What is a vote of no confidence?

Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics explains why confidence is such an important part of being Prime Minister and what might happen when it’s no longer there.

Being prime minister is all about confidence. In fact, the British constitution is held together by confidence. Being, and staying, prime minister means you have to ‘command the confidence of the House of Commons’. You don’t have to have a majority (though that’s always nice) but you do need to able to get your votes through. The Cabinet Manual, which sets out the rules as to how government runs, states that:

The Prime Minister is the head of the Government and holds that position by virtue of his or her ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, which in turn commands the confidence of the electorate, as expressed through a general election.

So to be thrown out without an election, you need to somehow lose that confidence.

The main way this can be done is if the opposition passes and wins a vote of no confidence. If a prime minister loses such a vote then, technically, they’ve lost the magic ‘confidence’ and something has to happen, whether their resignation or an election. So far, so simple. So, to illustrate, Jeremy Corbyn has said if May loses her vote on her crucial bill next week, Labour will immediately call for a vote of no confidence in the government.

The government can also do the opposite and call for a motion of confidence in itself. This makes a vote crucial, and was a way of making sure it’s MPs supported them. This is a good discipline device and has been used by ‘prime ministers down the ages to keep their backbenchers in line and say that “this vote really matters”’. John Major famously did it over Maastricht, as a way of saying to his party: ’support me or we lose power’. Neither of these, by the way, should be confused with a party vote against its leader, of the type that fizzled out against May recently.

So far, so simple (ish). So why aren’t both sides throwing around confidence or no confidence motions every few months when things get sticky? One reason is that they are seen as a weapon of last resort. Another is that to win a vote you need the numbers, obeying Lyndon Johnson’s first rule of politics to ‘learn how to count’. Politically, you shouldn’t call one unless you are pretty sure you can win. So Labour can call for a vote of no confidence but whether they have the numbers to pass one is another matter.

Most importantly, do they work? Well, sometimes. The last successful no confidence vote was in 1979, which led to the end of James Callaghan’s government (the government lost by one vote, legend has it because one MP was in the pub and didn’t get back to the House of Commons in time). Before that you have to go back to 1924 when the first ever Labour Prime Minister, Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald, was forced out by one.

Then things get more complicated. The Fixed Term Parliament Act has limited how no confidence votes can be called. It also means that if a government loses a vote there is 14 days before another, after which an election is called if that’s lost too.

So, If May loses a Labour confidence, let’s say next Wednesday, what happens then? The next 14 days could be very messy and confusing. Probably she would resign as Prime Minister, though she could stay as a caretaker leader. Another possibility is that someone gets an early Christmas present, and steps in as a temporary Tory PM to cobble together enough support to carry on.  Where would Labour stand in all of this, and should Corbyn get a chance? Because the rules aren’t set, no one is quite sure. A week is a long time in politics. Two weeks could be even longer. Catherine Haddon, who you should follow on twitter, is best placed to explain all the scenarios.

So one outcome of the next few days could be a vote of confidence. Yet no one knows, with any confidence, what would happen next if it’s lost. And all the time, the clock is ticking on Brexit.

Further information:

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Birkbeck student overcomes dyslexia and the ghosts of her early education to celebrate graduation success

On Tuesday 6 November, Paola Torrani, who grew up being told she was too ‘stupid’ to go to university, graduated with a BSc Social Sciences with Social Anthropology from Birkbeck. She explains why this is only the beginning.

When Paola Torrani first visited London aged eighteen, it was as a student who felt let down by the education system and shut out from the career in Science she had always wanted. Her teachers, seeing that she was struggling to keep up with her peers, had branded her ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’, even telling her mum that she would struggle to find work. With characteristic determination, though, Paola took a photo of the iconic Senate House building in Bloomsbury and sent it to her mum, saying “one day I will study here.”

Twenty years on, Paola is preparing to receive her award for BSc Social Sciences with Social Anthropology from Birkbeck, University of London, in the very place she first set eyes on all those years ago. “I couldn’t even speak English on that first visit,” she remembers, “so it’s surreal to finally graduate here.”

Fighting for an education

Growing up, Paola’s education was punctuated by failure. Having been repeatedly told that she was stupid by her teachers, she fought to continue her education in Italy and then France, but struggled to finish what she started. “I experienced failure, after failure, after failure,” she remembers, “but I didn’t want to give up.”

While she may have struggled in formal education, Paola has always had an aptitude for languages, which led her to move to work in London. She secured a role in marketing, but was left dissatisfied, saying “I felt bad using my skills to get people to buy more stuff!”

It wasn’t long before Paola began to suffer acutely with stress in that role, however it was on being referred to a therapist that she had her first real revelation. She explains, “My confidence was at a real low and I told my therapist that I was too stupid to follow a career that would really interest me. He was surprised and said that I seemed very intelligent to him, and suggested I take a look at Birkbeck, where he had studied Psychology.” Although the idea of returning to education was daunting, Paola was reassured to hear of Birkbeck’s diverse and inclusive student body, knowing that she wouldn’t be the only person returning to study after a gap. Still, it took her a year to pluck up the courage to apply. “I attended a Birkbeck open evening and was really inspired by how the lecturers talked about their subject,” she explains, “I knew that I’d enjoy being a student there.”

Seeing things differently

As a child, Paola was fascinated by people who were different from herself and their rituals and dynamics, well before she had heard of anthropology. Having previously tried to teach herself about the topic, she realised she’d gain so much more from going to university. It was nerve-wracking returning to study, but she soon felt comfortable among her fellow students, many of whom have become lifelong friends.

