How to prepare for a Chevening Scholarship interview

In this blog current Birkbeck Chevening scholars, Ahmed Alaa Yaqoob Maki, MSc Entrepreneurship student from Iraq and MSc Business Innovation students Aslan Saputra from Indonesia and Ramata N’Diaye from Mali, tell us how they tackled the Chevening interviews and give advice to this year’s applicants.

How did you prepare for your Chevening interview?

Ahmed Alaa Yaqoob Maki:

Ahmed Alaa Yaqoob Maki

First of all, congratulations on reaching this stage! To get started, go back to your application and focus on your essays and the key points you highlighted. Be ready to discuss any part of your application in detail, including your career goals, leadership experiences, and how you plan to use the Chevening scholarship to contribute to your home country. Furthermore, prepare to demonstrate your skills in leadership and networking through real examples from your past experiences. Most importantly, be knowledgeable about current events and issues in your country, the UK, and globally, especially those related to your field of study or professional sector.

In addition, you can find lots of mock interview opportunities. Practice with mock interviews to simulate the interview environment. This can help you become more comfortable with speaking about your experiences and achievements confidently. Feedback from these sessions can be invaluable.

Ramata N’Diaye:

Ramata N’Diaye

To prepare for my Chevening interview, I embraced a thorough approach centered around self-reflection, research on the Chevening scholarship, and diligent queries on my Top 3 universities. I immersed myself in understanding the Chevening Scholarship’s core objectives, values, and the attributes they seek in scholars. This foundational knowledge was crucial for tailoring my responses to align with Chevening’s mission.

I then reflected on my personal, academic, and professional experiences, identifying clear examples that demonstrated my leadership qualities, networking abilities, and commitment to positive change.

Recognizing the importance of staying informed, I kept abreast of current global and regional issues, particularly those relevant to my field of interest and my home country. Practicing mock interviews was also a pivotal part of my preparation, allowing me to refine my answers, improve my delivery, and build confidence.

Aslan Saputra:

Aslan Saputra

In my country, several people who had been shortlisted for Chevening formed small groups to be able to practice together and share the latest information about the Chevening application.

When I entered the shortlisted stage, I knew the story I brought to the application attracted the hearts of the Chevening committee, so my task during the interview was to retell it more enthusiastically and in more detail so that my charisma became stronger and more promising.

What advice would you give to this year’s shortlisted candidate on how to ace their interview?

Ramata N’Diaye:

For this year’s shortlisted candidates, my advice is to deeply understand what Chevening stands for and thoughtfully reflect on your journey and aspirations. Articulate your vision clearly, demonstrate how you embody the Chevening values, and be prepared to engage in discussions on current affairs with insight and poise. Remember, authenticity and preparedness are key to acing the Chevening interview.

Aslan Saputra:

My advice is to not bring new stories to the interview. Just elaborate on the essay that you wrote previously, and show your unique and strong character. Don’t be too stiff, and learn how to tell stories that are interesting and fun.

Ahmed Alaa Yaqoob Maki:

When answering questions, consider using the STAR technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to structure your responses. This method helps you deliver comprehensive and compelling answers.

Further information

 

Share

Celebrating the Lunar New Year and Year of the Dragon with friends and colleagues at Birkbeck  

Zhuoxin Han is a second year LLB Law student. In this blog they share their experience of attending the Lunar New Year event held by the university.  The Lunar New Year is the most important festival celebrated by many countries in Asia. The influence of the Spring Festival has been spreading worldwide; for instance, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the US have begun to join in this celebration. You may have noticed the huge number of red lanterns and decorations in London’s Chinatown if you happened to pass by recently. Or maybe the red celebration signs on the street -screens, as well as dragon illustrations on newspapers or magazines? The Evening Standard, for instance, printed a super cool red dragon as its cover on 10th Feb. 

