, we are going to fund this, it wouldn’t have happened. So I’m proud because his personal testimony is so compelling. For those of you who had seen it, you’ll recall that he begins by showing how nature can re-create itself and come back rapidly. For me, it’s a wakeup call to say mankind is a passing transient element on this planet, nature will survive, it will re-create itself after whatever damage we do.

But humanity is has the capacity through self-knowledge, consciousness, intelligence and technological wizardry to not destroy our planet and not to destroy ourselves. That’s what he argued. One last thing I’d say is in the last year or so, I’m very pleased to have taken over Birkbeck. And the fact that my father was a university professor and the founder of a discipline, a science discipline. My mother was a schoolteacher and so for me education has always been at the forefront of what I think is important in any society. When the chance came to become Chair of Birkbeck, I seized the chance because I don’t think frankly the Chair of Governors makes a huge amount of difference. The people who make the difference are artists, teachers and the students but we can make a bit of a difference and it’s a great pleasure to be able to do so.

Helen Shaw: As you’re talking about your work and especially your work as a trustee, both at WWF, but also here at Birkbeck, you can just feel your passion and how much you really care about it. I know there will be people who are sat there thinking trustee jobs are an opportunity to make a difference, they are an opportunity to do more. What would your advice be to those who want to explore those rules, who want to start getting into it and what should they expect?

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Well, first, my first bit of advice is if you want to stay not only alive but alert and energetic, to do things in your 60s or 70s, don’t just stop. Being a trustee and a non-executive is a way of doing that. There does come a moment when you can’t be an effective executive anymore. You don’t have the energy, you don’t have the concentration. However, you can be a trustee, you can contribute in a pro bono way. You don’t need to be paid for it because you’ve got your pensions and you can still be actively engaged. I’d say start early. I mentioned earlier that I been a trustee of the Gatsby foundation for 26 years, I was in government, my old school and I worked with some small charities locally. I think that gave me the experience of what it’s like to be a non-executive, as opposed to an executive, it’s very different to being a non-executive. You need a different mindset and great discipline. When you are an executive, there’s a shift from being an executive to a non-executive. All day you’re being an executive, you’ve been tasked with this project, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got this problem that needs sorting out. In the evening, you go off for your parish council, your church, Council, your local school, governance body or whatever and you’re a non-executive, it’s not your job is to take the decisions, it’s not your job to do it. It’s your job to say to the head teacher, or the chief executive, are you sure that’s right? Have you thought about this aspect? And if things get really bad, saying you can’t do that, because there’s a fiduciary, there’s a financial reason you’re not allowed to do that and we’re legally not allowed to do that, or you’ll create so much political problem if you can’t do it. You have a very different perspective as a non-executive, and it’s a good one to have. So I would encourage anybody in early sort of middle age, to start doing non-executive stuff, perhaps even earlier. Gradually you shift the balance, and in my 60s, half of it was earning money and half of it was doing pro bono stuff. Now, I’m just about to be 70, almost all of what I do is pro bono and I just have one paid non-executive director job. I’m completely comfortable with that and it’s been a glide path if you like. The glide path has been on the less importantly, earning less and less. This is learning a little bit, and much more importantly, in life while doing less and less. I don’t do 59 Ks like I used to and I don’t do eight-hour days like I used to and if I want to go off and play around with golf or climb a mountain or read a book, I do it. But I still have things which really preoccupy me which I can be passionate about, which I can be excited about. And from time to time I have a crisis which engulfs my time and that keeps you feeling alive and engaged.

HELEN SHAW: It sounds almost, as you said that you’ve transitioned through where you put your time in your 60s. And it almost reminds me of some of our Birkbeck students who come back, and it is his career 2.0 when they take their next step at Birkbeck, or who come back purely for the love of learning. So it feels to resonate really nicely in terms of that continuing to expand skill set and knowledge.

SIR ANDREW CAHN: I’m so impressed with those of our students who have almost full-time other lives, jobs, caring responsibilities, and other obligations. And yet, find the time, the energy, the concentration, the willpower to come to the six o’clock lecture seminar. Having written something, having prepared something and go away and write some more.  
That is very impressive. I’m a great believer in having a number of compartments to your life, and doing a variety of different things. That’s what Birkbeck students do, often with great difficulty but they do it and it’s very impressive. I think you should plan rest of your life, like that. Everybody does it because you have your job and you have your home life, your parents, your carer or somebody at home but there should be more, there should be other elements so that you have hobbies. You need to have the elements of other organisations, other components of society which you are contributing to, which you are helping to invigorate and make them achieve something. Birkbeck students should be even more capable of doing that than others because they run this marvellous, multi obligation life while being students.

HELEN SHAW: Brilliant and you mentioned at the beginning taking up the role of Birkbeck in 2019 and being really inspired by the history and tradition. As a chair of governors what do you see Birkbeck’s role as in the future? What does a Birkbeck in 200 years’ time look like ?

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Well, it won’t look the same I mean, one of the things that you realise when you dig into the history of Birkbeck is that Birkbeck reinvented itself quite a lot. And of course, 200 years ago, we weren’t even Birkbeck, we were the London Mechanics Institute. We have changed ourselves repeatedly. We’ve changed ourselves quite a lot, actually in the last 20 years, and I’m sure we’ll have to change ourselves again. Clearly coming out in a pandemic, we’re going to find the nature of teaching change, not just for Birkbeck, but for all higher education institutions. How much is done online future and how much is done face to face? How do you blend the two together? I don’t know what the answer is going to be. There’s no going back to the status quo and you’re not going to get back to what life was like before, we are going to have to change. Government policy and future administrations will force us to change but I’m very confident that Birkbeck has a large role to play. Partly because I think people are leading much more diverse lives now and that trend will continue. I think the move towards deciding that your higher education is something that’s going to happen in the evening rather than full time during the day, that can only increase. I think the idealism underpinning Birkbeck, which is always underpinned is that we specifically want to provide for quite a lot of people who it hasn’t been easy to get into higher education or they’ve missed out; and they would like to get in now, but it isn’t easy for them to get there or just don’t have the standard qualifications but do have the motivation drive and capability. All of that is underpinned by an idealism, about who in society, everybody in society should have an opportunity to have higher education if they can benefit from it and that will continue. So, I think Birkbeck will change. Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t know how it’ll change in the future, but I’m very excited. I think it’s one of things that I’m looking forward to over the next few years, is trying to ensure that as we reinvent ourselves coming out to the pandemic we do so in a sustainable way and make our business model work, but also contribute to the ideals which underpin Birkbeck over 200 years or 198 years.

Helen Shaw: It’s brilliant, it sounds exactly as you say the opportunities for Birkbeck to do more of what we have always done which is to continue, as you say to provide opportunities for everyone who has the drive and the passion to succeed and to go back out and contribute to those around them. This is exactly what the #OurBirkbeck initiative is really highlighting at the moment which is the incredible ways in which Birkbeck alumni, friends and supporters are in their communities making a difference and it’s fantastic to hear that that’s going to be amplified, potentially even more when Birkbeck has a role to play.

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Once you join the Birkbeck community, suddenly everybody you talk to turns out to have a Birkbeck connection which has delighted me and surprised me. All sorts of people, that you have no idea said ‘oh yeah, I did a Master’s at Birkbeck’. Birkbeck isn’t absolutely top of mind, when people think about universities, but it is essential in what we do, what we represent and what we signify. I think it’s absolutely best of British higher education.

Helen Shaw: Brilliant, thank you so much Andrew. That feels like a perfect moment to thank you for joining us today and taking the time to be part of the podcast series, to talk to us a little bit more about your career and what led you to Birkbeck. So, thank you so much and we look forward speaking to again soon.

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Thank you so much Helen

And that’s end of this episode. We hope you enjoy hearing from Andrew and Helen. If you interest in finding more about our Birkbeck, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community having around the world. Thanks for listening and until next time.  

#OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni – Alan Chan (Certificate in Higher Education Introductory Studies 2015)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

AS : Hello, and welcome to the Our Birkbeck Podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck Community are having around the World.

In this Podcast series you’ll hear from our Alumni, students, staff and friends. Whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their story.

To find out more about the Our Birkbeck Initiative, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk


In this episode of the Our Birkbeck Podcast Kara McMahon speaks to Birkbeck Alumnus and musician Alan Chan.


KM: Here with me today is Alan Chan. Birkbeck Alumnus, talented singer and songwriter who has so graciously decided to share his fascinating story with us. From his discovery of his love of music, to his rediscovery of his love of learning and along the way we will even  have a chance to listen to Alan’s songs.

Welcome Welcome Alan. Thank you for joining me today.  It is so lovely to see you

AC : Thank you for having me Kara. How are you today?

KM : Yeah. Very well thank you!

AC : Are you safe and well?

KM : Yes I am thankfully! And I’d love to talk to you about your discovery of music..but before we get to that, I think a lot of the Birkbeck Community will be so fascinated that you were on ‘The Voice’ last year! And can you tell us more a little bit about that and what your experience was like…

AC : Yes

KM : And you got to meet a lot of really cool people..

AC: Yep. OK. I’ll begin by saying that one of my Music Theory tutors was at the Academy of Contemporary Music dared me to go upstairs for the audition and..um..I decided that I didn’t want to do it because I thought all these programmes were rubbish anyway!


AC : ..And they are all manufactured bands and I didn’t agree with that and after half an hour of bugging me in the classroom, I decided to promise I would  go and do an audition upstairs in the Demo Theatre if he would stop telling me to go upstairs in front of the class! So, yeah, he stopped because I promised him that I would go upstairs… I went upstairs and told the Audition Lady, because she was one of the producers of the show, “Look, I know I am not suppose to be up here because I haven’t sent you an email three weeks ago to apply for an audition. Unfortunately, my tutor keeps telling me to come upstairs to do this. If you don’t let me do this, then he will continue to tell me to do it and its really really annoying. Cos its interrupting our class!”


AC : She laughed a lot and said “I’ll tell you what you do then, if anyone doesn’t turn up for the audition, then you can take their place, but you have to turn up at the end of the day”. So I did exactly that.

After turning up and doing my 10-minute audition, she and the camera person, I think camera producer, they were very impressed and then told me they would let me know.

Two weeks later, there was another audition, a month after that there was another audition in Manchester in Media City and that’s where they sat down 100 contestants. In the warehouse. We had no idea who we were and whatever, we just sat there. And they made an announcement saying that we were the last 100 contestants they had chosen to

KM : So, ah..

AC: For the whole of the United Kingdom, for Scotland and Wales and some parts of the other world and we were very happy, and I was like “This can’t be right?!”. And from there, they filmed everyone and then they picked 60 people to show on the TV. Y’know. So yeah…

..Alot of travelling. I still can’t believe that I got through to the last 100, let alone the last 24 in the quarter finals. But it was an honour. I met some really great people especially Sir Tom Jones..

KM : Ah..

AC : ..One of my idols. Living Legend. Er, Olly Murs, my coach, er Meghan Trainor and Will. I. Am. It was very nice. They were all very nice to me –  Until I got knocked out…respectfully. by the Champion..


AC : Which is amazing, hands down, she is incredible. Everyone was incredible.

KM : That is just so cool!

AC : So yeah, lots of travelling, erm, lots of rehearsing with the best musicians in the World who are the Band. I met Band members, I knew a couple of them before – when I saw them I went ‘Oh My God’ because I do know who they are and who they have played with so that was the real honour, obviously to meet the celebrities. {05:15)

KM : Er-ha..

AC : But the people playing the music, they all have a certain status and a career in music, and those who do know of the people standing in the back – the band – er these guys are royalty basically. So to meet them are incredible

KM: Wow…

AC :..and I learned a lot from them. I asked them lots of questions, which I love doing because. Er…because I am not that smart! [LAUGHS]


AC : So I ask lots of question! To gain information and with the information pick up..I..show others

KM : Yeah..

AC : I believe.. I mean that, it really does encourage everyone else, and that is what I do for work at my University that I graduated from

KM : That is just amazing. It sounds like you are just a lifelong learner as well as such a hard worker

AC : I would say I’ve delayed my education just under two decades

KM : Mmm

AC : Y’know, cos I really really frightened of studying because of secondary school years and that really,..really.. discouraged me to study. And, I just through that “I’m not an academic person’ so I just took it as it is. All I’m hearing from the Tutors in those days – and we are talking the 90’s – when there was no Wellbeing, no Student Support. It was like you were either slow or you was fast. You are either clever, or you are not. You are the back of the line, and that was it. That is what I grew up with in.

However, erm..getting bullied encouraged me to love music and to sing

KM : Right…

AC : In order to stop getting bullied

KM : Mmm

AC : So..then I entered the competition, won it, and from there the bullying stopped and some of my friends – who were also getting bullied – that stopped, and by the time we finished school, everyone was friends anyway, so…

KM : Right..

AC : It was a happy ending. It was a happy ending

KM : I also want to talk a little bit more about that what music meant to you during that time. So, you mention that you had a hard time in Secondary School, there was bullying, you didn’t feel totally supported by your community…How did you come onto music and what kind of escape did that provide to you.. or what did that mean in your personal development?

AC : As a young child, in the 80’s, there was no Wi-Fi, there was no PlayStation [INAUDIBLE CHUCKLE] There was a Commodore 64 and an old Nintendo..and we are talking old Nintendo..and erm..yeah..and there was a programme that used to be on (the television)  called “Top Of The Pops” and I would watch that religiously every Saturday and if I missed it, I would tape it with a VHS tape recorder – which I am sure that your parents are aware of (!!) erm..you plug it in and press record…and no remote controls either! ..you you had to press ‘record’ on the actual machine, then press ‘stop’ to the artists that I thought were amazing, then play this tape throughout the week to learn the song – because that was the only way to learn songs. You didn’t have Spotify, you didn’t have Download applications, you didn’t have this..so..you either had this cassette or VHS recording of the show, or you had old vinyl (LP Records). My two older brothers had a very wide genre range collection of vinyls

KM : Oh great…

AC : So I always played those vinyl’s. I damaged a few. Erm. Got in trouble, but yeah.