Despite enjoying her course, Paola soon began to experience the familiar struggle to keep up. This time, though, things didn’t end in failure. A turning point came when a friend on her course suggested that Paola might have dyslexia and encouraged her to arrange a test. “The support from the disability team was amazing,” says Paola, “they arranged for me to see an educational psychologist and I discovered that I was dyslexic.”

Although relieved to understand why she struggled with reading, Paola still found the demands of study alongside work very tough. The usual concerns that might face a part-time student, such as time management and returning to study after a gap, were compounded by the fact that English was Paola’s fourth language and she needed additional time to work through the course materials. “It felt like I was working forty-eight hours a day at times,” she remembers.

With the support of her lecturers and a very understanding tutor, Paola received the help she needed to complete her degree. She explains “for me, studying at Birkbeck taught me to see the world differently. Partly because I was studying anthropology, but also because I developed critical thinking skills that I’d never had to use before. Birkbeck taught me the academic skills I needed so well that I wrote my 11,000 word thesis in five days – previously I struggled to complete a 2,000 word essay over three weeks! I ended up getting a first for my research, which really proved to me what I was capable of.”

A lifelong learner

Studying at Birkbeck may have changed Paola’s life, but she didn’t have to wait to collect her degree for those changes to start to take shape. Two years into her course, she left her job and took up a position as a project manager at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She now uses her marketing skills to promote the research taking place at the School, and volunteers on equalities and ethics committees to use her skills for social good. She explains “I don’t have a job now, I have a career. I love the team, I love what I do and I feel like we’re contributing to society.” But Paola’s passion for education doesn’t stop here: she still sees a tutor and is now teaching project management skills to doctoral students, as well as co-writing a book on project management for health research. When her mum texted her the picture of Senate House that she had sent all those years ago, it felt like she had come full circle.

Paola took a photo of Senate House when she first visited London, saying “One day I will study here.”

She says: “Birkbeck helped me to discover a side to me that’s always been there, but that I’ve never been allowed to show before. I’m not going to stop here – sometimes it’s just about having the courage to achieve, with the right people behind you.”

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Birkbeck’s autumn telephone campaign: meet the student fundraisers

Say hello to Birkbeck’s student callers who will be working on the telephone campaign to raise valuable funds for bursaries, facilities and support services.

The Birkbeck autumn telephone campaign has now begun. A team of dedicated Birkbeck student fundraisers, new and returning, will be contacting alumni over the next five weeks to fundraise for College priorities impacting the student experience and student support. 40% of Birkbeck students require some form of financial assistance, and often this support is crucial to these students being able to complete their studies. Alumni support helps to ensure that current and future generations of students have the best facilities, support, advice and career guidance during their time at Birkbeck.

Tara Millington, Regular Giving Officer at Birkbeck has said: “Our telephone campaigns are a real testament to the generosity of Birkbeck alumni, as well as how engaged Birkbeck students are. Each caller has their own unique reason for wanting to take part in the campaign, and they can receive invaluable life and career advice from alumni who want to share their stories. Each campaign, more and more alumni pledge their support to the College. This makes a huge difference for current and future students here at Birkbeck. Not only do the callers gain valuable fundraising experience, they have the opportunity to speak to donors who can help shape their student experience.

The Autumn campaign will run between 31 October and 1 December – if you’d like to receive a call from one of our students, please get in touch with Tara Millington (t.millington@bbk.ac.uk).

Alex, BA Global Film, fourth year
“I chose to study at Birkbeck because it is a university for mature students, and students working at the same time. I wanted to participate in the telephone campaign because it’s important to fundraise for Birkbeck to continue a high level of education, and to provide funding and help to those who need it.”

Aleks, LLB, first year
“I chose Birkbeck mainly because of the School of Law faculty – they are researching issues and subjects that I am passionate about. I will be receiving mentoring from alumni later in my program, so I think it is important to keep them involved and interested after they leave. I’m looking forward to having an active role in growing and helping Birkbeck through the telephone campaign”

Ayelen, PhD Psychosocial Studies, first year
“I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign to give back to Birkbeck, and to learn about fundraising more generally. I chose to study at Birkbeck because the professors are exceptional – there’s a great Psychosocial Department and fantastic treatment of students. I am really looking forward to having the opportunity to speak to Birkbeck alumni.”

Clifford, BSc Financial Economics and Accounting, first year
Fundraising for Birkbeck is important to raise money for the College’s various bursaries and scholarships, to enable a wider variety of people to change their lives through education. I chose to study at Birkbeck because I work full time, and this is the best place to participate in an evening degree … also, my mum is an alum!”

Edwin, MA Text & Performance with RADA, second year
“I wanted to participate in the Telephone Campaign because Birkbeck has contributed significantly to advancing my knowledge and skills in my chosen field (Theatre & Politics). I want to talk to alumni who have shared my experience, and to hear their stories.”

Francesca, MA Museum Cultures, first year
“I wanted to participate in the telephone campaign to improve my speaking skills – Birkbeck is a great place to study and not a lot of universities do my course. I am most looking forward to meeting new people and being part of a team.”

Hannah, MA History of Art, first year
“I chose to study at Birkbeck as it suited my lifestyle, and the courses elective modules and work placement interested me. Fundraising is important to enhance the student experience, I wanted to take part in the Telephone Campaign as I felt I would thoroughly enjoy being a part of it! I’m looking forward to raising funds for Birkbeck.”