The Lunar New Year is associated with old myths and traditional customs. Every family undergoes a thorough cleaning while approaching the new year, meaning they are ready to sweep out bad things or moods and be ready to accept the incoming good fortune. In the past, people would practice calligraphy and write their own versions of couplets; today people tend to purchase ready-made couplets. Another custom is using red paper cut outs and couplets to decorate windows and doors respectively. These pretty ornaments make people feel content and joyful. 

This year, the Lunar New Year event was jointly held by Birkbeck Global Recruitment Team and La Yong Jackson, from the International Student Administration team. As student Ambassadors, Ziyao and I were appointed to assist this event.

Before Birkbeck participants arrived, our team members cleaned and decorated the locations where the celebrations were due to take place in the main Malet Street building, the Canteen on the fifth floor, and the George Birkbeck Bar on the fourth floor. We also managed to create a ‘photo corner’ for guests who wish to take pictures, using our phones or Polaroid instant cameras provided by staff for everyone to use. 

The most popular custom during the Spring Festival must be the Red Pocket! The bright red reminds people of the warmth of family, the way everyone once gathered around, talking at the fireplace. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s why Santa’s hats are red. 😊  

This year, Birkbeck prepared red pockets containing a free lunch voucher, golden chocolate, plus a delicate Birkbeck College badge for everyone who registered for the celebrations. As an international student, I found myself impressed by all these thoughtful details. It was probably a time-consuming task to prepare, and felt special. I was also impressed by the canteen staff, who had a really busy day, preparing food for both the regular daily menus and also the extra Asian cuisines for our celebrations. Sammie, Yunmeng, Ziyao, and I helped with guest check-in; everyone looked surprised and happy when they received the red pocket. It was nice to witness their genuine smiles. After lunch in the canteen, we moved to the George Birkbeck Bar.

Here we enjoyed three main activities: red paper cutting with traditional calligraphy or painting, voting for the best dresser and finally a quiz with prizes to be won! One girl drew a vivid dragon and received compliments with people taking pictures of her painting, and she even won a prize for it. Another lady who dressed in a traditional long dress with a beautiful pearl necklace won the best-dressed prize. She looked surprised when she received the award and gave a big, charming smile.

The quiz session was exciting; questions were related to customs and special products of different countries. It was a well-balanced quiz that included single choice, multiple choice, and matching. Each question had a strict time limitation which added to the excitement; everyone was holding their breath. When the results were released, I was a bit shocked to realise I had won! To be honest, I had guessed some of my answers! My colleague was searching for the mysterious winner: Han, which is my shortened nickname. She moved through the room super-fast, and I was chasing her, trying to explain that I was the one she was looking for. Finally, she turned around and noticed me chasing her, which made everyone laugh. There were two others who had come in with high scores, so as the three winners we gathered and had our picture taken. After this, lots of students stayed longer to socialize with each other, and we took lots of photos to remember the happy memories!

The Lunar New Year marks the end of the cold, dark winter and celebrates the beginning of a hopeful spring; it is a symbol of the final rest after a busy or tiring year; a chance to reunite with family members and recharge energy. People use this opportunity to catch up with those dear to them, preparing and getting ready for the next following year. This event which created a sense of community and togetherness, really helped capture these feelings.

As a final note from me, I wish you all a happy Lunar New Year! May the Year of the Dragon bring you good fortune! 

龙年吉祥!1 龍年吉祥!2 

Below is a list of well wishes for the lunar new year in a variety of languages, so feel free to spread the well wishes in your own language!

Albanian: Le të sjellë Viti i Drakonit fat për ty!

Arabic: “مهما جلب عام التنين لك من الحظ السعيد!” (mahma jalaba ‘aam altinin lak min alhaz alsaeid)

Bengali: “ড্রাগন বছর তোমার ভাগ্য আনুক!” (Ḍrāgana bôshara tōmāra bhāgya ānuka!)

Bosnian: “Neka godina Zmaja donese sreću tebi!” (same as Croatian)

Croatian: “Neka godina Zmaja donese sreću tebi!”

Czech: “Ať ti Rok Draka přinese štěstí!”