AC : .I always kept music around me. My neighbours as well. As I grew up..the council flat where I grew up..there was lots of different cultures and different traditions and different  people who listened to different music and different genres an when I asked them “What is this? This is great? I don’t understand…” As a child you didn’t know, yeah, and (they’d say) “Oh, this is from back home, where we’re from but it keeps us closer to home by listening to this music. And it shows our children, our family who were born here that identity. Music is always identity

And I really erm..I really appreciated what they said and erm..I just accepted multi-genres of music – even if I didn’t understand the language. I generally love and appreciate the authenticity of different cultures, er the emotions of different cultures are incredible..Erm.. and that helped me along the way with music it really did…as a vocalist..it really did

KM : Yeah

AC : It still comes to me today

KM : So how did that turn into..y’know..what you are doing now? Did you do formal music training, did you play other instruments as well…?

AC : Well, I kinda learned the instruments by playing around with them..

KM : Yeah

AC : ..I was never really taught..erm..but I..people have given me information that I use that information and I.. through repetition..got the confidence to play instruments

KM : Mmm

AC : Especially as a vocalist and then I decided to get back into education, after working for company – I won’t name them! – but erm..I just realised that they are never going to promote me anytime soon , so why don’t I just do something that I love, which is music. And erm..with no academic background in music.

I decided to get my further education at Birkbeck College, pick up a Higher Certificate, just in case my GCSE’s was no good enough through, because I dropped out of City & Lit College in my final year and my BTEC Performance which would have carried me to University..

KM : Mmm

AC : But, because I’d not enough credits to go to University, I decided to go to Birkbeck – part-time, while I had 3 jobs and looking after my two older kids, Yeah, so that was with Learning Difficulties, I soldiered through that, and with a lot of help from Birkbeck College and Tutors.

And from there, I realised that education wasn’t that bad! Anyone can learn, and with that knowledge, I decided to give it a few more year work and get promoted – I promised an Uncle of mine that sadly passed away, that I’d get back into music, and education of music that was 4 years ago and then 2017, I joined the Academy of Contemporary Music. They happily accepted me, even though my background in music – in terms of academic background was minimal – but I had the grades and the points enough with a passion of music from Birkbeck..you know..the credits.. enough credit..to get me into the building..so that was great. That was great. So I owe a lot to Birkbeck College and the tutor who taught me and gave me the patience. I mean they were very very patient. I mean, I had never ever had that. I’ve never had that. So my first solid block and foundation of learning was Birbeck College who were so patient and willing to give me..

KM : Mmm

AC : I mean, they wouldn’t leave me until I got it right. I mean you get some tutor, not all tutors are the same, they leave on time. They’ll be like, “It’s 5 O’Clock, I’ll leave on time. I’ve gotta go”, but there was tutors who would stay behind because they knew I was falling back..on that note..I was very lucky to have 2 tutors at Birkbeck that would spend the time- if they didn’t have the time , they would communicate through email to make sure I got it right. They’d give me the extra help, and if someone offered me help, I would take it, because I always need help [LAUGH] So I was very thankful for that.

From there, went to Contemporary Music and had the same treatment as I got from Birkbeck.

KM : Great..

AC : Every tutor..there are from about 90% of all the tutors at that University even though only 20% teach my degree in the 3 years basis, with tutorials and workshops and jumping into different lessons [LAUGHS] , cheekily


AC : I learned a lot of things and..

KM : Right..

AC : ..Luckily, most of the tutors..in fact…always made time to speak to me. Cos they knew I really cared about what I was doing

KM : Yeah. It sounds really similar to ..y’know..this journey that you have had in terms of always wanting to do more, but also  seeking out support when you needed it

AC : Ywah..

KM :.. And in turn, having that desire to learn

AC : That’s right..

KM : …and I think that’s absolutely amazing,  and it is very characteristic of our Birkbeck Students who are lifelong learners and come from a different kind of background, y’know were about to use the tools that they had in order to transform their lives through part-time education, and moving on from education, I’d love to hear about what you are doing now in the music industry, what does your day-to-day look like and we’ll play one of your songs and get into a little more specifics and our audience can hear from you

AC : OK, so, with the encouragement of Birkbeck as my foundation, I mean I must add, if erm..had they not encouraged me to ask questions

KM : Mmm

AC : And, told me to not be shy I may not be where I am today, y’know. And I may not know as much as I know today. Had my tutors at Birkbeck had not told me to ask questions. If you don’t understand, don’t hold back. You need to understand before you do this. That was how it was. And I get the same at ACM and if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

KM : Great…

AC : Currently I am signed to Universal Music after ‘The Voice’. I am trying to put out a single a week, however because of Lockdown it has delayed by a month, or maybe two, erm..I’ve just realised “Monsters Versus Men” two weeks ago. The video should be out, this Friday,

KM : OK, yes, please do

AC : The single was ‘Better Man’ which I’ve shown you, its already out, that was done right before Xmas, cos I wanted to finish the year on a high cos I graduated last year, er, delayed Graduation because of COVID , erm, yeah, it was just a celebration to get rid of the year

KM : Yeah

AC : And a single a week, that’s amazing..

AC : A month! Sorry, a month! A month!

KM: [LAUGHS} Either way!

AC : It was doable, because me and my music partners, we are songwriters so..we can write a song, I know how to sing it! Cos I’m a storyteller, singers are storytellers and lyrics are written by songwriters, sometimes by the singer, and they write a story, they pick a storyteller – which is the singer – then they pick the background music, and whoever is playing the emotion, and…that is a song, y’know. That is a song, And you pick what genre you want it, to express the story with. Could be Country, could be Bashment, could be Classical, could be Jazz, and Indie, Rockpop, You can tell a story in different ways which is the genre of music

KM : Yeah…

AC : Have I answered your question? [LAUGHS] Sorry!

KM : Yes! Absolutely! I’d love to play “Better Man”? Does that sound OK to you?

AC : That sounds great! Do it!

KM : And I’ll say as well that we will link to your video, your Spotify page, so that any listeners can listen along, but this is just a snippet


KM : Great. That is just amazing. Yeah. Could you tell us a little more about that song writing process? What that song means to you, if any of our listeners want to watch the music video, they will see some masks in your music video. I am assuming that this is a COVID related

AC : Oh yes..

KM : ..experience and song..

AC : Yes. So, this song was written when I recently had a little argument, as couples do, before I went to the studio to write the song with my music partner, writing partner Adam,  and he’s worked with many artists himself, he’s a prestigious writer and from there – I’d had an argument with my missus, y’know – typical, isn’t it, y’kow typical. He says “So what we going to write?” “Well, I’m feeling this way now, and COVID is upsetting everyone and one of my best friends is going through a terrible divorce at the time, and I’ve just spoke to him the night before and he mentioned that hew as trying so hard just to look after his family, but she’s not happy, things like that and Lockdown doesn’t help, y’know so all these emotions plus an argument then the studio, and this was right after the first Lockdown was over, was lifted, so it’s like a breath of fresh air

KM : Mmm

AC : I’ve over-eaten, everyone’s stressed, everyone’s slow, I’ve just kinda Graduated, got my grade which I was fantastically happy about, and I just through “Right, I can breathe now!” and then, lifting the Lockdown, went to the studio and then wrote the song in about an hour, recorded it with a guitar and we thought “This is a really good song?! OK! Lets get in the Studio!”. Two days later, we found one of Sam Smith’s producers, who is a friend of ours, and, er Marek his name is, went to Sam Smith’s studio in Hammersmith, Pierce Entertainment studio, we used the exact same studio as he recorded the first album and the second album, and I think the third as well, but definitely the first two.

So to me, that was like a very great moment,

KM : Yeah

AC : because like a Grammy Award winning album was recorded in the same studio, on the same equipment, y’know, so there’s loads of other artists, but I don’t want to waste time, but Sam Smith Grammy Award winning album was recorded in this studio with this producer..and I am not worthy y’know kinda think..


AC : He made the most of it. And if you hear the whole song, Marek and Adam made sure that I, I didn’t want too much technical enhancements to my vocals. Everything you hear in that song is ME. There is, there is, (maybe) hardly any corrections. Some singers you have to correct things – I won’t bore you with the technical terms, but if we were out of tune, you can put it in tune.

KM : Mmm

AC : Nowadays. You can make someone who sings terribly and make them sound amazing

KM : Ha

AC: With a few hours of touch-ups, y’know. Mixing. Its called. So I didn’t need any of that. I just went “I don’t want it touched, I just want sing my heart out. I am in a really great studio. I’m feeling emotional. I wanna let it out after three months of lockdown and studying lockdown. At the end of the outro, you’d hear me really just singing, cos I am fed up with being locked up! [LAUGHS]

KM : [LAUGHS] You’re singing for all of us!

AC : So fed up with the, y’know..

KM : Yeah

AC : Exactly! It was a fight just to be OK! Not to win, just to be OK, y’know..So, I feel I’ve expressed that in my emotional singing of the song. Plus the separation that my friend was having. Plus, the argument I’d had with my missus and other people going through bad relationship issues as well. And all around me, cos Lockdown, people hadn’t been together for so long

KM: Uh-uh

AC : They go to work, , they got the space and the time, and they get back and “Oh, OK, how are you, dear?” 4 or 5 hours in front of the TV and then it’s bedtime, isn’t it. They’ve never stuck in the same house, a lot of people have never, everyday, all day, and they just wanna [LAUGH] kill each other [LAUGHS]


AC: That was the case. Especially with kids, my God. So. Um. This song is for everyone that went through that, its for you, it’s for Birkbeck, its for everyone. Everyone. This song.

KM: It’s amazing that you could channel all of that energy and say..

AC : Yeah, yeah yeah. Emotion is what I see and hear. And how I feel. And this is how most music is created. I mean, I am inspired by the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. And 80’s. And the 90’s as well, of course. Cos that was my youth, growing up. Listening to music, but, music was created when people were struggling. Y’know. And I always like, kept that in my mind, y’know. When people are unfortunately struggling, which we don’t want, we come out with a certain emotion that expresses how others feel. And being a vocalist, it allows me to to do that

KM : Yeah…

AC : I mean, if I get rich, which I will!, fantastic!


AC : Great. Great. Y’know. But right now. I’m working for my University, who gave me a job, I’m their ambassador of the brand, I make sure that everyone, I’m a COVID Marshall, to everyone safe before they come in and out the building. I’m First Aid trained so I know how to deal with someone when they are unwell. Er, and my experience through life. And as a student through my degree, through lockdown and I am pretty much twice the age of any of the students who were there, y’know, who look up to me! I am thankful for, because I look up to them. So they have put me in a position where I can help students going through such a difficult time. So I am doing what I love, I am supporting people I love and respect

KM: uh uh

AC : And I am in the Facility that I love, which is my Uni, that I studied in. The tutors are now my friends, as well as my ex tutor, and current mentor. And the people who manage the site, are now either my managers of my team leaders, which is fantastic. So I am in a very good place right now. Unfortunately, we are locked down, but I am working online, like yourself, but erm, right at this very moment, , I am very grateful, my elder son is at University in his first year. My daughter is in college doing Art, erm, a 2 and a half year old who you just met earlier, unfortunately has not started nursery yet, which is a pain but safety first. And everyone in my immediate family is healthy. I have lost quite a few people actually from last year and this year and that’s including friends, elderly, COVID-19 . So yes, it’s been a bit crazy..

KM : Yep

AC : But I am very grateful

KM : Uh-uh

AC : And we are very grateful to you for spending this time to speak with us and I’d just like to comment, and I am sure our listeners would take up on this, with this full-circle aspect from your whole story of having trouble in school, finding music..

AC : Yeah..

KM : ..and pushing through so many challenges and how supporting students to fulfil their dreams and..

AC : Absolutely

KM :..and on that note I would actually like to ask you, erm, you might be aware that we have long term students at Birkbeck, who are Creative Practitioners like yourself

AC : Uh-uh

KM: Do you have any top tips for them if they are studying with us right now, especially in this really difficult time, if you have any advice for them..?

AC : Uh, Creative yeah?

KM: Yes

AC : OK, One thing that helped me was, OK, everyone has their favourite artists or favourite creators, learn a bit about…look into what they like, and what inspires them. For example, Stevie Wonder, one of my favourite guys, What inspires him? Duke Ellington. Then read about Duke Ellington, and what inspired Duke Ellington. Yeah. Elvis. One of my favourite artists, who I will never get to see, but I listen to him, who inspired him? Muddy Walters, Little Richard, all the Gospel Churches around his poor area that he grew up in. Yeah. He was sticking his head in and just listening. Y’know, then he picked up on the emotions of the Gospel Singers, and then he’ll go down the road and listen to Country Singers and that is how he became Elvis.

KM :Uh-Uh

AC : And he loved it. And that is inspiring.

KM : Yeah

AC : Going back to what Elvis was listening to, I met Tom Jones, right, and asked him what his inspirations are and he told me it was the miners in Wales. His parents, uncles, singing [SINGS A FEW NOTES IN A WELSH STYLE] and he picked it up. Cos the miners could really sing with the baritone voice, and he picked that up, from there…he just developed and learned from everyone he met.

KM : it’s that simple..

AC : Y’know, if you have a favourite writer, what inspired them to write that, y’know. Just go back in time. Find that, find where the root is. Find the roots of your genre, your subject, that you love and respect so much. That’s my tip.

KM : Yeah. That is such good advice. Thanks, so much Alan. It’s been an absolute delight speaking with you today and, I am so excited for our listeners to hear this. Stay up on your career and please keep us updated

AC : Yes! Of course


Narrator : And that’s the end for today’s episode. We hope you enjoyed listening to Kara and Alan. Remember if you are interested in finding out more about Our Birkbeck please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community is having around the World. Thank you so much for listening, and until next time

Annette Anthony

Annette is an executive coach and Founding Member of Impact X Capital Partners; a double bottom line venture capital firm focused on supporting underrepresented founders across Europe and, by extension, creating jobs.   

Pictured: Annette Anthony

Impact X is a venture capital firm focused on supporting underrepresented founders and innovators across Europe. Tell me more about Impact X’s work and what inspired you to be one of the company’s Founding Investors?

It was the Founder, Eric Collins, who inspired me; I give him the credit! I knew his reputation and background – he had a great understanding of the business, technical, start-up and financial worlds. He also had a very clear vision and understood the structural challenges involved with inequality. This was paired with a solid and compelling proposition for how to address these inequalities.

Whenever you are looking at taking a risk, it is really about who you are taking the risk with. Venture capital is extremely high risk but he had put together the right team to deliver on Impact X’s purpose, which is to invest with impact and address structural inequalities. We were, and are still, addressing an overlooked opportunity resulting from diverse innovators not getting capital. The compelling business opportunity aligned with my ethos and values; it was a high integrity proposition. So, I really invested in a combination of the team, the founder and the objectives.