Harry, MSc Information Technology, first year
“I am studying at Birkbeck as it has accessible evening and part-time courses. I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign to improve my understanding of fundraising and to help Birkbeck – fundraising is important to ensure that the university continues to grow.”

Joseph, MSc International Development, first year
I am interested in diversifying my experience as a fundraiser and meet like-minded people. I understand that funding is not always easy to find and it is important for Birkbeck’s sustainability.“

Natalie, BA Linguistics and Japanese, second year
“I applied to be part of the call team as I found the nature of the job interesting, I like conversing with people. What I’m looking forward to most about this role is the sense of personal achievement and growth, contributing to future developments at Birkbeck”

Ngozi, BA Human Geography, second year
“I am taking part in the telephone campaign because it seemed like a good opportunity to learn new skills and raise funds for the university as well as the students. I loved the unconventional layout of Birkbeck – it seems to be the right fit for me.”

Ryan, MA Creative Writing, first year
“I think fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it helps keep us a competitive university and makes current student experience even better. I’m looking forward to reaching out to successful alumni – I really love to hear about people’s personal success.”

Shakeela, BSc Social Sciences, first year
“I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign as I like to speak to alumni and find out about their experiences. It was also a way to meet a variety of students I wouldn’t have met before. I feel fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it encourages continued support for the projects here, some of which I’ve benefitted from myself.”

Thomas, MA Philosophy, second year
“I wanted to be part of the Birkbeck Telephone Campaign to gain experience working in a university and speak to interesting alumni. Fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it allows people from a less advantaged background an opportunity to study.”

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La Serenissima: five weeks in Venice

Uli Gamper, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses his summer as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships. 

I was one of the lucky two students from Birkbeck’s History of Art department that was awarded a Venice Fellowship this year. The Venice Fellowship, a partnership between the British Council and Birkbeck, and other universities from all over the UK, supports students to spend a month’s time Venice during the Biennale di Venezia, one the world’s most renowned art/architecture biennials.

Inspired by topics encountered during seminars and lectures in my MA Museum Cultures, I formulated a research proposal around themes of cosmopolitan museology, representations of nationality and arising friction in the collision of local and global forces. The Venice Biennale and museums in general and the British Pavilion in particular were a rich pool for empirical research and observation on these subjects. Subsequently, I used the research conducted in Venice to inform the case studies for my dissertation.

I left for Venice in mid-May as I was part of the first group of fellows, working during the opening period of the Biennale. The great advantage of being part of the first group was to help to prepare the British Pavilion for the opening and meeting the team of the British Council that commissions the pavilion every year. Furthermore, Venice was packed with art, architecture and museum/heritage professionals from all over the world and hence it was a valuable opportunity to network. Last but not least, there were a plethora of great parties all over Venice during the opening week of the Biennale, and that was another unforgettable experience that we all hugely enjoyed.

My working week as a fellow was split into four days working at the British Pavilion. This consisted predominantly of engaging with the audience and introduce them to the installation. We also helped with the daily running of the pavilion as well as condition-checking the installation. The other three days we used to conduct our own independent research, which led me to visit most of the national museums in Venice and collateral events of the Biennale. Other highlights organised by the British Council were the staff seminars at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation that we were allowed to attend. I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar with the head of exhibitions of the foundation that proved to be a very insightful experience.

Overall, there were many positive aspects about my time in Venice. I hugely enjoyed and benefited from being part of a group of 12 fellows from diverse academic disciplines such as Architecture, Fine Art and Graphic Design. This resulted in extremely fruitful exchanges and debates that informed my ongoing research positively. Apart from this benefit, I left with a bunch of incredible new friends. Venice itself was a bliss beyond words; the light, the sea, the absence of cars, the architecture I immersed myself and rested in awe in its shadow, all invaluable experiences and memories I took back to London with me.

Upon my return to London, our group of fellows continued the discourse and organised an exhibition in August, held at a temporary space in Shoreditch. And it didn’t stop there; The British Council is keen to organise another show in the new year, featuring the research outcomes of Venice Fellows. I didn’t imagine that so many further opportunities would come along from this encounter.

Yet again, and I couldn’t say it often enough, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Birkbeck’s History of Art department for awarding me with this Fellowship and particularly to Sarah Thomas for being so supportive during the preparation for the Fellowship and after, many thanks!

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Why migration bans and restrictions on recruitment of workers to the Gulf States is a bad idea

Ghana’s government introduced a ban on the recruitment of workers to the Gulf region in 2017 in the hope of reducing exploitation and abuse of migrant employees. However, the ban does not address the underlying drivers of migration for young Ghanaians, and it is likely to continue with unintended consequences. Michael Boampong, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography says that instead, Ghana should ensure improved working conditions at home, coupled with greater legal protection for migrants abroad.

In 2017, the government of Ghana banned the recruitment of workers to the Gulf region. The ban was introduced due to widespread reports of abuse and exploitation of Ghanaian migrant workers in the region. The ban affects not only recruitment agencies, but also those who use their services, the majority of whom are young females. The Ghanaian media and unverified WhatsApp videos have often shown stories of young female migrant workers who have travelled to the Gulf States as domestic workers, working under inhumane conditions, often abused and unpaid for their work. Most recent is the horrific account of a young girl who returned from Kuwait to Ghana.