Danish: “Må Drageåret bringe dig held og lykke!”

Dutch: “Moge het Jaar van de Draak je geluk brengen!”

Estonian: “Loota, et Draakoni aasta toob sulle õnne!”

Filipino: “Sana’y magdala ng suwerte sa’yo ang Taon ng Dragon!”

Finnish: “Toivotan sinulle onnea Lohikäärmeen vuonna!”

French: “Que l’Année du Dragon vous apporte bonne chance!”

German: “Möge das Jahr des Drachen Ihnen Glück bringen!”

Greek: “Ας φέρει το Έτος του Δράκου καλή τύχη σε εσένα!” (As férei to Étos tou Drákou kalí týchi se eséna!)

Hebrew: “שנת הדרקון תביא לך מזל טוב!” (Shnat hadrakon tavi lecha mazal tov!)

Hindi: “ड्रैगन का वर्ष आपको शुभकामनाएं लेकर आए!” (ḍragan kā varṣ āpako śubhakāmanāeṁ lekar āe!)

Hungarian: “A Sárkány Éve hozzon neked szerencsét!”

Icelandic: “Má Drakársárinn koma þér heppni!”

Indonesian: “Semoga Tahun Naga membawa keberuntungan bagi Anda!”

Italian: “Che l’Anno del Drago ti porti fortuna!”

Japanese: “龍の年があなたに幸運をもたらしますように!” (Ryū no toshi ga anata ni kōun o motarashimasu yō ni!)

Korean: “용년이 당신에게 행운을 가져다 주기를 바랍니다!” (Yongnyeoni dangsinege haeng-un-eul gajyeoda jugireul barabnida!)

Kurdish: “Salê Şahmaran ji we re şans bidin!”

Latvian: “Lai Drakona Gads atnes tev veiksmi!”

Lithuanian: “Tegul Drakono metai tau atneš laimę!”

Malay: “Semoga Tahun Naga membawa keberuntungan kepada anda!”

Nepali: “ड्र्यागनको वर्ष तपाईंलाई भाग्य ल्याउनुहोस्!” (Ḍr’yāganakō varṣa tapā’īnlā’ī bhāgya lyā’unuhōs!)

Polish: “Niech Rok Smoka przyniesie ci szczęście!”

Portuguese: “Que o Ano do Dragão traga boa sorte para você!”

Romanian: “Anul Dragonului să îți aducă noroc!”

Russian: “Пусть год Дракона принесет вам удачу!”

Serbian: “Neka godina Zmaja donese sreću tebi!” (same as Croatian)

Spanish: “¡Que el Año del Dragón te traiga buena suerte!”

Swahili: “Mwaka wa Joka ulete bahati njema kwako!”

Swedish: “Må Drakens år bringa dig lycka!”

Thai: “ขอให้ปีมังกรนำโชคดีมาหาคุณ!” (kh̄ xih̄ pī mạngkrnăm chŏkh dī mā h̄ā khun!)

Turkish: “Ejderha Yılı size şans getirsin!”

Ukrainian: “Нехай Рік Дракона принесе вам щастя!” (Nekhay Rik Drakona prynese vam shchastya!)

Vietnamese: “Chúc năm Rồng mang lại may mắn cho bạn!”

More Information: 

 

Share

Meet the Chevening Scholar: Felix Hollison

Felix is from Soloman Islands, and studying LLM Pathways (Law and New Technology). Find out more about him, his remarkable path to Birkbeck, and his hopes for the future in the below Q&A.

What is your academic and professional background?

I am a lawyer by profession, and I graduated with a Bachelor of Law (LLB) at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in 2014. From 2015 to 2019, I worked as a Senior Crown Counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers in Solomon Islands. I was part of the litigation team within the chambers, and represented the Solomon Islands Government mostly in civil cases in the Magistrates Court, High Court and the Court of Appeal.