It was also exciting to see what would be achieved from this collaboration and what type of people would come forward when they knew about our resources. Even if we can’t invest in someone, there is still an ecosystem of support and advice. I knew that this is the type of world I would like to craft for myself, one that fertilises growth and opportunity for everyone.

Why do you think the work of Impact X is so important?

I have lived in the UK, France, countries in Africa, and am from North America. I believe that in Europe, there has been a myth that there is a level playing field of opportunity, which is not the case. I do have a few data points highlighting this: less than 3% of UK venture capital goes to female teams. For black teams this lowers to 2% and for black female teams it drops again to 0.02%. It is my understanding that black female entrepreneurship is the fastest growing entrepreneurial sector. At Impact X the goal was to redress some of that imbalance.

We like to believe that talent and ideas are evenly distributed (yet resource distribution would lead one to believe otherwise). When one looks at the data points, those numbers are wrong even if you look proportionally at the population. More data is coming out across Europe and we need to use it to identify and solve these problems.

More work has been done on this issue; Birkbeck has played its part, and creating a level playing field is coming to the forefront. Addressing this appealed to me as a civic and business-minded person. As globally we realise inequality is an enduring issue, I was glad that Impact X was ahead of the curve. I remember Eric, the founder, said that he has seen companies who are excellent but for some reason consistently are not getting funds and wondered why; there was a visual data point. Eric wanted to do something about this and asked if I was “in or out” (I was in of course). We sadly can’t invest in everyone but there are other ways we can be useful and, where appropriate, we provide intellectual resources for the businesses who approach us.

In real human terms, particularly in the investor field, it was concerning to have highly qualified people investing their time and resources, gaining traction with their ideas, but consistently not being able to secure capital. As mentors, what do you tell them when they ask why aren’t they getting that capital?

Do you have the opportunity to meet some of those who Impact X helps and can you share any examples with us?

Absolutely. The pandemic has for now changed this, but we did have a gathering in 2019 which was a warm moment and a chance for everyone to get together.

One example is a tech platform that we invested in. The business had a good pre-money valuation and looked promising. They expanded their growth x7 within ten months, an exceptional return. You can successfully manage and mitigate risks to generate impressive returns such as this. We’re still early days, so to see this traction was great.

You have had an incredible career; before becoming a founding member of Impact X Capital Partners and training as an executive coach, you started as Counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and have since supported a U.S. presidential campaign and other political races. What are some of your career highlights and do you have achievements of which you are most proud?

I think of my life in stages, and I don’t want to hang my achievements on career successes. What I am most proud of is surviving this life with my moral DNA and values intact. I believe that in all the challenges of life, the highs and lows, one must be able to face oneself in the mirror and always calibrate on your values. I am proud that I remain curious, engaged, and can still smell the roses.

Looking at past stages in my life, working at the U.S. Senate was phenomenal and an amazing career start. I am also incredibly proud of my family. In this third stage of my life, I was especially proud to be among those who accompanied Stacey Abrams, the beacon on voting rights in the United States, to 10 Downing Street in 2019 when she was invited during her visit to London. That was the culmination of a lot of activism, and I was very happy to have that moment.

Alongside your work you have also held several not-for-profit roles and supported organisations that champion the arts, broaden education and tackle structural inequality. Do you have an overarching passion that guides you in the work you become involved with?

My parents raised me to be a surgeon like my father. However, when I was pretty young, I realised that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t have the mettle for dissection! However, my father wasn’t just a surgeon. He helped many, those who couldn’t afford medical care, for instance. This idea of helping people really formed me. I also saw this in my extended family, and I think it’s something innate in me.

We each decide how we will use our minds, and everyone has their purpose; I wanted to use mine to improve the lives of other people where I can and believe that, in turn, will improve all of our lives. Essentially, the root of all my passions, whether through the arts, politics or professionally, is my pull towards engaging with those who can have a tangible impact on a civic platform. That is where I choose to place my energy.

I also use another method when making my choices; considering a desert island and deciding who I would like to be stranded with. Who do you value?

You are now an accredited executive coach. What inspired you to move into this field?

Friends, entrepreneurs, and senior executives had regularly approached me for career advice or to discuss issues or brainstorm. I decided to make this more formal. It allows me to help people find out how they can improve their lives and get what they need. It’s also an effective way to share my own life experience, a way in which I can usefully disseminate what I have learned. I am excited about the coaching and enjoy it. It is also a nice compliment to my interests in the start-up space.

What would be your advice to those looking to broaden their career paths or begin entrepreneurial ventures of their own?

Draw lessons from your experiences. We all know that knowledge mastery, drive, and passion are critical, but learning lessons from life experiences is so important. For instance, I had a complex experience when first investing; I invested in a talented entrepreneur who had a vision and traction but had issues of capacity. Things didn’t go to plan. However, I didn’t let it deter me, and I drew many lessons from experiences like this. Those lessons helped me to anchor my perspective and land on the right agenda eventually. Impact X started to incubate soon after.

Also, not just to learn from experience, but to continue learning new things. It is always worthwhile investing in yourself, and that’s precisely what I did at Birkbeck, I invested in myself.

You came to Birkbeck to do a short course in creative writing; what brought you to Birkbeck and how did you find the experience?

The experience was transformative, genuinely wonderful. It was an adventure for me to try and get away from technical writing, into a more creative sphere. I decided to enquire where I could do evening courses and found out that Birkbeck was the best for mature students because of the high quality of the faculty and the students themselves; we were quite an eclectic and interesting mix. This mix really attracted me.

When I am published I will undoubtedly credit Birkbeck. They helped me to discover a passion I didn’t know I had and helped to take me into my ‘third age’ – my next stage of life.

The course that attracted me, and I’ll never forget it, was called the ‘Secret Lives of Women’ and it was a great experience. Unfortunately, the lecturer has now passed away, but she was exceptional, and we had remained close to her, even in her final moments. I read a quote from Maya Angelou that I think embodies what she taught us – ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ I studied a decade ago and women’s voices are still so important to hear. We are in a different phase of this now, but it is just as much needed.

What, if anything, do you feel makes Birkbeck special?

I was educated in the United States, where there are many reputable institutions, as there are in London and the UK. However, what made Birkbeck special for me was the quality faculty, especially when looking at evening programmes, and the breadth of options. I realised that I could do a lot to progress my interests by using my evenings – I was raising my family at the time and was involved with charitable work.

I remember we all raved about the student group; people balanced studies with other full-time commitments making them an engaged group. When you add that commitment to learning on top of other daily responsibilities, it shows real dedication. That was part of the attraction, you want to be with people who want to be there. Similarly, the enthusiasm of my lecturer stood out. I have lectured in France on women in the law, so I have some experience first-hand, and I found the faculty exceptional.

You have now written your first book. What is it about?

Yes! I am proud to say that I have finished, and I am looking to publish it; it is a cooking memoir. As well as this, I am working on my second book, this time fiction, though can’t say too much about that yet. The course really kicked off an interest that has become an essential part of my life.

To find out more about #OurBirkbeck, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk

Michelle Mitchell OBE (MSc Politics and Administration 1997)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Hello and welcome to #ourbirbeck podcast. #Ourbirkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series you will hear from our alumni, students, staff, and friends. Whether they make a difference in their community, bringing about change in their industry, or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their story. To find out more about the #Ourbirkbeck initiative please visit: campaign.bbk.ac.uk

In this episode of the #ourbirkbeck podcast, Luisa Staley from Birkbeck’s Development Alumni team interviews Birkbeck alumna Michelle Mitchell.

L: Hello everyone, I am Luisa Staley, and I am delighted to be joined today on an #Ourbirkbeck podcast by CEO of Cancer Research UK and Birkbeck alumna Michelle Mitchell OBE.  Michelle welcome.

M: thank you, delighted to be here.

L: Thank you so much, that’s fantastic. Well, I thought we could just quick off with a really easy question, but actually quite a broad one. Tell us about yourself.

 M: So I grew up in Merseyside, which is near Liverpool in the 80s and I was the first in my family to go to University. I studied Economics at Manchester and then came to Birkbeck to study my MSc in Politics and Public Administration. Delighted to do both of those things, and then moved on to work in Parliament between the years of 1994 and 1997 where I worked for an MP at the time, and got a wonderful understanding of how parliament and politics work, but felt quite deeply rooted in my values that charity is probably the best social change and push forward with those things that are important to me including Equality and Social Justice. As well as improving the health of the nation and I have a long career working in charities ever since. Including currently Cancer Research UK, but previously the Chief Exec of the MS society, the director general innovative UK and also being a non-exec board member of NHS England. So delighted to have had the opportunity to, I think make the world a better place through the work I have being able to do within four charities.

L: Absolutely, wow! That is extremely distinguished. It really sounds like you had an incredible career, you know working and leading several fantastic organizations which you just mentioned. Are there any highlights that stand out for you?

M: oh, there’s lots of highlights absolutely. What really interests me and what really gets me going is I am really passionate about leading charities to achieve their purpose impact and deliver change and big part of that for me is how we collaborate with others and hardness the power and ambition of people. Whether that’s our staff, our volunteers, citizens, scientists, corporate partners, volunteers, around a set of big life changing goals. So, for us at Cancer Research UK that’s about improving cancer survival by 3 and 4 by 2034. Other highlights in my career have been where I have worked at the MS society and during my time as CEO, we oversaw significant progress and effective treatment for people with MS. That was from 40% to 58% that was the charity’s number one goal because so few people were taking treatments which would have slowed down the progress of multiple sclerosis for them. I was also pleased at that time because we were facing challenges about how we increased our income to fund this great research and the support for people with MS. So we developed the 10 year research strategy and launched a major appeal called the stop MS appeal. That was a big bold £100M fund raising appeal and by the time I left we had raised over £40Min just three years which was a huge change for that charity. Before that, Age UK which is the UK’s, now for Older people charity, I was one of a small number of people who let them merger, l helped with Age Concern and brought to bear a new organization, Age UK and is often recognized within the top 10 consumer charity brands here in the UK. The difference we made, two things there during that period: one was running a multi-year campaign that successfully introduced the Equalities act in 2010 and that resulted in protection of all older people from Age discrimination in the provision of goods and services and introduced for the first time maintained retirement ages, so great there. The other issue was working to reduce pension and poverty. Again the campaign over many many years and resulted in the pensions act in 2014 which introduced the triple lock for the basic state pension which meant an increase of 50 to 70 percent of women reaching state pension age with the full basic pension and at Cancer Research UK I think it has been great to persuade the government to set an ambitious target about committing to improve cancer survival. They are talking about 75 percent of people being diagnosed at stage 1 and 2 by 2028, we shall hold into account whether they were able to do that and it’s been an absolute privilege to launch several major innovations including new research program called the Graham Challenge which is funding the best and the brightest scientists around the world on the most difficult questions in cancer and bringing together teams from all over the world to help us accelerate progress against our mission and save lives through research. Oh I could go on, and in my twenties I was chair of the Forces Society which is a gender equality campaign organization and we pushed the agenda on equal pay on changing to the criminal justice system and improving female representation in business in public life, oh I could go on. I am full interest and full of ideas about how to change the world.

L: Amazing, there are certainly some highlights, I mean not even just career highlights, but just life highlights. You set some absolutely amazing examples there. Thank you. You kind of touched upon a little bit, but has there been a guiding kind of passion or principle that has guided you through your career?

M: Yes I think so, I love to work with great people, the best minds, to tackle the biggest social challenges in our world and for me the charity sector is a brilliant place to be to do that and to lead if you fundamentally believe in social change. In terms of my specific motivation in my role at cancer research UK, my life like many people’s has been changed by cancer, so like many I am really determined to see, and accelerate progress in cancer because you know I’m just not satisfied with what’s happening today to the millions of people being directly and indirectly affected by cancer, and we have seen cancer survival significantly improved. In fact double over the last forty years, but we still lacking behind many comparative countries in Europe, Canada, Northern America, where we should and will do better in this country. So this was really attractive to me, to join Cancer Research UK and of course we are made up of an excellent group of people who share this determination. I have a fantastic supporting network of scientists, GP’s, nurses, researchers, supporters, and people directly affected by Cancer so you know it’s great to be part of that Team all united by one mission.

L: Fantastic. That’s really interesting to hear, that approach and how It gets transcended across your career. Obviously, you are Chief Executive of one of the largest charities in the world and you know, you’ve been a strong advocate woman in leadership. Why is it so important and what do you think will help create meaningful change in supporting more women into leadership roles?

M: Well, I strongly believe in diverse teams, I think it’s well-proven that the more diverse organizations are the better they will perform. You know a diverse team will help make sure we draw on the depths of skills, perspectives, that we represent the communities we serve and that we can make the best possible decisions and while particularly more recently at cancer research UK we’ve made progress, on our EDI agenda and particularly on supporting women and women leaders. Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t seen all the changes we want to see and this is especially true in relation to women from ethnic minority communities, but we have done several things at cancer research UK. From us It has been a focus before I joined that is in 2017 and what we had noted that we’d seen a drop off from our senior levels, particularly director and executive director and so we’ve implemented some practical steps around that, executive board sponsorship for about 15 high potential female heads. We have developed leadership programs available for aspiring leaders at lower levels in the organization. I believe particularly in relation to equality diversion and inclusion you have to set targets and be adaptable for different targets and be accountable for delivering those targets, so we have targets in place around minimum of 50 percent representation at both director board levels within three years. We have made good progress, COVID has hit us harder because we had to make serious, significant redundancies and reduction the number of posts, but that is what we are continuing to aim for. And particularly through lockdown, you know we’ve all been hit hard, and I don’t know about you, I know that there is many additional work I have been doing at home as well as leading CRUK, but have sort to introduce a policy of best endeavor, so people are really doing their best around their specific personal circumstances and I know for staff  those with children and caring responsibilities it’s been a really tough time and we have looked at, and just about to launch a new flexible working policy.

L: Wow.

M: It’s a really quite a progressive one, we believe you know, and I believe the world has changed and we need to adapt our approach to support well-being, retained talent, move barriers to progression. And I think by evolving our approach to flexible working will improve ways of working help/support people achieve a better work-life balance and ultimately make faster progress and that benefits everybody. But you know the feedback I’ve had from my female staff is setting targets outlining the ambition you have around supporting female leadership, putting practical programs in place and continuously to evolve and adapt flexible working are the areas that staff have said they’ve really valued.