It must be acknowledged that the danger of being a migrant worker in the Gulf region is not peculiar to only Ghanaians. Media and rights-based organisations have documented the harsh conditions migrants experience in the region often due to the poor domestic labour laws of most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. These countries have what is known as the “Kafala” visa system, whereby the employer pays the recruitment costs and consequently takes legal responsibility of the worker. This includes making decisions regarding working hours and conditions.  The worst aspect of the Kafala system, however, is that the migrant’s visa is then tied to that one employer – denying the flexibility of changing employment or risk invalidating the visa.

Nevertheless, in many developing countries like Ghana, the rise in youth unemployment rates, poverty and the important role of young people in household livelihoods – coupled with a sense of ‘making it through migration’ – remain major drivers for young people’s migration. There is no doubt that the young will be the most affected by this long-standing Ghanaian ban which has been in place since June 2017.

It is a timely effort for Ghana to take steps toward protecting ‘innocent citizens …from illegal employment agencies’. However, there are some reasons this prolonged ban is a bad idea, considering that the drivers of migration (e.g. unemployment) remain prevalent:

  1. An outright ban on recruitment criminalises the work of all recruitment and travel agencies. When this happens, young people are likely to find other options to facilitate their movement, including falling into the hands of human traffickers. Migration is likely to be riskier, and irregular migration could increase.
  2. Depending on their age and gender, individuals are likely to be expected to contribute to household income. This is often obtained through migration, hence migration becomes a livelihood strategy. Thus, a ban will affect the income of households who depend on migrant worker remittances. This is likely to be the case of potential and current migrant households, including those who have returned home but are unable to go back to the region to work due to the ban.
  3. Fundamentally, the ban also affects the freedom of young people to make decisions about their own lives, including the choice of work, travel, and how they obtain a livelihood. Migration is commonly perceived as a route out of poverty, and thus the ban removes the agency of young people.

So, what should be done?

The drivers of migration must be addressed. Given the poor job prospects in Ghana for both educated and uneducated individuals, many young people do not have another alternative but to leave the country. Therefore, the vital thing is to create economic and job opportunities for young people at home. This will offer them the choice of working in Ghana rather than taking the risk of moving to places where their human rights are likely to be abused. Further, it is essential to open up the space for registered labour market intermediaries or brokers, and private employment agencies to continue their work under strict government regulations.

There is also a need to strengthen information campaigns about the realities of migration to allow young migrants, including those in urban and remote areas, to make informed migration decisions. Added to this, there is the need to regulate and monitor the work of recruitment agencies to know what kind of information is offered to potential migrants.

Moreover, the Government must take steps to fine-tune the legal framework for migrant workers through bilateral arrangements. This includes exploring opportunities to establish new labour mobility agreements with countries that uphold human rights laws, including within Africa itself.

In essence, the ban on migrant workers recruitment in Ghana is unlikely to curb migration to the Gulf region. While a ban may appear to be a step in the right direction, it, in fact, it makes young migrants (particularly females) more vulnerable to clandestine travel agents, and increases migration through illegal channels, further exposing migrants to abuse and exploitation.

 

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‘As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck’ – an MSc student shares her experience

Nadia Raharinirina, whose passion for education led her to apply for Birkbeck’s MSc Education, Power and Social Changereflects on her reasons for choosing the College and the support she has received as an international student.

Before coming to Birkbeck, I ran the international exchange program at a local business school in Madagascar. My work gave me a global outlook by allowing me to build connections with overseas universities and meet students from all over the world, sparking in me a desire to learn more about education.

I chose Birkbeck because of its excellent academic and research reputation: the opportunity to study alongside other professionals at a research-intensive university was one that I couldn’t miss. Evening study was very convenient because it allowed me more time for other activities during the day, for which Birkbeck, with its easy access to restaurants, parks and historic locations, is perfect. The College and surroundings are a busy, cosmopolitan place with plenty of history to uncover too.

It takes a good deal of perseverance to apply for a Chevening scholarship, as the process takes a year. It’s exciting to prepare for such a life-changing opportunity, but it’s scary as well as you might not be successful. I’m so pleased that my efforts in applying paid off.

Being a Chevening scholar is one of the most prestigious opportunities I’ve ever had in my life. It has not only given me access to a renowned university in the UK, but allowed me to connect with future leaders from all over the world. Before Chevening, I didn’t know much about the UK, but my experience here has been priceless, not only because of the education I’ve received, but because of the people I’ve met who’ll be friends for life.

Birkbeck offers a range of accommodation for international students. I was attracted to the International Lutheran Student Centre for its vibrant, inclusive feel. For me, it was the perfect place because I could call it home. Students connect with each other through different events and activities, which is exactly what international students need: a local community.

I’ve had a really enjoyable year at Birkbeck. Evening classes allowed me to study alongside a part-time job and other activities during the day. The different workshops were extremely helpful for me as an international student to integrate into the College and reintegrate into the academic world. Birkbeck Talent allowed me to access a range of professional advice and opportunities, through which I found my part-time job. Their advice was so helpful in understanding and preparing for the professional world in the UK. I am especially grateful I can still benefit from their services even after my studies at Birkbeck. The library is a great space to study; it’s very calm with generous opening hours. As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck which allowed me to smoothly integrate into the academic world and the local culture.

During my studies in MSc Education, Power and Social Change, I learned about the dynamics of education in a globalized system, the different powers around it and its transformative potential. I was so inspired by how education can transform something, someone, and alongside my studies, I’ve been looking for ways to implement that. As education is my passion, strengthened by the inspiration of the support and opportunities Birkbeck and the UK gives to its students, I decided to create a platform, Madagrads.com, to encourage students in Madagascar to grow personally and professionally through the different opportunities around them. The goal is to help improve the lives of students in Madagascar and to create a better future for them. In the long term, my plan for the future would be a role as an advocate for education in one of the International Organisations such as the United Nations, to impact more lives, not only in my country, but also globally.