I joined the Central Magistrates Court of Solomon Islands in June 2019 as a Principal Magistrate and I still work there. Mostly, I deal with criminal cases such as robbery, burglary, assault related cases, sexual offences, human trafficking, theft offences, domestic violence, public disorder offences and other wide range of criminal offences.

Why did you apply for Chevening?

I applied for Chevening because I think this prestigious scholarship will be the vehicle for me to gain a world-class academic learning in the United Kingdom. It will also be a chance to enhance my leadership credentials, and the qualification will no doubt increase my marketability and employability globally.

What are your long-term plans after studying?

One of my goals is to help develop the jurisprudence of my country through my judgments, assist in law reforms where necessary and help Solomon Islands modernise its laws for the betterment of the country. Should I be given the chance to become a judge in the superior courts in the future, it will be a humble opportunity to be more influential in terms of the development of our jurisprudence.

Why did you choose Birkbeck for your studies?

I selected Birkbeck because it is a renowned university located in the heart of London that has transformed many lives for around 200 years already. More importantly, it provides the LLM with Pathways that I wish to study. It has a strong tradition of research across its departments of Law and Criminology with their internationally distinguished staff. The phenomenal changes that have taken place in technology will transform the way society operates in many ways that will have consequential effects on the law around the globe. My country is susceptible to the adverse effects of technological changes such as the erosion of democracy, climate change, cybercrime, biotechnology, political radicalisation and automation to name some.

Birkbeck is the ideal place to gain the necessary academic and professional knowledge to assist my country navigate through these uncertain times. Modernising my country’s laws to keep abreast with the technological and normative changes is a must, and I wish to be an agent of change in my country.

Share

“The International team at Birkbeck went above and beyond in providing me with support”

Fijian Sidhant Maharaj is currently enrolled on Birkbeck’s MA in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Here, Sidhant shares why choosing Birkbeck was the right decision.

Sidhant Maharaj

I’m an Intersectional Queer Feminist Activist from Fiji with over 8 years’ experience working in the areas of Women, Girls, LGBTQI+ rights, and Youth Empowerment. I’m also a non-binary feminist researcher and work with organizations nationally, regionally and internationally in conducting, designing, and facilitating training programs and policy development.

With multiple international leadership trainings, I continuously advocate for intersectional policies while increasing visibility and amplifying marginalized voices. I currently serve as the East Asia and the Pacific Representative to the Community Solutions Program Alumni Board of more than 630 alumni from over 80 countries. I also served as a Specialist Mentor for the Community Engagement Exchange Program 2023, funded by the US Department of State and supported in its implementation by the International Research & Exchanges Board supporting over 100 youths from over 70 countries. With my work in the region I have also been selected as a UN Women 30 for 2030 youth leader in South East Asia and the Pacific.

Why did you choose Birkbeck?

I chose Birkbeck for my MA in Gender and Sexuality Studies program because I was particularly drawn to how Birkbeck examines current debates around gender and sexuality which incorporate the cutting-edge research of world-leading academics at Birkbeck, who are passionate and engaged in the real world, working towards social justice with activists, policy-makers, academics, and charities and NGOs. Another reason that made me choose Birkbeck over other university offers I had was the people and culture at Birkbeck. Due to some unforeseen circumstances I was quite late in applying to universities but the International team at Birkbeck went above and beyond in providing support to me all the way in Fiji, making the application process seamless. Today being halfway across the world in London I am so glad I chose Birkbeck!

What do you plan to do after your studies at Birkbeck?

After the completion of my MA in Gender and Sexuality Studies, I plan to further my research in Fiji and the Pacific and work more closely with the public and private sector in developing/updating more inclusive and diverse policies that has women and LGBTIQ+ community as safe guarded categories shifting from the gender as binary narrative.

Further information

Share

Changing careers: from working in law to becoming a football agent

Iddi Yassin is one of the 21 Birkbeck 2023 Chevening scholars. In this blog Iddi shares his dreams about the future and the place Birkbeck will play in helping him achieve his goals.