L: Yeah, that’s really interesting, it feels there is a sort of consolidated and multifaced approach. It’s not just a one sized for all and it really sounds like you are digging into that.

Yeah, one of the things that people spoke to me when I first joined it meant a lot, actually to have a female CEO for a number of members of our staff at cancer research UK and it should have not surprised me, but it did a little. You know it really felt I was the first female CEO for this wonderful charity and it was interesting to get that feedback and of course what women want to see is people like them in senior positions of leadership as well, so I think there’s a sense a sense of having senior women in these roles sends a message about, you know we can all do this.

L: Yeah absolutely, great thank you. And in terms of you know the life-saving research that CRUK does on a daily basis, we all know with the pandemic, and with Brexit that there have been amends challenges and particularly for academic researchers and we felt that here at Birkbeck, what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities and challenges for the scientific research community in the years ahead post Brexit and post pandemic.

 M: well, for those of you who like to listen, read Charles Dickens, you know some of us have describe this period as being the best of times and the worst of times, of course it has been a time of great scientific endeavor. The science that has underpinned, or hopefully recovery and route out of COVID has been incredible, it’s been an amazing work. But COVID and Brexit have served as a double whammy for charities and universities. The UK has so many strengths, world-class universities, world-calls sites, a proud history of innovation and invention, you know we invented the jet-engine, the steam engine, a great science has decoded the structure of DNA, we have an NHS, you know free, universal NHS free at the point of need. This incredible longitudinal of datasets we’re top area in Europe for investment, we have amazing talent and we’ve also seen that talent considerably develop in cutting a JI and Tech, so I think the good thing is you know we can and are globally competitive and I strongly believe that science and research innovation are critical to the prosperity of the nation to jobs, services, new products, transforming  public services, and also adjusting those big issues that we face around sustainability and public health for example cancer. But we do face considerable challenges, not least the impact that declining the economy and covid has had on university and charity funding and I think we are at a point where our global competitiveness could be threatened and to give you a couple of examples what this means specifically in cancer. We’ve been hit incredibly hard, we are anticipating a drop of income of 300M over a three-year period, as a consequence of COVID, that is 160M a year and we’ve had no choice but to scale down our work to reflect our reduced income. Of course, our determination has not faulted but It means in the short-term we have to reduce the number of PHD students we support, receive fewer publications, we’ll be able to fund fewer clinical trials and I am concerned that we will see some of our brilliant and most in demand scientists leave for better funded areas in research, other countries or even other sectors and this cuts which translate to fewer discoveries and slower progress, so at the moment you know we have a mission at cancer research UK and is to absolutely outperform our plan to protect more of our leading research and give our researchers the breathing space to do best what they do best which is disrupting the status-quo, innovating and accelerating progress for us and in beating cancer together so I think we’re facing together, universities, scientists, academics, charities, a tough few years, but I am completely confident that we will recover in time and we will stay at the forefront of the global fight against cancer. We’re as determined as ever to beat cancer and we’ve got to adapt, which we are and change this new environment that we are operating in. I mean we’ve got to exploit the post-covid, post-Brexit environment and we can do that by enhancing the regulatory framework for cancer research. Focus on the clinical innovation that needs to happen to improve cancer survival and forge ahead with some exciting industry in academic partnerships. I think the NHS is going to play a big role in this to deliver NHS reforms, perhaps using cancer as exemplar to drive better disease interception, early detection, research intensive, clinical care environment and lastly double down on the UK signs base and ensure the government invests and that its rhetoric is matched by its funding for the joint aim that we support is to ensure UK remains a global scientific superpower.

L: Absolutely, well said, and I think as you clearly identified the synergies between you know at us Birkbeck the researchers and charities are all fond of that too. So yes, thank you for that. Actually now, bringing it back to Birkbeck now, and your time here. So, you’ve studied Politics and Administration at the college, what role did Birkbeck play in your career?

M: well, it’s interesting actually, it’s been lovely to reflect on it for this interview together. So I was very fortunate to have the late professor Ben Pimlott as my supervisor on my MSc Politics and Public Administration course and he sadly died very young, at 58 of leukemia. he was an important part of my decision about whether I would go to Birkbeck. I was considering LSE and Birkbeck at the same time. The other important criteria for me was it enabled me to work full-time and study in the evening and that was absolutely critical because it made it affordable to do a post-graduate education. Live in London at the same time, I was working at Westminster at the time as I started with research and then political adviser and it was near to Westminster so the great excellent in teaching and very attractive supervisor, the ability to work in the evening and the location all made it the perfect choice to me and I very very much enjoyed my time at Birkbeck.

L: Fantastic. Everything seems to have aligned there for you which is what we often see from our students and alumni. And what do you think is special about the Birkbeck community?

M: well, I think the Birkbeck community is very special. I think there is a great standard of teaching, I think the fact that education is accessible is really important and I think that diversity of people who come to Birkbeck, study at Birkbeck adds to the richness of the teaching so I think there’s something very special about the diversity of Birkbeck community and that enabled us to really think through, challenge ideas, assumptions, opinions in a very lively way and I certainly enjoy lively debate and discussion and critically I think again people being rooted in often having jobs, working, you get certain type of person who’s probably pretty determined and perhaps loves education who come to Birkbeck and I think that along with high standards makes it a very special community.

L: Thank you, I agree Michelle. And finally, have you caught up or kept in touch with any of your fellow Birkbeck alumni since you left?

M: So, you often come across people, on the course I did there were several servants, who were studying away with me and of course you keep track of some people who have a good relationship and become friends after that, but you know I, watching it closely would certainly recommend the course I did to anybody.

L: Brilliant. Thank you so much and thank you for your time today and for joining us on this #ourbirkbeck podcast. It’s been great chatting with you, and I wish you all the very best success as you move forward with CRUK post-Brexit and post-pandemic too. Thanks Michelle.

M: Thank you

And that is the end of this episode. We hope you enjoyed hearing from Luisa and Michelle. If you are interested in finding out more about #ourbirkbeck please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more of the impact our communities are having around the world. Thanks for listening and until next time.

#OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni – Sean O’Curneen (MSc European Politics 2002)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Speaker 1:

Hello and welcome to the OurBirkbeck podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series you’ll hear from our alumni, students, staff and friends – whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry or shaping the lives of those around them – we celebrate their story. To find out more about the OurBirkbeck initiative, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk

In this episode of the OurBirkbeck podcast, Helen Shaw from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni Team interviews Birkbeck alumnus Sean O’Curneen.

Helen Shaw:

Hi, I’m Helen Shaw and I’m the Director of Development and Alumni at Birkbeck, and welcome to this OurBirkbeck podcast. I’m joined today by MSc European Politics alumnus Sean O’Curneen. He is the Secretary General of the Renew Europe group and is based in Brussels. Thank you so much Sean for joining us today, and I’ll hand over to you to tell us a little about yourself.

Sean O’Curneen.

Well, Helen, pleasure to meet you – and of course all of those who will be listening hopefully to this podcast. It’s a real pleasure to be part of this really inspiring and excellent initiative by—by Birkbeck. Erm, well, a little bit about myself, I am half-Spanish, half-Irish. I was brought up in Spain, I went to a British school in Spain – primary and secondary – and the logical step afterwards, from that, was to study university in the UK. So I studied Astronomy at UCL in the late 1980s. UCL is practically next door to Birkbeck so, from very early on, I was very much aware about Birkbeck, and I walked past it a million times, went in a few times, and even knew people who were studying there.

After the degree, I decided actually to change career completely and I went to France to study journalism, and I then started working as a journalist in Paris in the English-language section of Radio France International, from which I then moved to BBC in London. And after a few years at the BBC I decided I wanted to see politics from the other side, and just at that time, so 1999 to 2000, the Greater London Authority was being established and they needed press officers, and I got a job as part of the team there. And I soon realised – and also wanted, um, to do so – but I realised that it would be really good if I was going to work in politics to have a sound academic backing, in, er, in a sound foundation in politics. And I had always been interested in politics even when I was determined to study Astronomy, so I thought, OK, this is a moment to, to really get the academic foundation, and I thought of Birkbeck.

As I mentioned earlier, I’d always known about Birkbeck and I thought it was the perfect place for me to study while I was working. And I looked at the course – European Politics, as since I have such a European background myself, I just thought that it was really perfect for me, and I was able to get in and study it for two years. And then, erm, well, after four years of working with the Mayor of London or for the Mayor of London, I heard of an opportunity in Brussels and I applied, and that was sixteen years ago I got offered the job.

I should just—I should just say that I’m Secretary General of the Renew Europe group in the European Committee of the Regions – and will talk more about what the Committee of the Regions is – but there is another Secretary General of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, so, there are two political groups. We’re sister groups, if you want, we have a lot of contact, we both represent liberal politicians from all over, erm, the European Union. But there is a counterpart with a very similar title but in a [laughs] in a different institution. So I’m the one in the European Committee of the Regions and I’ve been here now since 2004.

Helen Shaw

I’m glad you corrected that in case it was kind of one of those – where it’s, you know, giving you totally different rumours but it’s good to know that you’re actually quite sister kind of organisations.

Sean O’Curneen

No – no where – it’s a lot of people, happens to a lot of people, don’t worry [laughs]. Even in Brussels.

Helen Shaw

[Laughing] Well, that’s at least good to know. It’s – you’ve honestly had such an, an interesting journey going from astronomy to journalism and through, now, into the kind of politics and very much the other side of politics, and it would be great to kind of understand – it sounds like there’s, you know, obviously the European Union being a huge, quite complex institution, it would be great to know a little bit more about kind of the work that you do – and I know that you, you represent city mayors, regional presidents and ministers, local and regional councillors, but what does this kind of involve and how does it actually translate to impact the people in their communities?

Sean O’Curneen

OK, well, actually the European Committee of the Regions is the youngest of the EU institutions, it was set up in 1994 with the Maastricht Treaty. And it was set up in response to something that became, um, a problem, an issue, and that was that a lot of EU laws were having to be first implemented at the sub-national level. That’s by regional government, by local government as well. So it was recognised that they should have a say, that their point of view should be considered for enacting the laws. So at it’s very basic, erm, at the very basic level, it’s function is to ensu—to give voice to sub-national governments of the EU. There are about ninety-thousand local and regional authorities around the EU. Almost one million – or approximately one million local and regional elected politicians.

Helen Shaw


Sean O’Curneen

And they are responsible collectively for one-half of public investment in the EU, one-third of public expenditure, and one-quarter of tax revenue. So, when you think of it that way, you realise that the political objectives of the European Union cannot be achieved without a meaningful partnership with sub-national government. So, that – the role of the European Committee of the Regions is to make sure that the EU decision-makers are in touch with the ground – with what’s happening on the ground, and therefore, to make sure that local communities, their interests, their point of view, the diversity – the huge diversity that there is around Europe – is taken into account at the point of drafting legislation, and, erm, and making policy proposals. So, our direct task is to represent all of those local and regional politicians from around the EU, but indirectly through them, to ensure that the citizens, in all their diversity around Europe, are in touch or are heard and listened to in the process of European legislation. And, specifically, my task is to ensure that the ones who fit in the liberal political family – so we function a bit like a parliament; we have political groups, all of these mayors and regional politicians have been elected according to their national political party – and those of them who fit within the liberal political group, I manage the secretary that provides support to them for their work – to carry out their work.

Helen Shaw

Wow – I – it is, it’s, potentially sounds quite ignorant but I had no idea that that it’s, it sounds, you know as you say like one-third of expenditure in terms of over kind of a million, local kind of elected people, like that’s huge, and it’s really fascinating it’s a kind of – get an insight into some of the complex cities that I think from, dare if I say it now, from an external perspective from the UK, um, is  really interesting to just how such a kind of huge and complex institution works and what that means, and as you say making sure that from the ground up people’s voices are still being heard and – and represented in legislation that ultimately affects how they are governed at a local and national level, so.

Sean O’Curneen

It is a monumental task, erm, but it’s not an impossible one. And, and of course, well, the UK was a member of the EU. We had British members as well who were incredibly active – from all political parties in the UK, and who were incredibly active and incredibly constructive and made a major contribution. Now, there’s a huge amount of work to be done still, representing ninety-thousand local authorities and regional authorities and approximately one million elected representatives, it’s not something that you can achieve overnight. The institution has been around for twenty-five years, I’ve been here for sixteen, every year has been different. Every year has been different. And every year we have grown in one way or another. So, we continue to improve our ability and our capacity to represent what’s happening on the ground.

Helen Shaw

Mm hm.

Sean O’Curneen

And, I mean, one of the biggest things – and it was actually a British MP who said this to me once – sometimes the European Parliament is legislating blindly without really having a sufficiently good knowledge of what the situation is on the ground, how necessary is this legislation, or if it is necessary, if we do know it is necessary, in what way it should be adapted or tweaked, um, and therefore he said that’s where you guys at the Committee of the Regions can really bring to the European level a picture of what the situation is on the ground. Whatever the topic may be, whether it’s biodiversity or integration of migrants, or SMEs, small businesses, culture, education, anything like that – so that is really our task, our task is to bring to the European level a picture of what is happening on the ground so that the decision-makers can, can make more informed decisions and better legislation. And there’s of course always more to do. Always more to do. And one looks back and there’s frustration that we couldn’t have done more, ten years ago, ten years ago, but the task is huge. It is – it is a large democracy. And it’s still under construction. And we are going in the right direction, and I’m always – I’m still very much confident that it is not an impossible task and we are getting there. We’re getting there.

Helen Shaw

I love that you kind of framed that it is, you know, this huge democracy and it is, it is continually being built. I think that is such a refreshing way to look at something which could be seen as kind of, you know, quite a bureaucratic immovable piece but to almost hear how you talk about it with such passion around it, with kind of actual – the nimbleness in which these things need to be implemented at local levels and the way that there is continual change. As you said, every day is different and is that really what keeps you kind of motivated and what – is it a bigger piece around that that keeps you coming back and making that progress every day towards what is not an impossible task, but keeping you kind of going and pushing forward with that?

Sean O’Curneen

Absolutely. You know, when I – I didn’t come to this job expecting I would be here for sixteen years so, you know, up until, up until this point I had never been in a job for longer than four, so I thought well, I assumed that average would continue. When I reached eight years in this job I started to think, surely it’s gonna start to get repetitive, and no. Here I am, another eight years later. And as I say, every year has been different, and it’s just incredibly stimulating, because something that is under construction, as the European Union still is, and the European democracy still is, um, is, it’s constantly changing.