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Venice Biennale: creative research in the floating city

Danilo Reis, BA History of Art with Curating student, looks back at his five weeks as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships.

The five weeks that I spent in Venice as a recipient of the British Council’s Venice Fellowship programme were truly life-changing. The fellowship, offered in partnership with Birkbeck, is an amazing platform for academic, social, and professional development. The opportunity to work at the prestigious Venice Biennale, while also conducting my own research allowed me to gain a valuable understanding of both the unique city of Venice and the Biennale.

From the very beginning, Birkbeck and the British Council offered me a lot of professional support. Birkbeck helped me with the preparation and planning of my research project, while the British Council offered training sessions in London and put Fellows in contact with renowned institutions in Venice, such as The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which ran study trips and tours, the European Cultural Academy, which offered professional advice on our research projects, and the We Are Here Venice project, a really interesting initiative engaged with the socio-cultural preservation of Venice. I really enjoyed working with all of these institutions, and I particularly liked the aims and mission of We Are Here Venice. We were invited by the organisers of We Are Here Venice to actively engage with their projects and visit and work in their exciting studio, which was a really enriching experience.

The social element of the fellowship was another important aspect of this trip. Our group of twelve Fellows was very diverse, which made us stand out from other national pavilions of the Biennale. We all became friends very quickly and made really good friends with the workers of other pavilions. Every now and again someone posts a picture of our time in Venice on our group chat, which is normally followed by the recalling of beautiful memories and lots of heart emojis.

Being around so many creative and inspiring people made me want to engage with my research creatively. I had never been to Venice before so I did not know what to expect. Once I was there, I was amazed by the functioning of the city: the environmental challenges that the city faces, the use of boats as public transport, the overwhelming amount of tourists visiting the city, the particular geography of Venice… all these elements were immediate indicators of the uniqueness of Venice. From this, I started to think about the need to contextualise Venice according to the socio-political frame within which it operates, a subject which is not normally included in the many guidebooks which the thousands of daily visitors to Venice carry around. I felt the need to address this lack of socio-political contextualisation, to bridge Venice with Italy and with the rest of the world, perhaps in an effort to demystify the romanticism of the city. This meant that the themes of globalisation, capitalism and immigration also needed to be explored. Halfway through my stay in Venice, I met with two representatives of the European Cultural Academy. Their advice helped me to focus my research on the topics of politics, culture and society. I presented some of my findings to the British Council in my ‘AlieNation Playbook’. This was a conceptual book which I created by interacting with a standard guidebook of Venice and ‘subverting’ it. Through collage, I expressed my personal feelings in relation to the geopolitics of Venice, with a strong focus on the many issues faced by Venice and society at large.

I really enjoyed the whole experience and I wish I could express how much it meant to me, but it is very hard to express my gratitude with words. All I can say, finally, is that I really do hope that this fellowship programme continues for as long as the Venice Biennale exists. All the experience that I gained from working at a world-class art event, all the friends that I made, and everything that I learned with my research project made this experience a turning point in my professional, academic and personal life. I feel very grateful for having been given this opportunity and I do hope that many more students will be able to benefit from the Venice Fellowships in the future! I would like to say a huge thank you to Birkbeck and the British Council for an unforgettable experience.

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Upgrading our school and department sites: our web approach 

Jane Van de Ban, Birkbeck Web Content Manager, explains the approach the digital project team is taking to the DTP school and department web redevelopment project.

Over the years, we have tried a variety of approaches to develop the Birkbeck website. For example, the last time we upgraded our school and department web presence, we took a linear approach, upgrading department by department and school by school. But this meant that the departments and/or schools at the end of the list were upgraded more than two years after the first ones were done – which was understandably frustrating for the staff in those schools or departments.

Layering our new school and department content across the Birkbeck site 

This time, we’re doing it differently.

Rather than upgrading one department or school at a time, we’re tackling this project layer by layer (each layer representing a single content area), each of which will go live when it’s ready. This means that the same content layer (eg staff profiles) will go live for all relevant school/development content areas at the same time, without having to wait for entire sites to be redeveloped. (You can see the first outcome for this approach in new department wayfinding pages – which are the first priority in this project to go live.)

This does mean that, while the project is ongoing, new content pages will sit alongside old pages. Eventually, as the project goes on and more content areas go live, new content will entirely eclipse the current school and department presence on the Birkbeck website, and we will have a fully new and improved web presence for this important part of the Birkbeck community.

Web Working Group and Digital Project Team 

We know that colleagues in our schools and departments feel their web presence can be improved. That’s why we’re delighted to be working on this project. But we need to ensure that we understand their concerns and priorities. To this end, the central digital team (comprising the web team in ITS and the digital content team in External Relations) is working collaboratively with our schools and departments through two mechanisms:

  • Web Working Group: This group meets on an ad hoc basis – as we have progress to report and new projects to understand – and acts both as a sounding board and a decision-making body to enable us to make progress. This group is vital to our work, and we look forward to working with them throughout this project.
  • School web staff: Content for schools and departments is typically managed by key local web maintainers, who understand school and department priorities and concerns that are key to our web development work. We are working closely with schools to see how we can embed key members of this staff group in the project, working alongside the central team, both so they can receive full training on our new design and digital standards and also so they can act as a vital ‘pipeline’ from our school and department colleagues, to answer queries and implement changes. This also means they can take ownership of the new content as and when it goes live and help to action key updates and amendments. We are very grateful to schools for their willingness to work with us in this way.