Iddi Yassin

I’m from Tanzania and I’m studying MSc Sport Management at Birkbeck. In 2016, I was admitted to the Tanzania Mainland Bar Association, and I practised law as an Advocate of The High Court of Tanzania.

Chevening as a first step to a new career

I applied for Chevening in 2023 because it’s arguably the most prestigious scholarship programme with remarkable scholars and alumni from different social, economic, and political backgrounds.

My long-term plan is to become a football agent and manage young athletes in Tanzania to fulfil their career ambitions on the global stage. I hope the extensive skills and rich network acquired from my postgraduate studies will help me achieve this.

Why Birkbeck?

I chose Birkbeck due to its great reputation and popularity in the sports industry, as well as its great staff equipped with understanding of management, governance, and regulatory issues within the business of sports. Furthermore, studying in a cosmopolitan and business-oriented capital city such as London will give me exposure to a wide range of sports businesses, football clubs, and football regulatory authorities.

I’m confident that having the opportunity to study this course will help build my skills, competence, and expertise and provide me with a strong foundation as a football agent and sports consultant. I plan to participate fully in various long-term sports programmes including raising awareness to the public, writing articles, and publishing them. This includes being actively engaged and collaborating with the government and other stakeholders in capacity-building programs.

Further information

Share

Meet the Chevening Scholar: Ramata N’Diaye

Ramata N’Diaye is a 2023 Chevening scholar from Mali, passionate about Youth and Women empowerment and social entrepreneurship. Here, she shares her experience applying for the UK government’s prestigious scholarship and what made her choose Birkbeck.
A woman smiles and holds up a sign that reads 'I can't keep calm, I've been chosen for Chevening!'A short tour of my career serving youth and empowering women 

‌Entrepreneurship is a field that I’m very passionate about and been in for many years. As the Associate Director of Programs and Partnerships at Impact Hub, Bamako, I help young people realise their entrepreneurial dreams. I’m able to share my skills through training and coaching sessions held within the framework of various programmes. The programmes include, The Next Economy, which is made possible by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Women Entrepreneurship and Leadership programme which is supported by the US Embassy; and Road2COP, a project financed by the UK Embassy in Mali that aims to provide an innovative and interactive platform for Young Malians in order to better understand the climate crisis. 

Through my work I have planned, designed and implemented more than 10 impactful programs for over 2000 young people and have helped raise more than 100 million FCFA in financing for local entrepreneurs. I think my experience in management within the the start-up and innovation sector helped with this a lot. Furthermore, in my role of communication Coordinator of the National Council of Business Incubators and Innovation Centres of Mali, I built valuable partnerships with various stakeholders and played a pivotal role in fostering a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, leading me to be a key speaker at the World Bank Group Regional Youth Summit in May 2023. Finally, as women entrepreneurship advocate, I have published several articles on female entrepreneurship in Mali and participated in various forum on the topic as a panelist. 

Education and experience go hand in hand 

I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Organisation Communication from Universiapolis, the international University of Agadir, Morocco, and I graduated from Nottingham Trent University with a Master’s Degree in Media and Globalization in 2017. I hold an Expert Certification in Business Support for Innovative Entrepreneurship from the Afric’Innov community, an investment readiness expertise certification from Investisseurs & Partners and finally a verified certification in Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies from Harvard University online courses. 

Chevening, entrepreneurship and economic development 

In a country threatened by political, economic and security instabilities like Mali, the private sector and entrepreneurship is the source of about 90% of the job creation and a major share of sources economic growth. It is therefore the locomotive that will help the country emerge and develop. I think it is crucial to support the development of the local private sector and to invest in digital transformation, to create enough attractive and secure income opportunities for young people – especially women. Stable sources of income will mean fewer young people considering the path of Islamic extremism or immigration. For women it opens the door to financial independence, thus reducing gender-based violence. The importance of this matter in a Malian context, stimulated my interest to apply for Chevening. 