Of course there have been major crises, and everybody knows about the crisis, but few people know about the successes, because for some reason we don’t buy newspapers to read about success, or we don’t go on – we don’t buy newspaper or online subscriptions to read about success, that’s part of human nature for some reason. But there has been tremendous – tremendous developments, and my, my job involves – and not just my job but colleagues in the Committee of the Regions – involves three aspects that really, erm, it’s like I’m wearing three hats, and one day it’s one, one day it’s the other, sometimes it’s all three, and that’s what I find so stimulating about the job. And one is that it’s a contribution to building the union of Europeans. I know that makes some people, especially in Britain, nervous to hear that but you just have to look at why the European Union started; it came out of a terrible war – two terrible wars, and there was a recognition that that should never, ever, ever happen again, and the only way to achieve that was to intertwine these nations in such a way that they could never, and would never want to, fight against each other. So – but furthermore, there is a reality which is that we all have multiple identities and we all, whether we like it or not, whether we recognise it or not, we all have a European dimension to our identity. And the European Union is about giving, erm, or translating that in a real way, and giving those people who do feel in touch with the European dimension of their identity the possibility to experience that, the possibility to develop that, either professionally or personally.

So that’s one – one side of, one dimension of my job, the other part we’ve just touched upon is strengthening European democracy itself. I did my thesis at Birkbeck on democratic disaffection in general, but also how it might manifest itself in the European Union. And that thesis is something – and what I learnt writing that thesis is something that I have used so frequently in my job here in the Committee of the Regions and within the Renew Europe group, developing projects, sharing information, researching it for the members, for the mayors, drafting declarations etcetera. So, and you know, the European democracy it gets criticised, there are flaws in it. But it is a democracy, you know. Citizens vote for their members of the European Parliament and in the UK it’s very similar, you vote for your Prime Minister, you vote for the Member of Parliament, and in the European elections you vote for the Member of the European Parliament, and then the laws are decided by Members of the European Parliament and the national government who have been chosen by their citizens. So those two have democratic legitimacy directly from their voters and they’re the ones who jointly come up with the laws and the decisions. And one huge aspect of this, of course, is ensuring that that whole layer of democracy at the subnational level is adequately represented and that’s where I’m very happy to be contributing to strengthening that side of democracy. And finally, another aspect of my job, which gives this huge diversity to it, is promoting political liberalism. I know people listening may not be in tune or have their own ideas. Liberalism is something that is very misunderstood, it means different things in different countries and in some countries it means very right-wing and in some others it means very left-wing, but broadly speaking, at European level, what it means is the political philosophy that tries to ensure that every individual is able to fulfil their potential. And we defend with equal interest and equal strength on the one hand economic freedom, but always protecting the weakest, and on the other hand we defend individual freedom, so that everyone is free to express themselves however they are. And that’s at the most basic level what political liberalism is and I’m passionate about that, so, those three things I’m all – I’m passionate about all three and I have the good fortune of being able to contribute in some way or another in my job almost on a daily basis to all three.

Helen Shaw

That’s fantastic. Brilliant. And I mean, we’ve kind of touched on, I mean, what could be kind of, you know, considered the hot topic or the elephant in the room here, we’ve kind of touched on a little bit in terms of the UK and the EU relationships, as the UK has now left the EU, the – how this relationship going forward it’s just kind of starting off and there certainly seems to have been some difficulties to start with. Long-term, how do you kind of see the relationship between the UK and the EU developing?

Sean O’Curneen

That’s a very interesting question, and of course because everyone is sort of emersed in the short-term and the day-to-day rollercoaster of this, of this story. I think to look forward, one has to look back a little bit, because I’m of the opinion that most of the people who’ve tried to analyse why Brexit happened have actually missed the point. So, let me take a minute or two just to explain what my understanding or my interpretation, or my – my theory is to why Brexit happened. You see, throughout the twentieth century, the European Union offered solutions to three or four existential challenges that different nation states in Europe were facing. The first one was the threat of invasion. Second one was connecting budding democracies, new democracies that were just getting off the ground and were very weak and very, well, vulnerable. The third existential challenge was for those smaller countries who have a very dominant neighbour. And the fourth was prosperity. Post-war Europe was of course in dire straits, and economic development was a major consideration, a major priority for all these countries.

So, if you look at those four existential problems that different nations in Europe were facing, the EU provided a solution or European integration. Of course it wasn’t always called EU, but European integration provided a solution to some of those – to all of those four challenges.

Now, if you look at the time twenty-eight member states before the UK left, and you analyse each one of these challenges, for every single one of the twenty-eight, except Britain, the EU was providing a solution to two of those. So let me rephrase that. Every single one of those nations was facing at least two of those challenges, and therefore found that the EU was a solution to those existential questions. Except Britain. Britain was only facing one of them, because, if you look at the threat of invasion, Britain was never invaded. Britain, of course, suffered during the war, and Britain of course always wanted peace in Europe, but it’s experience of the war was different to those who had been invaded and suffered tremendously. Protection of a budding democracy – well, Britain is one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world, therefore it didn’t need the EU for that, to protect its democracy. Protection of a dominant neighbour – well, it’s not like Finland or the Baltics, who have Russia on their boarders, and when you could argue that Britain is quite dominant in, in its little corner of Europe even though it probably sees eye-to-eye with France and Germany, but it wasn’t really an issue. So you come to prosperity, the fourth challenge, and yes, that was a major concern for Britain, post-war Europe, and even up until recently, Britain has always been interested in the single market. But all the other aspects of the European Union, the political union, were not something that Britain needed. So now you look at the future. So, sorry, just to finish, I think therefore that kind of explains why Britain’s attachment to the European Union was and is much weaker than other countries and is in my opinion the main reason why so many voted to leave – a majority voted to leave.

But now you look at the future, and you say OK. To answer your question, what are the relations going to be like, well, the big existential questions and challenges that nations face now in the world and in the twenty-first century are related to the climate crisis, global finances where you have major players which are bigger than nation states, economic powers, or companies that call the shots. The same happens with big techs and artificial intelligence. Companies which are actually dictating the terms to national governments. You have international terrorism, the rise of authoritarianism, massive flows of migration. All of these are huge challenges, and what you have with the Brexit movement is that leaders of the Brexit movement, they believe that these challenges are best addressed from the nation state level, whereas a majority in the EU believe that these challenges exceed the capacity and strength of any nation state in the EU, and that it’s by coming together and giving and having the political clout and weight of a political union, like the European Union, that these nation states are better protected when faced with these twenty-first century challenges.

So what we have therefore, looking to the future relationship between Britain and the EU, is two models. Two very different models about how to face the twenty-first century. And so the relationship between the two will be driven by those two models, and sometimes the interests between the two will converge, and things will go smoothly, and sometimes they will diverge and then tensions will flare up. But I believe that that, erm, how the relations between the two evolve over time have to be looked at through at through that prism.

Helen Shaw

Definitely. And we’ve talked before, touched upon the work that the European Committee of Regions has kind of done previously with the UK’s kind of subnational government, and do you think that will continue? Do you think that relationship will continue to exist, change shape a little bit? How would that, on a kind of, on that level make a difference?

Sean O’Curneen

I’m very happy to say that the relationship will continue to exist, but of course it will – it will change. For a lot of people in Britain and in Europe are not aware of the role that their mayor or that their local authority or that their regional authority plays at a European level. And the number of projects that go on, exchange of mispractise, joint initiatives, cultural business exchanges, policy proposals, erm, that goes on – and of course that went on between British subnational authorities and counterparts across the whole of the EU. Both sides have very strong interests in maintaining relations. And in fact, we have set up a UK contact group that we call. It’s a working group which brings together representatives of the Scottish, the Welsh, the Northern-Irish, the devolved government, the London assembly, and the local government – their respective local government associations. The idea is to meet at least twice a year. There’s already been two meetings during the transition period last year. There’s already been one meeting this year. There’ll be another one later in the year. And from the British side there’s a great interest in following how things are things are developing for subnational government in the EU because of course for forty years, British subnational government has been implementing EU legislation. A lot of it is still functioning, still operational, still makes a lot of sense.

So, subnational government in the UK wants to know what other good ideas might emerge [laughs] on the other side. And therefore – or just simply be in touch with how legislations and polices are evolving to maybe pick and choose what they like from the EU’s side. Especially the countries that are neighbouring countries to the UK, either with a land boarder or a land connection such as the Eurotunnel, or just along the English Channel and the North Sea. There are lots of coastal areas there that historically, going back centuries, have had strong ties with the UK and they want to keep those ties. So, we will maintain cultural links, scientific and business links, but within the constraints of the new relationship, which will of course not be as free as it has been up until now. And so some things will no longer be possible, others may be possible but in a different way. And that’s what we’re exploring. But in any case the dialogue is there, and will be maintained, and there’s a lot of interest to keep it.

Helen Shaw

That’s fantastic. And, I mean, as you say, a lot of people – especially a lot of people in the UK like myself included, weren’t really aware of some of this that went on at this kind of subnational level. What would your kind of advice be for people, students, people considering, kind of, thinking more about either working in this space or getting more political active in this space? How do you suggest that they kind of identify and kind of get involved with this in general? Just how would they even start to think about that?

Sean O’Curneen

Well, I take it you mean about having involvement in the European Union and not just referring to British citizens?

Helen Shaw

Yes. Across the border. Yep. Wherever they are.

Sean O’Curneen

Wherever they are. Well, that’s a very good question because one of the things that we’re trying to do is develop a network of local councillors in every – the objective is that it should be in every municipality around the EU, of course we may never reach that goal, but we have to start with ambitious goals and then you’ll get as far as possible. But the idea is that in every local council around the EU, one councillor – one member of the council should be designated to be the liaison, the direct liaison with European affairs. In other words, what one of the things that I didn’t mention at the start was that the Committee of the Regions was set up to give a voice to local and regional authorities, but also, also, to bring Europe closer to the citizens and citizens closer to the European Union. Because when you have elected representatives taking decisions on your behalf, and this is the way the media scene is very fragmented in Europe, information that gets to the citizens is very very patchy. So we have experimented over the years in many different ways, and one thing we’re now really developing is this idea of having a local councillor – just one – in every council who is in charge of, on one hand, following what is happening in the European Union and all that might be relevant to his or her village. His or her town. His or her large city. And then has the task of relaying that information to the local community. But it’s a two-way thing. So that person would also know which buttons to press, which numbers to call, in order to express any interests, the ideas, the concerns from their local community. Now, obviously in a way that kind of functions already through the channels – official channels that exist through your MEPs, your members in the Committee of the Regions, through your national government. But of course, we’ve seen through the years that’s not enough. That’s not enough, you know, you really need to extend the possibilities for engagement much wider than the official channels and open up in – unofficial or informal channels that didn’t exist before. So that’s one way of doing.

So how, how does that relate to your question? Well, that means that people who are interested in getting involved in this, they can either go to local politics themselves. And of course, try to become MEPs, but the number of MEPs is very limited. But if they go into local politics, they should realise that actually local politics is not just local it’s also European. And therefore by going into local politics they can become active at the European level as well. Or citizens who want to be part of this can – you know, a lot of people criticise the European Union for not being transparent. Actually, it’s one of the most transparent decision-makers in the world. You just have to go to the website. A lot of people don’t know this but you just go to the website and you will find so much information there. Not all of it in every language, but nowadays the online translators are incredible. The information is there. It’s – there really is no excuse for not knowing what’s being decided on behalf of citizens.

And the other thing I wanted to say that’s related to the UK is that, you know, the geography has not changed. The UK is still at the doorstep of the EU and the EU is still right there next to the UK. So British, young British people, or not just young British people but anyone who are interested, who is interested in relations between the UK and the EU, can get involved and should get involved. Because the more we know of each other, the more that relationship will develop in a positive way, and so, as I say, the geography has not changed.

Helen Shaw.

That’s fantastic. And I – one last question for you, and it’s clearly Birkbeck-related. Probably – you know, you’ve talked about kind of your Birkbeck journey and what’s motivated you and how you’ve gone on from there to utilise your Birkbeck experience, but also just the incredibly varied and diverse work you do on a daily basis. And for you, you know, taking the time to just come back and chat to us now, what do you think it is that makes the Birkbeck community so special?

Sean O’Curneen

I absolutely loved every minute that I was a student at Birkbeck. And in some ways, I was said when it ended. But I didn’t have a lot of time to socialise when I was there because I just got engaged just before I started the course, so my first year was spent working, studying at Birkbeck, and planning the wedding. [laughs] A wedding can be almost a full-time job, and, and so, that’s – then my second year of the Master’s, my wife got pregnant, so we were of course very focused on preparing the arrival of our first child. And I was under pressure to make sure to finish the Master’s in time to focus on the family. So I didn’t socialise a huge amount, although I do have very good memories of some of the classmates that I had, and that’s to me whats so special about Birkbeck – is that all of my classmates there, they all had professional experience of some kind. Most of them were still working, like myself, some of them had worked in the past, and that really made the discussions very interesting, because each one was able to bring in their own personal experience, professional experience, and there was a certain, I suppose, maturity there in terms of engaging in the discussions, which perhaps, if you’re just recently out of school, might not be quite the same. Even though I also really enjoyed my first years at university. But I think that’s what – what makes Birkbeck so special is that diversity of life experience, and of course Birkbeck is very international as well. And the whole story, the history of Birkbeck, how Birkbeck started with that famous lecture near Charring Cross, I mean that, I would recommend everyone to read about the history of Birkbeck if you go and study there, or even while you’re studying there, because it’s quite emotional to see the reasons why Birkbeck was started up and how it’s still fulfilling that task and that mission today. And, you know, it really is life and career changing, and it was, for me, my Master’s perhaps didn’t give me the job – it was a very important brick, or very important part of me getting this job – but it certainly has shaped my thinking for the job that I do now. And I think that is what makes Birkbeck so special, of course also the quality of the teaching. I remember Bill Thompson, who is now at the OECD, but he was a senior lecturer in politics, and Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos, who I’m still in touch with, by the way. The quality of the teaching was fantastic; I loved the library; I loved the central London location. So, there’s so much that makes Birkbeck special, and if anyone is thinking about going there I would thoroughly, thoroughly recommend it.