Moratorium on school and department web access 

To ensure that we don’t miss important updates while we develop our replacement school and department web presence, from early October, we will need to remove access for school and department sites from non-project staff (so all school staff embedded with the project team will still have access and be responsible for updating their local content) with the exception of the following two areas of content (as we recognise that these are the three content areas for which local staff receive high volumes of amend requests):

  • Academic staff profiles: All staff who currently have access to update these pages will continue to have access to update academic staff information, until we are in the position of migrating the content to its new location: at this point, we will have to restrict access to the digital project team until the new systems are in place. However, we will give schools and departments advance notice of when the moratorium needs to be imposed and will do our best to ensure that the moratorium doesn’t have to last too long.
  • News stories: All staff who currently update news on school and department sites will continue to have access to add news stories, until the point at which the content needs to be migrated to the new content solution, at which point, we will need to restrict access to the digital project team. But, as with academic staff profiles, we will give schools and departments advance notice of when this will happen and will hope this moratorium won’t have to last too long.
  • Staff intranets: some school and department sites have staff intranets. These will also be exempt from the moratorium, until the point at which the content is migrated to its new content location. We will communicate with schools and departments in advance of imposing the moratorium and will figure out a good way to manage content updates in this time.

How requests for amendments will be actioned during the project 

In relation to all other content amends, these will need to be funnelled through the project team (including local school web maintainers, as explained above), ideally using the web support channel on Yammer (Yammer is part of the college’s Office 365 stable of applications and can be accessed by logging into Office 365, then selecting the Yammer app). Requests for amends will be managed as follows:

  • Content amends for accuracy will be actioned as part of our regular Fix-it Friday work and we will aim – depending on the volume of requests and the staff resource we have available on the day – to action all amends on the Friday in the week the amends are requested. We will post responses to requests for amends on Yammer, so you will know when your amend request has been actioned.
  • More significant change requests – for example, content restructuring or new navigation – will need to be fed into the web redevelopment project, to inform the work that is being done there.

This will ensure that we focus on the new developments, while continually ensuring the accuracy of our current live school and department web content.

Digital content sprints 

In addition to the central digital team and the embedded school staff, we have been given a budget to recruit freelance editors to work on this project. Everyone will become part of the Digital Transformation project team and work collaboratively to make progress. We are planning to tackle our content development work in three-week blocks. These will consist of two elements:

  • Planning and discovery: Before we start any of our projects, we will be doing some discovery work to see how people currently find and use the content and to identify relevant subject experts across the college. We will then invite these subject experts to meet the project team in a web workshop to identify the purpose and scope of the project, review an audit of the existing content, look at the way web users currently work on this content and make recommendations on how we should address the content challenge. In some cases, we will do this using user story creation, to ensure that the content we develop is user-focused and serves a user need. We will then put all of this together into a ‘sprint plan’, which will inform the actual content development.
  • Content sprints: The digital project team will develop content to meet the requirements outlined in the planning and discovery phase. This work will be concentrated into two-week periods, called sprints (excluding Fridays, which are devoted to Fix-it Friday tasks and other project team admin tasks). We will use collaborative tools, including Trello and Slack, to ensure that all members of the digital project team have access to relevant discussions and decisions, so the work can be done as efficiently as possible. (Please see Elizabeth Charles’ blog describing her experience of this project approach for an insight into how this works in practice.) All members of the project team will also be expected to join us in sprint catch-up meetings, which will be conducted via MS Teams, which will enable us to make progress, trouble-shoot issues and identify potential blockers on a daily basis. This will also mean that, where we encounter challenges, we can resolve them collectively.

Project retrospectives 

Although we have piloted aspects of this approach in our work so far, this is the first time we are using it on this scale. We need to make sure we get it right. That’s why, as we progress through this project, we will also be reviewing our progress and approach, so that it can develop to meet the specific needs of our project team and improve as we go along. Where we can, we will publish our findings, to share what we’ve learned with our colleagues across the college.

Timescale 

This is an ambitious project and, without additional resource, would normally take a minimum of 2.5 years. However, we need to finish this project much more quickly so, with the injection of additional resource, for which we are very grateful, we are aiming to upgrade all of the school and department sites over the course of the next academic year, with new content areas going live throughout this period.

What happens at the end of the project? 

Once the new school and department web presence has been finalised by the project team, responsibility for maintaining and developing it will be handed back to schools and departments, and local web maintainers will again be responsible for them.

To support these web maintainers, we will make the following support systems available:

  • Digital passport training: all staff who need to work on the Birkbeck website will receive comprehensive web training, the new ‘digital passport’, which will provide essential grounding in all aspects of web work, from learning how to maintain web content, to understanding search engine optimisation and the specific requirements of responsive websites. (School staff who are part of the digital project team will have already received this training.)
  • Quality monitoring: we subscribe to an online quality monitoring tool called Sitemorse, which scans the Birkbeck site each month, identifying usability, spelling and other web issues that need to be addressed. As part of the handback process, local web maintainers will be trained in and then deputed to receive Sitemorse reports relating to their area of the Birkbeck website.
  • Web maintainers’ meetings: we currently have and will continue to host regular meetings for all Birkbeck web maintainers, which is an essential channel of communication for us, enabling us to share updates and also address questions and concerns raised by our colleagues with web responsibilities.
  • Yammer web support group: since we set this up in 2015, our Yammer web support group has become an essential part of our web work, acting as the main communications channel for routine web amendments and updates, as well as announcements relating to systems downtime, etc. This will continue to operate both throughout the project and beyond.