I realized that a comprehensive education related to my expertise in entrepreneurship is essential in order to achieve my goals. I believe that gaining education in business development and innovation strategy combined with my experience, will help me acquire the capability to work in an extensive range of senior functional and general management positions across a wide spectrum of business sectors in Mali and the whole region. 

I hope to have a key role in preparing young entrepreneurs through my international Chevening network, education, and career experience. In time, I want this to open up more opportunities for entrepreneurship advancement in Mali.  

Mixing academic pursuits and active entrepreneurship at Birkbeck 

I chose Birkbeck for my studies for several compelling reasons. Firstly, Birkbeck is renowned for its commitment to providing evening classes, allowing working professionals like myself to pursue advanced education without compromising their professional commitments.  

Secondly, Birkbeck has a distinguished reputation for its emphasis on practical and applicable knowledge. The faculty at Birkbeck consists of accomplished professionals and scholars in the field, providing a valuable opportunity for me to learn from experts and gain insights from their practical experiences. 

‌Lastly, I was fortunate to receive valuable insights from my fellow Malian and Chevening scholar, Awa Touré, who studied her master’s degree at Birkbeck. Her firsthand experience and positive recommendations about the academic environment, faculty expertise, and overall atmosphere at Birkbeck played a pivotal role in influencing my decision to choose the university for my own master’s studies.  

 

Share

Bernard Crick: A Political Education

By Joanna Bourke, Professor Emerita of History, Birkbeck, University of London and author of Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning (OUP, 2023).

Bernard Crick

Bernard Crick at the Annual George Orwell Memorial Lecture (JSTOR)

Bernard Crick was one of the most distinguished British political scientists of the twentieth century and a self-proclaimed polemicist. He established the Department of Sociology and Politics at Birkbeck in 1972 and was its Chair until he took early retirement in 1984. In those thirteen years, Crick transformed Birkbeck’s intellectual and political character, leaving behind one of the most respected Politics Departments in the country.

Crick was born in 1929 and died in 2008, at the age of 79. He studied Economics at University College, London, before moving to the LSE to complete his doctorate, awarded in 1952 and published in 1958 under the title The American Science of Politics. It was a critique of the behaviourist streak of American politics. Although he taught in many American universities (including Harvard, McGill, and Berkeley in the 1950s), his first permanent academic posts were at the LSE and then the University of Sheffield. In 1972, however, he was appointed to Birkbeck to establish the college’s first Department of Politics and Sociology.

Crick was thrilled to be appointed at Birkbeck. He had been commuting to Sheffield from London for years and was relieved to be back in his home-city. He was also a strong supporter of adult education, believing that it was important for students of sociology and politics to have practical experience in the ‘real world’. One of his early messages after arriving at Birkbeck was to inform prospective applicants that ‘candidates from a first degree into which they came straight from school will not usually be considered’! He also thought that adult students improved the entire learning experience. Crick always argued that a university ‘should be a creative sharing, not a departmentalisation of learning’, as he put it in Political Thoughts and Polemics (1990).

For Crick, politics was ‘ethics done in public’. This aphorism was another way of saying that he was an enthusiastic advocate of the unity of theory and practice. This was why, during his editorship of The Political Quarterly, he made it into a leading forum for debate about political theory as well as practice. The entire raison d’être of academic politics was to forge an engaged citizenry. Indeed, the fate of democracy lay with people’s civic literacy, which is why Crick was dismayed by the profound political ignorance of most Britons.

Not surprisingly, Crick was a pragmatist. ‘Real’ politics was messy. It had to deal with the vast diversity of competing and conflicting interests, as well as being unpredictable, which is one reason Crick argued against the ‘scientistic’ behaviourism of many North American schools of political thought. His emphasis was on politics-and-society, rather than political science, with its emphasis on abstracted data rather than social values and meaning. Effective politics involved negotiating, compromising, and seeking consensus. In other words, the world of politics was about reconciling differences. As Crick wrote in 1971, political science had to be ‘aware of the inextricable relationship of theory to practice and hence the need for political relevance’. He quipped that ‘the world may not need political science… but political science needs to be relevant to the world to be profound as a discipline’.