Helen Shaw

Thank you so much, it’s such a pleasure to speak to you and personally, really – I found this really interesting to get an insight into an area that I really didn’t know a huge amount about, and to – it’s really piqued my interest. It’s really something that it’s kind of a… I had no concept of some of the complexities, some of the ways in which subnation, local and national governments kind of fit each other specifically in the EU and the work that groups like European Committee of the Regions do, so it’s been really fantastic to get that insight. So thank you so much for taking the time, and, yeah, brilliant, we will keep in touch and speak to you soon.

Sean O’Curneen

Thank you very much Helen, it’s been a real pleasure chatting with you. I’m glad that I’ve been able to transmit a little of what I do and a little of the passion that I have for what I do. So thank you very much and good luck with the rest of this wonderful initiative.

Speaker 1

That’s the end of the episode. We hope you’ve enjoyed listening to Sean and Helen. If you’re interested in finding out more about OurBirkbeck, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community is having around the world. Thanks for listening, and until next time.

David Greene (MSc Politics)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Hello and welcome to the Our Birkbeck Podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting yearlong initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series you will hear from our alumni, students, staff and friends, whether they make a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry, or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their story, to find out more about the Our Birkbeck initiative please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk.  

In this special episode of the Our Birkbeck podcast, Birkbeck president baroness Joan Bakewell speaks to alumnus and former president of The Law Society David Greene.  

JB: David Greene it is a great pleasure for we to welcome you to this occasion.  

DG: I am very grateful to you for this opportunity and I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to sing that praises of Birkbeck and all that I does, I just think it’s a fantastic institution and I really enjoyed my time there and we can talk about that. As far as what The Law Society and what the president of The Law Society does, one needs to look at what a law society does and first of all The Law Society represents about 200,000 solicitors throughout England and wales, it doesn’t represent those in Scotland or Northern Ireland. But about 200,000, and it deals with the practical issues, we are the voice of solicitors, we try and drive excellence in the profession, we safeguard the rule of law and I’m sure we will come on to questions about the rule of law and challenges that are faced throughout the world in relation to it. And we protect everyone’s right to access to justice so we have got that mixture of representing members, but also dealing with those public interest issues about access to justice, the rule of law both national and international. I will proceed on to what the president does, well the president’s job as you can guess Joan is one of glamour. It is one of travelling internationally, dinners, speeches and dressing up, wearing the most wonderful badge of office which I thoroughly enjoy, it all happens from home in this seat in front of this camera. So I am missing all of that but on the other hand there are such serious issues going on at the moment it is a absolutely fascinating job dealing with the rule of law, whether it’s access to justice, members, how they are able to practice during this time and all the issues arising from that, dealing with the pandemic and it is really a thoroughly enjoyable job undertaking that task even though I do it all from this chair in front of this camera.  

JB : Well before we go into the broader issues moral dilemmas across the issues of justices across the world, tell us a bit about yourself why did you choose the law and what route did you decide that? 

DG: Well I came into law in a different route than most people these days. Back in the 70’s when I started studying you could enter law straight from school and you had to undertake one year examination with the College of Law, which I did way back in 1976. Which you and I recall as a very hot year that hot summer in 76. So I went to college at The College of Law I passed those exams and then did 4 years of articles (apprenticeships) and then I did a final year and then you qualified after that. That was actually a popular way into practicing law and worked very well for many of us and it was stopped some time ago you needed a degree after that and now we are actually going full circle because we are reintroducing apprenticeships in order to enter law and we can talk about why we are doing that and what are the important aspects of that a litter further down the line. But I came into law from school and I always thought I would do law from being a teenager and I have to say I loved every moment of it and I continue to love every moment of it and I am sure we will discuss why.  

JB: Now what did Birkbeck offer you because you took a MA in politics? 

DG: Yes, so what happened actually as well as doing law I really wanted to be a politician and a Labour Party politician. I started at a young age transferring from as many people do from the communist party at some point into the Labour Party and I was very active in local politics and then in national politics and by night I stood first time for parliament in the 1983 election. The 83 election yes you are right Joan it was not a happy time, but I think I saved the deposit which was quite an important issue. It was actually after that that I went to Birkbeck with Ben Pimlott, who was chief lecturer at the time in politics, I went to Birkbeck in the mid 1980’s to do politics.  

JB: You are an alumni, distinguished, ex-student of Birkbeck so what would you say in its favour? What is good about it and its community?  

DG: I think Birkbeck is a fantastic institution, I think it offers those courses, degrees other courses that people can take later in life, it maybe that they want to study something completely fresh or they want to study further a subject they studied previously or they are coming to university for the first time. I think it’s great and if you were to say to me “what did you get out of your time at Birkbeck?” The answer is I got an insight into study and insight into understanding things a little more deeply, the benefit of deeper study but I also got a lot of confidence out of it. I think Birkbeck gives people a lot of confidence but gives them a lot of enjoyment in doing the courses they want to do. 

JB: Did it put you off politics, as in active engagement?  

DG: No! I enjoyed politics and indeed it might be said and I have heard people said this to me I’ve lived my politics in the work I do in the people I represent. So no it didn’t put me off politics, there are a lot of attraction to politics aren’t there? Community the striving to get that commonality of purpose all of those things, all the gossip of course that sits in politics all of those issues are really attract.  

JB: The leader Labour Party Keir Starmer is a barrister, a very distinguished barrister that put social justice at the heart of his beliefs, you didn’t want to become a barrister? 

DG: Yes, well I wanted to be a politician and that was my main aim. Because I’m a litigator, it’s quite common for litigators in their mid-thirties to think about ‘why don’t I become a full-time advocate?.’ It either does or does not happen just like politics does or does not happen, one has to make choices in life and I actually made the right choice as far as I am concerned because I’ve really enjoyed practice over the years.  

JB: Over the years you have represented distinguished people, what are your favourite memories of what you’ve achieved?  

DG: I think that if you are saying what I’ve achieved is I think I’ve achieved representing people who would otherwise find it difficult to secure access to justice. Bringing together people together to  enforce their rights, enforce the rule of law. I’ve had a very broad practice, one would regard me as litigator I have a broad practice in litigation. But I have represented many many people who would otherwise find it difficult to gain access and from my first maybe it was late 80’s in the Lockerby disaster and representing families in the Lockerby enquiry. I worked on the Summerland fire which you may recall in the Isle of Man, horrific event. Then I subsequently acted for large groups and for some time for London sex workers, Hillsborough I’m still doing Hillsborough. But representing large groups to ensure that they have access to justice and most recently I do some public law work. Recently I fought for the first claimant in the Article 50 case and then subsequently for Labour MPs and the Proroguing case.  

JB: Can you elaborate in the Article 50 case?  

DG: Yes, the Article 50 case I acted for the co-claimant who in fact started the proceedings first, who was a Brazilian national and we started proceedings and quickly Miller became lead claimant in relation to that. But a really fascinating case dealing with some very deep constitutional points about the relationship between government, the government as the executive, parliament, The House of Commons and the law. Those three pillars how do they sit together.  

JB: Oh yes let’s talk about that, because I have a sense they are shifting and that in fact government, not even the house of parliament but government want to see that change. Do you have a sense that the rule of law is under various pressure today in this climate? 

DG: No question about it, I don’t know that sort of dynamic has changed. I think that there has always been a friction, a sort of dynamic between the courts, parliament, and the executive. The executive generally tries to exert its will, where it has a substantial majority in the house of commons as we know is to press it’s will forward and control events. We did if you remember in the Thatcher years talk about an elected dictatorship and the executive has a lot of power and it’s important for the executive to understand and generate the benefit of having checks and balances on its conduct and that changes from time to time. I think that the atmosphere has changed over the past few years with the executive seeking to exert itself and I think it does place some challenges on the rule of law that we in The Law Society, but I would say individually have had some concerns about the rule of law in this jurisdiction. Particularly in relation to the internal markets bills those issues that arose from it and those sanctions that were included in it, which proposed breaching an international obligation. Undoubtedly that was of concern to us and here we are The Law Society must stand up for the rule of law because we are an institution to which the rule of law is central.  

JB: It’s very difficult isn’t it, I can’t see that politics can’t be involved with the rule of law and indeed always be seeking to stretch it in its own interest? 

DG: Yes I agree with that, I think we are to be fair seeing much deeper challenges in other jurisdictions on the rule of law. I would say there will always be a dynamic between the law, the courts and the upholding of the rule of law. 

JB: Which challenges are you speaking of which challenges worry you the most?  

DG: I think the says is it’s natural for executives to push the frontier somewhat. Then the court has to step in at some issue as it did in Article 50 in favour of parliamentary sovereignty as it did in relation to proroguing again on parliamentary sovereignty grounds. An executive is seeking to achieve its agenda and will push, to achieve that agenda. I think it’s absolutely right that the courts are able to challenge that, that the ordinary citizen is able to come into court to challenge that and for the courts to determine as an independent tribunal whether that is a breach of the rule of law a breach of some element.  

JB: I remember not long ago before Christmas sometime ago before COVID, newspapers headlines denouncing the judiciary and remembering a headline ‘The enemy of the people’ ? 

DG: That indeed was the Article 50 case and after the first hearing in front of the divisional court where we represented the claimant the three judges who made the decision where headlined in the Daily Mail as enemies of the people. 

JB: Well that won’t do will it, were they enemies of the people?  

DG: You and I, I think would agree that has got extreme fascistic overtones to it. We see similar attacks on the independent judiciary when they stand up against government or the executive in favour of the rule of law, we see the judiciary attacked in that fashion in fascist regimes. I think we were all shocked when we saw that headline in the United Kingdom because it has got some very dangerous flavours to it.  

JB: That the rule of law is a very civilised concept widely accepted but when somebody wants to defy it, we are all completely taken by surprise. 

DG: I agree, I think we have similar problems if you look at the position in Hungary if you look at the position in Poland in which the governments are seeking to control the judiciary. Both in their appointment but otherwise control. Those are two nations within the European Union and one has extreme concerns about what is happening there in relation to the independence of the judiciary which is an essential element of the rule of law.  

JB: What defence do people and communities have against those sort of moves by Hungary and Poland, the move made by Trump in fact to cramp the supreme court in America with his appointees what address do we have? 

DG: I think I will leave aside the Trump argument because I think that raises other issues. I think the end of the day its up to us law societies, bars, the judiciary itself to speak up in relation to the independence of the judiciary and the job they do. We know it’s an essential part in the rule of the law and we have to shout about it. I fear as I think you might refer to as the lack of complete appreciation in the wider public about how important the rule of law is, what it is the rule of law and  how important it is. And I think that us at The Law Society to send out a message and indeed the  education from an early age, what is the rule of law and why is it so important what are the issues, why is access to justice so important I think it’s our job to try and pass that message on to young people and indeed the population generally.  

JB: Do you advertise, do you have a PR campaign how do you make your message known?  

DG: I think indeed we have many discussions of that in The Law Society and debates about that in  public legal education and indeed going into schools at an early age to say how important the rule of law is but also to say to them is ‘look come to law, why don’t you think about a life in law’. Trying to get young people to think of those things at an early age is so important. You’re my generation, we had the war behind us and grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. Grew up in that period and we had that sort of message still coming out about the second world war, about the dangers of fascism about challenges to the rule of law and out of that we had the commonalty of the post war government which continued through the 60’s started breaking down in the late 60’s early 70’s we had that behind us, it’s a part of our upbringing. I think we need to reinstall the necessities on the rule of law with the young. 

JB: I think there is an assumption that if you are grossly aggrieved by some transaction or behaviour you can always have recourse to law beyond the police there is the law and it’s just a given. People don’t realise how it could easily vanish.  

DG: What we do have in the United Kingdom is those deep roots it is a part of our being, but it need renewing the message needs renewing from time to time.  

JB: How far do those roots go, are we talking Magna Carter?  

DG: We could be talking Magna Carter we had its 800 year anniversary some few years back now. But I think also the history since then and I think of course we had our revolution and our civil war in the 1600’s which turned us into a constitutional country which had parliamentary sovereignty.  So I think we had it long ago and the roots go back to that time, that civil war was all about democracy wasn’t it?  

JB: Certainly was, do you think it would help to have written constitution?  

DG: I don’t know about that, I think its very difficult to come to a conclusion on what a written constitution would look like. Because there are so many competing factors there, I think it’s a very difficult task to come up with something that everyone would agree. We have constitutional rights and what we have seen over the past few year is the development of the concept of constitutional statues. Statues are so important they form a core in our constitution, The European Communities Act was one of those because it handed over sovereignty from parliament to the European union that was a constitutional document, and the human rights act is a constitutional document because it gives such core rights to the individual. So I think that we have the protections there, I’m sorry we’ve lost the charter of fundamental rights from the European Union. We have the European convention of human rights, we have that as the background to the human rights act but the thing about the charter was it actually modernised those right the ECHR is a slightly dated document  

JB: When it came to Brexit the great claim was, we wanted to reclaim our sovereignty we handed over our sovereignty. I heard you say we handed over our sovereignty to Europe and we’ve now reclaimed our sovereignty. I’ve always been bewildered by what sovereignty actually means?  

DG: I think you can have a debate about what sovereignty is, the Article 50 case and the proroguing case were very much about where sovereignty lies within our constitution. I think sovereignty is within the eye of the beholder and can be viewed in many other ways. The pro Brexit argument talked about sovereignty I think it’s right, we shouldn’t have rose tinted glasses about the way the European Union works. It had some problems in terms of its democratic grounding, and I think still needed continuing work in relation to that. Parliament had been given extra powers over time I think that’s a working progress, whether one regains sovereignty I think is a much debated phenomenon.  

JB: And it will continue to be wont it?  

DG: Yes indeed  

JB: Let’s talk about access to justice. If you were to go into one of the deprived areas of this country and said to them ‘I’m a lawyer I could defend your rights, do you believe in the law?’ would they know what you were talking about, would they feel that they had access?  

DG: That’s quite a difficult question, I think people view law depending on their circumstances. When we talk about access to justice, I give the example of a single mother with two young children living in accommodation that is barely habitable. I did see an MP recently posted some pictures of accommodation she had seen over the Christmas period with black mould and all that went with it was clear damp problems. For that mother the question is, is someone going to assist her? how are they going to assist her? how will the law assist her? how does she gain access? We do have significant problems in her gaining access to justice because in relation to housing unfortunately with the changes in legal aid we are seeing fewer and fewer solicitors with skills on housing, practicing within those areas. Indeed The Law Society has mapped what we talk about legal aid deserts or legal access deserts where it is very difficult for an individual to find a lawyer who has the capabilities with expertise.  