Keeping up to date with the project 

According to our terms of reference, WWG members are responsible for updating their local departments/schools on the progress of and decisions made during the Digital Transformation Project.

However, we are also planning to publish blogs throughout the project to give insight into our decision-making and progress, and to explain what we’re developing and the thinking that informed the development.

We hope this will ensure that you keep up to date with this important project.

 

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‘The Department offered a lot of support’ – a former MA student shares her learning experience

Jahan Foster, a recent graduate from Birkbeck’s MSc Children, Youth and International Development, writes about how her studies opened her eyes to a range of research and literature, and instilled her with skills she’s putting to use in her new job. 

I completed my MSc in Children, Youth and International Development at Birkbeck in October 2017 and enjoyed every part of my experience. Birkbeck attracts students from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, and this was something I found unique about my experience, as I was able to meet and become friends with a diverse group of people, all of whom had different professional backgrounds and career aims.

I decided to pursue this MSc having completed an undergraduate degree in Politics and French and then spending several years teaching, both in the UK and abroad. As part of my course my compulsory modules were in International Political Economy of Childhood, Social Studies of Childhood, and Researching Children and Childhood, and I took an option module in Education, Power and Resistances. My compulsory modules were fascinating and I enjoyed writing essays on subjects such as migration and their effects on children and young people. I was eventually inspired in the choice of my dissertation midway through one of my modules, during which we learned about transnational childhoods. This opened my eyes to a range of research and literature I would otherwise not have known about. I developed a dissertation proposal which focused on understanding the transnational and gendered identities of Latin American youth living in London. Having spent several years working in Spain and Latin America, I was interested in the growing size of this community in the UK. To collect data for this research I spoke with nine Latin American young people, aged between 16 and 19 years old, living in Lambeth and Southwark in south London, and learned about their recent migration to the UK, their experiences at school and their life now in London. Conducting these interviews highlighted the challenges of collecting primary data – I had to contact a number of schools and local organisations to try to recruit participants, and also spent time canvassing at festivals and events. However, speaking with these young people was one of the most enjoyable parts of the dissertation process and I learned a number of new skills that made me realise that I would like to develop a career in the research sector.

While I was writing my dissertation, I felt like the Department offered a lot of support – we had dissertation workshops instructing us on how to develop our literature review and methodology plus regular meetings with our supervisors. As part of my course I also took the module, Researching Children and Childhood, which helped me to understand the specific challenges and considerations to make when conducting research with children and young people.

During my MSc I completed research internships with various community organisations, which introduced to me the types of ways that research can be integrated into work at the local level. Since graduating I have been working with a health charity based in south London that gathers the views of people’s experiences of health services and represents them at national and local level. This involves holding surveys and conducting interviews with members of the public, and writing reports on their views. My academic experience has been incredibly useful in gaining work opportunities within the research sector, and the skills I have acquired, particularly in interviewing and writing literature reviews, have been highly sought after. I have been motivated to stay within academia, largely as a result of the great teaching and supervision I received from Karen Wells, and the range of topics and content that I was introduced to during my MSc. I have recently been accepted into a PhD at Birkbeck in their Department of Geography, with my research focusing on understanding the social reproduction strategies of Latin American families living in London.

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Department wayfinding pages: new online doorway into our departments

The Digital Transformation Project team is pleased to announce the launch of our first priority project for the Stage 2 school and department web redevelopment project: namely, a new web wayfinding page for every department at Birkbeck. Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager, talks about the wayfinding page project and its implementation.

Before…

What is a wayfinding page?
A department wayfinding page is the first page someone lands on when they follow a link to, or type in the URL (web address) for, a specific department – eg www.bbk.ac.uk/ems.

Each department wayfinding page enables web visitors to find and navigate their way around department-specific information that answers their questions about what it’s like to study, research, collaborate or work in a department at Birkbeck. It provides an overview of the kind of content that will be available to them and makes it easy to get to key information via signpost links.

How did we identify what was needed for the department wayfinding pages?
At our Web Working Group (WWG)1 meeting earlier this year, we shared an analysis on what people look at on our department sites – staff information and department-specific research content.

With this in mind, our WWG members then identified a range of content they felt visitors needed to access when they landed on a department’s wayfinding page, including staff details, information on the student experience, research centres connected with the department, etc. In fact, all of the types of information that are currently featured on, or signposted from, our current department wayfinding pages.

We then asked each WWG member to design their ideal department wayfinding pages – a useful exercise that showed how much each wayfinding page had in common:

  • A large, visually arresting image
  • Signposts for key areas information:
  • staff
  • research
  • course information
  • study here
  • news
  • events
  • social media (blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter)

Some of the wayfinding pages had additional elements that – in many cases – reflected local priorities – eg:

  • embedded videos
  • a ‘mission statement’ or ‘position statement’ for the department
  • calls to action (eg book an open evening, order a prospectus)

and signposts to:

  • department-related research centres
  • recent publications
  • information on working here
  • student funding information
  • fieldwork opportunities.

Objectives
It was clear that each department wanted to use their wayfinding page to meet three objectives:

  • Make it easy to find top-level content areas (our WWG members, for example, felt it was important to make it easy for visitors to find staff information and research information).
  • Make it easy to find information that is unique to individual departments (eg fieldwork opportunities in Geography and Earth and Planetary Sciences; network-learning in Organizational Psychology)
  • Convey something about the character/nature of a department.