Crick refused to identify with doctrinaire partisans of either the Left or Right but contended in In Defence of Politics that political scientists should ‘argue only for relevance’, retaining an ‘independent-minded critical engagement’ rather than an ‘uncritical commitment or loyalty to party’. When he was asked by one Derbyshire miner who had read his books, ‘Ay, I gets all that; but does thee not believe in anything, Professor lad?’, Crick responded by saying, ‘I am a democratic socialist’. Probably more tellingly, however, is the story that Crick was delighted when one interviewer called him an ‘extremist at the centre’.

The book for which Crick was most proud was his biography of George Orwell, published in 1980. It was the first major study of Orwell and was a best-seller. Crick donated royalties from the hardback version of this book to establish the George Orwell Memorial Trust. He also founded the annual Birkbeck Orwell Lecture and Orwell Prize for political writing. He could frequently be heard reciting Orwell’s famous aphorism: ‘What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art’.

Crick was an individualist. He was not a ‘team-player’; nor was he a particularly effective administrator, although he was a keen advocate for early career scholars he admired. Labour politician David Blunkett, who studied under Crick, put it well when he called Crick a ‘character…. a one-off’. During his tenure at Birkbeck, Crick promoted the highest scholarship and teaching. The Department he created in 1972 continues to flourish and to ensure that political writing is relevant and rigorous, as well as an art.

Share

Barbara Hardy and Literary Scholarship

By Joanna Bourke, Professor Emerita of History at Birkbeck and author of Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People (OUP, 2023)

Barbara Gwladys Hardy was a distinguished literary scholar, who spent most of her career at Birkbeck. She was famous for being one of the UK’s foremost experts on the nineteenth-century novel, but her work included critical analyses ranging from Shakespeare to modernism. Amongst many others, she wrote on George Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, Daniel Deronda, Thomas Hardy, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. She was also an accomplished memoirist, as well as a writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She was President of the Dickens Society and Vice-President of The Thomas Hardy Society.

Hardy was a glamorous academic. She was socially gregarious, feminist in her outlook, and politically leftwing. As a young person, she had even joined the Communist Party for a short time. Her early life had been difficult. In her autobiography Swansea Girl, Hardy revealled her pride in being Welsh, but also her family’s financial struggles. They were poor:  her father was a sailor whom she rarely saw while her mother worked in an insurance office. From a young age, it was clear that Hardy was intelligent. She was sent to the selective (‘posh’) Swansea High School for Girls, where teachers complained that she was mischievous. When Higher Education beckoned, she chose to go to University College, London, where she was awarded a BA in 1947 and an MA two years later. By 1951, she could be found at Birkbeck, employed as an assistant lecturer. She was appointed to a Chair in English literature at Royal Holloway but, after five years, returned to Birkbeck in 1970s as the first Geoffrey Tillotson Professor of English Literature.

Hardy’s texts are ‘personal, impassioned and particularised’, as she admitted in a volume of her collected essays. As she insisted in Tellers and Listeners (1975), she believed that ‘nature, not art, makes us all story-tellers’. When she turned to James Joyce’s The Dubliners, she contended that ‘like all great works of art, [it] is about itself. Its stories are about telling, listening and responding to stories’. She understood narrative in a broad sense, including stories, gossip, dreams, secrets, and lies. Narrative was primarily an ‘act of mind transferred to art from life’, she once explained. Indeed, this was the impulse that led Hardy to turn away from ‘theory’: she belonged to the empirical tradition of English criticism.

Hardy’s reputation can be gauged by numerous prizes and other accolades thrust upon her. In 1962, the British Academy awarded her the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for her magnum opus, The Novels of George Eliot (1959). This was the book that not only launched her career but also forced literary scholars to take the nineteenth century novel seriously. Then, in 1997, her novel London Lovers won the Society of Author’s Sagittarius Prize and she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2006, she was made a Fellow of the British Academy. She retired in 1989, and was succeeded in her Chair by the equally distinguished literary scholar, Professor Isobel Armstrong.