JB: What will you do about that David?  

DG: First of all there has to be investment in legal aid process to ensure people do have that access and The Law Society has ben making quite a substantial campaign about extending the scope of legal aid but it is a problem. For instance, I forget the precise statistics, but I think in Cornwall I believe there maybe two specialist housing lawyers. And it’s a problem and the other issue we have on legal aid is that the rates of legal aid have not been increased for many years particularly in crime. The results of that is that we are not seeing the young going into legal aid practice, particularly in crime. We are seeing an aging population of advisors who will want to retire at some point and we are not seeing the young come into it and we have to address to that. Certainly the criminal legal aid and the criminal justice process is in crisis. Because of the fall of number of solicitors in firms to do the representation for the defendant it’s a real issue at the moment.  

JB: Are you having problems recruiting people?  

DG: Yes and indeed what is also happening on top of that is the government is recruiting and what has just happened recently is that the CPS has been recruiting for members of the crown prosecution service. Who is going for those jobs but young solicitors, who are doing criminal defence work who want regular income, they want flexible time to work they want all the benefits to work the CPS has, it’s hard work! There’s no question of it, but they want the benefits because they don’t get those in private practice and because of the restrictions on criminal legal aid. We’ve got a review going on it has just started a review into criminal legal aid and its looking particularly at sustainability. Is this system sustainable and we would say at the moment that it is not looking like it.  

JB: We read constantly that there is a backlog building up in the legal system because of the pandemic and that there are lots of cases not being heard, delays in judgement and so on, how bad is it? 

DG: Its bad in the criminal courts, I will start with the criminal courts there’s a huge backlog in the criminal courts. The staff in the courts are doing a great job in trying to keep the system going but the trials in crime you need people and people that are going to congregate you’ve got a jury, you’ve got the judge, you’ve got the witnesses, you’ve got the defendant, you’ve got the lawyers , you’ve got all the paraphernalia that goes with the court process all congregating usually in one room. Therefore in this current pandemic partially with this new variant much more room is needed in order to conduct that trial. There are various methods for doing that we’ve seen courts in theatres for instance in public buildings to deal with that they are called Nightingale Courts rather like the hospitals. The slight problem with them is the lack of staff to house those rather like the nurses going into Nightingale hospitals, are there those to serve the main hospital and the Nightingale hospitals its rather similar in the courts but the court service is recruiting in order to fill those gaps.  

JB: There is a danger isn’t there, a huge danger of someone being arrested and charge with a crime and then having to wait to go to court even a number a years. In particular I know of a young person who was charged with drug offence, in the course of years in which they had to wait to go to court they reformed, their family got them back into line, they had jobs suddenly they went to court and had to go to prison. The gap doesn’t allow human behaviour to change does it? 

DG: No we are seeing an increasing gap, if you are fixing a trial now you may well be fixing it till late  2022 you might even be fixing it in 2023. And there a lot of victims in that obviously the accused but also the victim of the alleged crime, witnesses, families are all affected by that delay and the problems that arise from it. Just think of the witnesses, just think of the mechanics if it, witnesses over time forget things life moves on as you said other things happen and it is a problem.  

JB: Are we going to be able to catch up in some way?  

DG: Well Joan, it will need investment is the answer. It needs significant investment in the courts the government has been closing courts for many years and I think that’s happened under both Labour and Conservative for many years.  

JB: Why?  

DG: In order to reduce expenditure, cut costs like a lot of government expenditure over the pasts few years, austerity has been applied to the courts as much as anywhere. I think the difficulty and it sort of goes back to your original point so we’re going to go full circle in understanding the rule of law. That justice doesn’t win many votes and particularly criminal law doesn’t win many votes and in the currency of a member of parliament its not foremost in their minds. Its money that can saved, I certainly don’t accuse this government of this but we talked about a headline earlier and there a some who might think once someone is accused by the police they must be guilty why are we spending so much money on it? But what we actually know it’s something very different in fact. But it is a problem, criminal justice and the justice process generally civil or crime doesn’t get a lot of votes you might not think about it until you become involved in it and then of course it’s too late. 

JB: Well, its your job now David as president of The Law Society to make us all aware of it to stand for the law, the rule of law in this country to benefit us all. It’s been very good to talk to you thank you very much.  

DG: Very nice Joan, thank you very much indeed! 

That’s the end of this episode we hope you enjoyed listening from Joan and David. If you are interested in finding out more about Our Birkbeck visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk. to read more about the impact our community is having around the world thanks for listening and until next time.  

Stuart Haw (MSc Sport Management, Governance and Policy 2017)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here.

AS: Hello and welcome to the #OurBirkbeck Podcast. #OurBirkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck Community are having around the world. In this podcast you will hear from our Alumni, Students, staff and friends and whether they are having an influence on their community bringing change to their industry or shaping lives around them. We celebrate their story. To find out more about the #OurBirkbeck initiative, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk.

My name is Andy Stirups, and in today’s episode of the #OurBirkbeck Podcast, I speak to Birkbeck alumnus Stuart Haw.

AS : Hello everyone and welcome to the #OurBirkbeck podcast in this episode today, and we are interviewing Stuart Haw. Stuart, nice to meet you

SH: Nice to meet you. Thank you for having me on

AS : Thanks for taking part in this #OurBirkbeck Podcast. Just a quick background about Stuart before we kick off with the questions. Stuart is currently studying for a PhD at Northumbria University. His PhD is focussed on the clubs, and the community businesses in sport, investigating the capacity and capital required for community groups to successfully undertake and asset transfer to successfully manage and run a facility previously owned by the Local Authority. Stuart’s research has been practised in his local home town of Peterborough. Recently, since lockdown, his research has also been used to highlight the importance of these facilities as a space to help and maintain physical but also mental health. Stuart is a former student of Birkbeck, and he graduated from the College in a MSc in Sports Management, Governance and Policy in 2017.

So, Stuart, that’s just a summary of where you are at with your career and I thought it would be great to just get started on your PhD which is exploring Community Asset Transfer for Sports and Leisure facilities. Could you explain to our listeners a bit more about your research and why you are passionate about the work that you do.

SH: Absolutely. [So] the PhD is at Northumbria University but it’s also co-funded by Power to Change – an organisation who support Community Businesses to take on these kinds of endeavours. What I am exploring is to understand the skills, the knowledge, the capabilities of the volunteers and individuals within these organisations, that they need to take on these Organisations for Asset transfer. That’s a process where a community organisation have a facility transferred to them from the local authority or council at a discounted rate so it may be that they don’t pay any rent, or minimal rent, so that facility is still used and is given community value as well.

AS: And I guess, my (kind of) initial question would be why a local authority would pass ownership of such a facility onto the community and what would be in it for them, to run such a facility like that?

SH: There isn’t necessarily a blanket reason, but it differs in locality so one Local Authority may need to make savings, (and so) to make those savings because sports and leisure services are discretionary in that there is no legal obligation to provide those services and facilities, they may offer out to tender that opportunity on that facility for the Local Authority. Additionally, it may be that the community group of the local sport club approaches the Local Authority and expresses an interest in running that facility and it may be that a big Trust that has established itself lots of Local Authorities approaches another one to propose running that facility. And an organisation like GLL has done that in the past, so you can get a sense of how Local Authorities may be motivated to transfer some of these facilities out because it keeps the facility open, possibly even for longer than they were running it for in terms of it’s opening hours, but it also reduces costs for that Local Authority. So there are benefits to the transfer.

AS : And we touched upon in the introduction around your research being used in practice in your home town of Peterborough. Could you elaborate upon that and how your academic research was being put into practice in Peterborough?

SH: Yes. Absolutely. So prior to enrolling at Birkbeck, which I’ll come onto, I was working for a leisure trust, which was set up by the Local Authority to run the services within Peterborough and I was also a member of a running Club within Peterborough, and what happened because of the pandemic within Peterborough was that the leisure Trust had lost around £9million because it had no income but still had to pay staff costs, maintenance costs etc and so they handed the contract that they had back to the Council, Peterborough City Council, but what that meant is that there was no operator for the leisure facilities in the City and I was in a unique position then where I had worked for the leisure trust and was a member of the athletics club and I was also doing a PhD on the Asset Transfer of Leisure Facilities so I (kind of) felt a sense of obligation to offer to the Athletics Club initially some kind of help. This is a club that I have spent 10 years helping as a member so I really felt obliged to offer some of the learning that I had acquired over the first year of my PhD so I worked with the Chair of that Club to put a proposal together for the City Council so that over the summer when Lockdown started to be lifted across England, we could have the facility opened and we could organise events there because there wasn’t anybody there to run it so even when facilities opened from July onwards Peterborough was in a bit of an uncertain situation because there were only private Leisure Centres open and that doesn’t include Athletics, so for the people of Peterborough they really wanted to get things moving so that they could get out, get physically active again and (kind of) get that sense of Community back.

AS : And I think it is interesting when you bring up the pandemic, and it is interesting that (you know) at the moment when exercise is viewed as an essential activity, it is viewed as part of it is the only (kind of) thing that we can do is go for your daily walk and that’s about it, and now the community leisure centres, the pools, the gyms are currently closed some of which may be permanently closed and may not reopen. What do you see as the short-term and long-term future of these spaces?

SH: I think it’s uncertain but some things we really risk at the moment especially with community owned facilities because they are often organisations that are responsible for one or two leisure facilities these are not all GLL, some of these are local community groups that run the leisure centre in their village, their town or their city, so what that means is that they don’t have the kind of margin, the economic margin that a big operator would have, or a private provider would have. So when the pandemic started to impact these facilities closing them down, meaning that people cannot use them, people do not have income. They don’t have the reserves that these bigger providers have, so community based facilities are much more vulnerable to these [kind of] situations and they don’t have the economics of scale to deal with it in the way that bigger providers do so what that means is that they are more likely to close permanently and jobs will be lost. Community Leisure UK, who are the National Members Body organisation, they did some market research with these kind of providers and they estimated that if there wasn’t some kind of financial support especially at this kind of provider then half of them would go under and around 50,000 jobs would be lost , and a lot of these jobs are part-time, casual like coaches and instructors contracts, so a lot of people would be losing work in that sense and the real damage there is for the most part these facilities are facilities which are orientated towards local people so it is a community facility ran by local people for local people. [So] if that closes down people lose an accessible and affordable facility that they might not be able to replace with a private provider whose working across the country if that makes sense. They are more tailored to the needs of local people, so if we lose that, it will be really damaging for peoples physical and mental health, because they will lose that tailored and bespoke facility that is in their area.

AS: And presumably it is quite a localised problem, if a provider ceases to open after Lockdown, and then they shut two or three of their centres within the area, because in certain areas there might not be a national provider of a gym in that area. In London, for instance, (you know) if a community centre or community space closed down there will be other providers and other gyms accessible. Whereas in certain areas it might be quite few and far between for these spaces.

SH: Yeah. To some extent. The opportunities for affordable leisure are disproportionate across society so for instance as you said in London where there may be community providers they may have gone into that area or they may have kind of risen up from the local community because of a lack of provision in that area and the lack of provision may be caused by the Local Authority lack of provision it’s not financially viable to operate a facility in that area and for a private provider it is also not financially viable. So these community based organisations, they’re not focussed on profit primarily, what they are focussed on is providing local and localised services and opportunities for people to be physically active, so if some communities lose that, like you say, they may not be other providers in their area and (y-know) given where we’ve got to in the kind of public health impacts of the Pandemic that would be (y-know) a really dangerous situation as we’ve seen in the past 12 months affordable and accessible physical activity is what is going to get us through really if we are going to recover as a country.

AS; And would you say with the pandemic having access to public places to do exercise and playing sport, do you think that has been put up higher on the agenda at a local and a national level?

SH: I think so. I think that from some of the recent messaging, especially from Public Health England, the NHS and other National Governing bodies with sport, there does seem to be a sense of that the role that physical activity plays in peoples’ lifestyles is being heightened and recently Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, he did make a point at a leisure conference recently that physical activity needs to be central to the government’s response to this pandemic and that’s why there has been additional funding to Local Authority to fund Local Authority sport that there is sufficient facility provision but there has also been funding to these community organisations as well, because what we have seen throughout the pandemic is that peoples’ leisure activity is changing. Not everybody is going to like a classic gym and people are exercising more freely. We need to find (kind of) leisure services that can accommodate that and these community organisations, because they are tailored towards local people, they need to be best placed to accommodate those needs. (So) I think (yk) out of all of the challenging situations we have seen over the past 12 months, there is a real opportunity to strengthen community orientated based leisure provision and the announcement from Chris Whitty within the sector (kind of you know) kind of strengthened the message.


AS : I’d like to touch upon right now what you hope to achieve in your career, say in 5 (or) 10 years time. You are 26 so quite young into your career. Are there any other areas that you are keen to explore?

SH: Yeah. I think I am kind of at the stage of my career where I am starting to do things that I never thought I would do. And I would guess that anyone who is 10 or 15 years into their professional life will understand that it never goes as you plan. (So) I wanted to work for a major national governing body, part of how they grow a sport and (yk) I’ve done a bit of that with national governing bodies but over the past 12 months I have really changed my perspective to be focussed more on empowering communities but from a national level and how research and insight can strengthen how policy is developed as well, so, where I’d like to go is to wear two hats really and to do this kind of research but also to kind of bring some of that research into the policy field and try and influence and shape it. And I feel like, without being too selfish and aggrandising, I have done that on a local level, but that was because I was (kind of) in the centre of a perfect Venn diagram and not many people are in that kind of opportunity where they have all those hats and can quite easily speak to people in the Council and speak to people in local clubs. (so) I’d like to do more of that on a (kind of) more national level with a view to achieve some of the kinds of things we achieved in Peterborough, but (kind of) across society so that (yk) leisure provision is safeguarded, that would be my ambition post PhD, but also in terms of having some impact with this research.

AS: And we look forward to, at Birkbeck, see where your career takes you in 10 years’ time. I think that is a nice segue into your Birkbeck story and you Birkbeck Journey. I’d like to touch upon what motivated you to come to Birkbeck and how it played a part in where you are now?