With this guidance and based on the user requirements identified in earlier WWG meetings, we presented a design solution to the WWG, consisting of a department ‘template’ with:

  • a large and striking ‘hero’ image
  • 15 visual signposts (six top-level content areas and nine local content areas)
  • two calls to action: ‘Our staff’ and ‘Our research’
  • a short mission statement for every department
  • embedded news, events and department-specific podcasts
  • a course finder
  • an embedded video
  • a statement tile.

Using this template means that we could develop the wayfinding pages, in a timely fashion, with the resources we had and meet the objectives and requirements provided to us by the WWG.

…and after!

The structure of our wayfinding pages
Once approved, the digital team set to work to create wayfinding pages for each department – a task that took, on average, three to four days for each wayfinding page.

Each wayfinding page comprises the following elements: 

  • Hero image: for each department, we had to find a single, large, high-quality image that is both striking and suited to the area of research (while recognising that it is impossible for a single image to convey everything). It also had to fit in with the overall template and be copyright-free: no small challenge! So, for Earth and Planetary Sciences, for example, we’ve chosen an image taken by the Hubble telescope, to convey some of the exciting inter-planetary research our colleagues in that department are undertaking. For History of Art, we’ve selected a really great image of someone in an art gallery. For other departments, we have chosen more abstract images. Not all images work in that space, so it took considerable time to research and identify appropriate images.
  • Department statement: our WWG members made it very clear that, when people land on a wayfinding page, there should be text that conveys something about the department. So, we’ve written bespoke statements for each department, derived – where possible – from existing text either in the prospectus and on the web – a challenging proposition where these statements can be no more than four short lines (about 10 to 12 words). These, in combination with the Birkbeck strapline, ‘London’s evening university’, provide an immediate introductory overview.
  • Calls to action: on our homepage, we use ‘Book an Open Evening’ and ‘Order a prospectus’ as our two main calls to action. But, advised by the WWG that our departments would want to highlight staff and research, we made ‘staff’ and ‘research’ the calls to action – and added signposts further down the page to further highlight these important areas of content.
  • Course search: we’ve included the College course search on all of our wayfinding pages. Although we’re not currently able to offer a department-specific slice of course results, this is something we are building in the future and look forward to rolling out across our department sites. In the meantime, our web visitors can use this to get to course information relevant to their interests.
  • Signposts to top-level content areas: the top six signposts on the landing pages – the rectangular ones – are pretty consistent across our department sites and signpost the main topic areas on our current department sites. This replaces the horizontal navigation currently available from department wayfinding pages, so visitors can continue get to these topics easily. For images, we conducted a lot of research, looking at images of events in the Birkbeck Flickr library to find department-specific images, where possible – particularly to signpost your staff information. Where this wasn’t possible, we have used other images. In all cases, they are high-quality and optimised for the web.
  • Statement tiles: in our print prospectuses, we feature pictures of academics with quotes that relate to their subjects, as heading pages for the subjects. As they’re so striking and the quotes are so good, we thought this was a good opportunity to repurpose them and to create a visual throughline from print to the web, while also taking the opportunity to signpost the all-important staff pages again. If we haven’t used a staff image, it’s because the relevant staff member (whose picture was used in the print prospectus) is no longer at Birkbeck – once we have a new one available, we will replace it.
  • Local-priority signposts: with WWG guidance that we should use these wayfinding pages to help visitors find deep-level content (reflecting local priorities), we have included nine signposts that point to a range of content areas – from individual research centres, to student funding and local activities, such as Science Week, and facilities, such as the Peltz Gallery. We identified them through a content audit of current department content, finding out what is important by what is featured on the local web.
  • Department video: each department wayfinding page showcases a video that showcases an aspect of the department. For Psychology, for example, we embedded a ‘Day in the life…’ video, featuring Dr Emma Meaburn, one of our popular series of videos that showcase what it’s like to be a psychologist at Birkbeck.
  • News, events and podcasts/blogs: we are currently showing the generic news and events feed, which is updated dynamically. Currently, we can’t restrict the feeds to department-specific news/events, but this is also on our list and will be featured in the future; however, we are showcasing three comment features – podcasts or blogs –that are department specific.

What about the rest of my department’s site?
We know that the wayfinding pages take you to pages in the old design.

Our next priority is to redevelop the research information on our department sites (work on which has already started) and then the study here information, each of which will be launched once we’ve completed them as a ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP), with a view to testing and improving them once they’re available. The reason we’re taking this approach is to ensure that we don’t have to wait for all of the content to be redone before we launch new sites (schools and departments currently comprise around 28,000 content items, so it will take a lot of work and time to get them done).

So we’re launching these wayfinding pages as the first of these MVPs – they will change as we begin to see how our web users interact with them, and in response to improved content being made – and they are the first tranche of the overall DTP Stage 2 project that we are pleased to publish.

What about schools?
There is a separate project to look at schools, and their wayfinding pages, as the research we conducted with school and department staff during the initial consultation meetings showed us that there isn’t agreement on the function and purpose of our school web presence – some people even suggesting that they weren’t needed.

So this needs to be considered separately, once the work has been scheduled in as a priority by our Web Working Group.

Find out more
We are publishing blogs through the Digital Transformation Project, to share our progress with and the reasoning behind each of the developments we unveil.

Read some of our other blogs to find out more: 

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