SH: Yeah. Absolutely. It does take me back to when I was 21 and I make it sound like a long time ago but for me it is not that long ago. (And) I was working for my local leisure trust, and I had a degree in Physical Education so was teaching sport, but I was really interested in the management and governance aspect of Sport and how it fits within an infrastructure in that sense. (And) Without being too ‘Pro-Birkbeck’ it was the best place to go to get a sense of that infrastructure. You know, the kind of sporting infrastructure. The Sports Business Centre at Birkbeck led by Sean Hamil just really stood out. I don’t know why! Because, as you know, there are many Sports Business Centres at different universities, but I just felt that Birkbeck stood out because it was in London. It seems like it was at where happening. [yk] Events were happening and that connection with the industry was happening and I started in 2015 but because of some challenging circumstances at home (my mother became quite ill and I was working at the leisure trust) so it just didn’t work, [yk] I just couldn’t fit everything in. But then, I just sort of hung on and I was able to return in 2016. And because of the experience that I had had – through no fault of my own – I was unable to attend the college. I was awarded the Hardship Fund that really showed me how open and accessible and accommodating Birkbeck was. From there, in 2016, it meant that I could actually move to London because with some of the money that I had saved on the fees meant that I could afford rent. (And) It was a series of fortunate events from there on. (Because) From one month into the programme, the head of the Sports Business Programme, Sean Hamil, asked me what I was there for. Quite crudely, but also genuinely interested. He said “What do you want to get out of this?” . I said “Well, I am really quite interested in this idea of sport Infrastructure, particularly with National Governing Bodies” and he said “Well, funnily enough, we‘ve got an intern scheme with a National Governing Body!”- and thought “Oh, you are winding me up! This cannot be that perfectly aligned!”. He put me in contact with them through Birkbeck Talent and this was with British Fencing, and I applied through Birkbeck Talent. I was fortunate enough to be given and internship, but then again this (I don’t know) this series of fortunate events. This was when the Santander Talent Scheme started and so, through Birkbeck Talent, they offered to fund the internship, providing that British Fencing would run it for the duration of my studies. Yeah, that’s it how I went from living and working in Peterborough to attending this course and being thrust into the industry. And it was really that opening of the doors that people go after in their career.

AS: I am always quite fascinating to hear about everyone’s stories, because everyone has such a unique story. And how great is it that you were able to come to Birkbeck in 2016 and all these series of great events happened for you because where you are now is, in part, because of Birkbeck.

SH: Yeah, definitely. It’s weird because how things go full circle and after finishing my Masters at Birkbeck, I spent two years working full-time at National Governing Bodies where I did the Internship with. [And] Obviously, that never would have happened, without Birkbeck Talent and Sean giving me that boost. But also, when I applied to do the PhD, I wasn’t quite aware of how well connected the network of academics was, and my PhD supervisor is good friends and collaborator with my Master’s Supervisor. (AND) When I was applying, I just couldn’t connect the dots. Now, Birkbeck and where I am seems like a really coherent fit. I guess it is easy to do that retrospectively – to connect the dots like that – but for a lot people and a lot of my classmates, well it was that natural step which got them to where they are.

AS: What would you say is what makes Birkbeck so special?

SH: Yeah. I think that it is special. If you think of studying in London, Birkbeck for me stands out for being the most inclusive, the most accessible but also the place with the biggest community. But that is not necessarily the numbers, but it is definitely in the way you feel. (And) I was speaking to another former student yesterday, and we were reflecting on how nice it is at Birkbeck. [yk] If you work in the City, to do your job during the day and then go to a class in the evening, and then to [like] pop up to the bar afterwards or wander into a local bar or restaurant or café, [and] it just feels like a really natural community. [and] I think that is quite hard to achieve for a University but at Birkbeck it is organic, and it is real.

AS: It’s great to hear that from your student experience, and as a staff member I cannot wait to get back to campus and back to the Birkbeck Bar! There is a real sense of community at Birkbeck and at the moment – working from home – I do kind of miss that. I’ve got a few quick-fire questions as well for you, just to find out a bit more about you.

How do you personally keep fit, and do you play any sports?

SH: I used to play a lot of football. I used to play a lot of tennis as well, but when I was at Birkbeck and even now, I have found running is how I like to keep fit. It’s a good way of improving your physical and mental wellbeing. [yk] It [kind of] releases endorphins and has been shown to improve cognitive functioning [as well] so there’s all these elements to it. But while I was in London, it was also nice to be part of those kind of competitive environments as well. London has a great network of Running Clubs that are quite competitive so, yeah, that definitely keeps me going

AS : That makes sense to me Stuart, because the one thing that I am missing at the moment is the park runs and doing the weekly park runs. It’s just the one thing that I’d love to take part in at the moment, but obviously cannot at the moment.

Looking perhaps now to the summer, what is the one place you’d like to travel that you haven’t been to yet?

SH: Ooh. I like to go, and this touches on my last answer, to East Africa. Particularly to Kenya, because I have always been in awe, of how as a [kind of] society there’s a real cultural value on running. [And} I’d like to explore that, and to understand what that kind of running culture means to [people in that country.

AS: And my final question that I have, and it is a Birkbeck question, is describe Birkbeck in three words, if you can…

SH : Yeah, I have already given more than three words about how great it is but I guess I would emphasise again the inclusivity of Birkbeck, the accessibility and the sense of community. I think that speaking personally I have benefitted [yk] from those three aspects but I know so many of my classmate and colleagues that have come in and out of those doors also feel that summarises Birkbeck

And that’s really wonderful to hear, and that’s, yep, we hope that other people in the alumni community also feel that way. Stuart, it has been a pleasure talking to you today. Please do keep us posted about your research and I look forward to hearing about your career in 5 or 10 years time!

SH : You are welcome. Thanks for having me on, and I am looking forward to having stuff to share with everyone in the future.


Sarah Weir (BA History of Art 1997)

At just 16, Sarah left education to start a career as a broker in the City, later achieving the impressive accolade of being the first female Managing Director of a Lloyd’s Broking firm. Despite this success, Sarah felt she was missing something and craved a change of career. After speaking with a career councillor, she decided to come to Birkbeck to study History of Art.

Pictured: Sarah Weir

Sarah quickly thrived in the Arts world. Her roles have included Fundraising Director at Royal Academy of the Arts, Executive Director of the Almeida Theatre, Executive Director of Arts Council, London, Head of Arts and Cultural Strategy for Olympic Delivery Authority, Founder of The Legacy List, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park charity (now Foundation for Future London), and Executive Producer at the Roundhouse.

In 2013 Sarah was made a Fellow of Birkbeck College and is a regular supporter of our students. Most recently Sarah was Chief Executive of the Design Council. Here we speak with her about her work and her time at Birkbeck.

What made you return to study?

I left school at 16 and was working in the city as an office junior. By about 31 I had made my way up to Managing Director, the first female MD in a Lloyd’s broking firm. I got there and thought ‘is this it?’. It just felt very anti-climatic. People didn’t necessarily understand this and weren’t overly sympathetic. I then spoke to my Aunt. This was one of those moments when my whole life changed. My Aunt is a doctor – she was the first female Chief Medical Officer for Marks and Spencer in the 1970s, so had an impressive career.  

My aunt suggested that I went to an educational career psychologist. This psychologist really made a difference and suggested three main actions for me: 1. I should be in the Arts; 2. I was bored and need to use my brain in a different way, ideally at university, 3. I should look to female leaders in the arts world as figures to aspire to. Later, at my graduation ceremony, I thought that I must write to the psychologist and thank him. I happened to be sat near someone I didn’t know very well in my class. She told me she with her partner who was a psychologist. By sheer coincidence it was him! I couldn’t believe it. He remembered me which was lovely.

Why did you choose Birkbeck?

This was pre computers, so I’m not sure how I found Birkbeck, but I’m glad that I did. I wanted to do something I was passionate about and was still a Managing Director in the day, so the evening classes worked best.

I was terrified on my interview day and was directed to sit on the stairs and wait for Professor Lynda Nead (who I am still in touch with). I sat with another student, Gabriel Koureas, who was a lecturer at Birkbeck for many years. He was so calm, and I was so nervous; I hadn’t been in education for such a long time. It was a relief when I was offered a place. I had chosen History of Art as it had always interested me and I decided to focus on the 19th / 20th Centuries as I was fascinated by the social and political context.

How did you find working and studying?

When I began the degree course, I was still working. A year in, I stepped down from my MD role in the City. I suddenly went from earning a good salary to having none. Although I eventually found a job in a gallery, it was at 90% less than my previous salary. Course fees very quickly became a problem. I think I felt too embarrassed to say anything and was in a lucky position where my partner was able to offer me support.

This is one of the reasons why I donate to Birkbeck, because I want to help those who are struggling with the costs of education.  

What are your favourite memories of Birkbeck?

How hard everyone worked! We all really wanted to gain our degree and do well, despite day jobs and other pressures like family commitments. I also really loved the studying itself. My thesis was on a 19th century photographer called Julia Margaret Cameron and I remember going to the V&A and being allowed to see and hold her photos. It was incredible to immerse myself and to use my brain in that way.

However, I do remember a lot of tiredness. At the time, there was horrible coffee which didn’t help! Despite that the joy of learning and quality of teaching will always stand out. Birkbeck students can be a challenging bunch as they have had such diverse experiences and some are hugely knowledgeable. It was not unusual for them to correct the lecturers. This kept the environment interesting, a place where everyone could learn including the lecturers.

I also saw so many women as artists, academics and fellow students who inspired me and, in the case of some, became role models.

What do you feel makes Birkbeck so special?

The mix of students that you meet. I played a small part in helping with the creation of Birkbeck’s Stratford presence, having worked on the 2012 Olympics and knowing the area well. The number of students in higher education who come from East London is sadly much lower than other areas of the capital, so Birkbeck wanted to build links there. I enjoyed being a part of this and hope that it gives a chance to students in the area, just as I was given one.

Throughout my work, I always tried to look past people’s CVs and offer opportunities to those who may not have the experience or the advantages but do have the passion and drive. I am pleased to say that many of those I have hired over the years are still in touch with me now and have done fantastically well. Birkbeck echoes this in many ways. When studying, I used to handwrite my essays and take them into the office. My PA would offer me help to type them up sometimes, as she found the subject interesting and wanted to know more. She was really bright but just hadn’t had either educational opportunities or the time to study. I think Birkbeck can offer that opportunity.  

How did it feel to become a Fellow of Birkbeck?

It felt totally unbelievable. Within a day or two, I was awarded the CBI ‘First women Awards’ for public service and received a letter asking me to be a Birkbeck Fellow. I kept thinking back to sitting nervously on the stairs on my interview day. I couldn’t believe it. I felt really honoured. Wonderfully, Gabriel Koureas, who sat on the stairs with me that day, was on the staff platform when I became Fellow. This was such an extraordinary thing and I managed to quickly weave our story into my speech.

That day, during the graduation ceremony when I became a Fellow, I distinctly remember a woman who crossed the stage. She was in her late 60s, maybe older, and reached the other end of the stage where her daughters had to help her back to her seat. They had massive grins on their faces and were obviously enormously proud of her. It brought a tear to my eye and it felt great to see that people of all ages and backgrounds had this opportunity.

What made you choose to give back to Birkbeck?  

My partner and I both had fairly disastrous school careers. I wasn’t disruptive, but very quiet and removed; I found it boring and uninspiring. I left school as soon as I possibly could. My partner on the other hand was rather more disruptive. She came to my BA graduation ceremony and remembers watching the PhD students collecting their Doctoral degrees and thought ‘I want to be one of them…’. She went on to do an MA at Goldsmiths and then went to Birkbeck where she gained a PhD in History. It has therefore had a profound impact for both us and played a real influence in our lives.

We would now like to help students who may feel education is not an option for them, due to finances or situation.

Tell me more about your time as Chief Executive at Design Council.

One thing that I enjoyed about the Design Council is that everything in life is designed. People will often assume that design just focuses on decoration and objects. I was questioned, asking if we were the equivalent of the ‘cushions and carpets dept’. However, nothing could be further from the reality, which is that the Design Council, uniquely, focuses on representing design right across the economy including healthcare, housing, transport and aerospace. The Council aims to tackle some of the toughest economic, societal and environmental challenges providing evidence, through stats and stories, of both need and impact. Our mission is to make life better by design and has four main areas of work through better ‘places’, ‘products’, ‘processes’ and ‘performance’. I enjoyed being able to emphasise that impact within my role.

There are often examples where design plays a role, but which go unnoticed, as the best design just works. The furlough scheme is one – this was something that had to be designed very quickly. It is a shame that no one really mentioned the technicians and designers who worked together, putting an immense amount of hard work and skill into designing these processes within days. Which then made such a difference to millions of peoples’ lives.  

How were the Design Council effected by COVID-19?

Luckily, we had invested in Teams a couple of years before the pandemic took hold and actively encouraged home working. So we were able to move online at great speed, delivering our first workshops for clients in a very different way within 10 days. I worked hard with the senior team to make sure that they felt as supported as possible. Like everywhere, we had people in very different and sometimes intensely challenging situations. I tried to break it down into steps of necessary initial actions to get through this period with a focus for all of us on digital bravery, communications clarity and having the right people working on the right purpose.  As the CEO I also focused on what seemed like the three most important priorities: 1. Ensure that clients are supported, 2. Look after the team and each other and 3. Do what is possible to earn our place in the world living with COVID. All organisations need to keep actively adapting to this new situation.

You were awarded an OBE for service to the Arts, how did that feel?

Co-incidentally, I had been at a Birkbeck dinner and came back home to this large brown envelope. The letter inside was written in very heavy language and I couldn’t quite understand what it was saying. I was a little nonplussed. My partner was away and she rang me later that evening for a chat. We had a normal conversation and then right at the end I said; ‘I think I’ve been recommended for an OBE’, which caught her by surprise! I felt uncertain whether an OBE was for me, but my partner encouraged me to look at those I have admired who have received awards in the honours list, as well as the criteria and process I would have been judged against. I also wanted to accept it in honour of all the colleagues with whom I had worked over the years – I believe that it is always a team effort and I am one part of a jigsaw. My colleagues were great and very supportive of it.

It was so interesting to go to Buckingham Palace and meet fellow awardees, as it felt like such a leveller. We were all so different, getting our awards for myriad things, but also united by this recognition. You really felt part of something much bigger. My mother was living with dementia so couldn’t attend, but alongside my partner and one of my sisters I was with my aunt, my mother’s sister, who had recommended the career counsellor all those years ago and helped to set me on my path. It squared the circle in a perfect way.