Hardy loved working at Birkbeck. Her lecturing style was bold and entrancing. She would swish into class wearing long William Morris-type dresses and, for an hour without break, would attempt to convey some of her enthusiasm for literature to her class. She was renowned for never referring to notes during lectures. This was a deliberate decision stemming from a searing experience when, during the very first lecture she ever gave in front of a class, she had the misfortune to be ‘inspected’. The Inspector later commended her teaching but criticised her for looking down at her written text too frequently. From that time, she ensured that she prepared meticulously for her classes, but appeared in lecture-halls paperless.

Students and colleagues enjoyed her company. She was very different from her predecessor as Head of the English Department. This was Geoffrey Tillotson, Head between 1944 and 1969. As a tall, lean, ascetic-looking Yorkshireman, Tillotson was a master of irony, bordering on sarcasm. ‘Do not omit to be literate’, he wrote in his immaculate italic handwriting when a student left out an apostrophe. One of Tillotson’s favourite aphorisms was ‘Criticism, trembling with sympathy, cannot but be ruthless!’. In contrast, Hardy was warm and keen to listen as well as speak. One of her students recalled how, one minute, she was laughing loudly with them in the refectory; the next, indignantly railing against gender inequalities. Despite her literary erudition, she was as comfortable debating about whether The Archers (a radio soap opera) was ‘just melodrama, or something more subtle’ as she was unpicking the narrative structure of the Divine Comedy. Although Hardy loved dinner parties (she was a great cook and entertainer) and enjoyed lively discussions, she often joked that one of the chief advantages of working at Birkbeck included ‘a perpetual and automatic alibi for declining unwanted invitations’ to social events: lecturers simply had to say ‘Sorry, I lecture in the evenings’. This excuse also gave Birkbeck lecturers a ‘plausible excuse’ for watching films in the mid-afternoon or even simply ‘lingering over coffee’. More seriously, in 1964, she told The Lodestone (the Birkbeck students’ journal) that the most significant advantages of working at Birkbeck were intellectual. Because academic staff taught in the evenings, she maintained, there is still a goodish chunk of daylight time for research and writing, and the boon of having students who already know the facts of life. This is probably helpful in subjects like psychology… but in teaching English literature it is splendid never to encounter the kind of student who once asked me (in a full-time college) why Othello and Desdemona couldn’t just have talked the whole thing over.

Of course, Hardy continued, there were some disadvantages as well. Birkbeck students could be ‘maddeningly opinionated’ and there was the perennial problem of booking adequate teaching rooms. But these ‘crumples in the roseleaf’ were ‘mere fleabites’.

Barbara died in 2016, aged 92. She is remembered for her incredible scholarship and literary sensibilities. As she contended in Tellers and Listeners, ‘The good teller and the good listener are loving and truthful, aware of each other, as parents and children, friends and lovers, courteous strangers, novelists and readers’.

Share

Cecil Alec Mace, Founder of the Birkbeck Department of Psychology

By Joanna Bourke, Professor Emerita of History at Birkbeck, University of London and author of Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning (OUP, 2023).

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, visiting Birkbeck’s Department of Psychology in 1953. Also present are Dr. Fuchs (Chief Technician) and Professor C. A. Mace (founder and Head of Department)- JSTOR image library

Cecil Alec Mace was the first Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck. He was known for his work as an industrial psychologist, as well as his thoughts on causality, the ‘mind-body’ problem, logic, behaviourism, self-identity, and the emotions. He was especially witty when addressing the question: ‘Must philosophers disagree?’, which, he quipped, was guaranteed to result in a room of philosophers spiritedly disagreeing!

Psychology was not Mace’s first choice for a career. When he attended the University of Cambridge, it was to study for Holy Orders. He soon switched to moral philosophy, highly influenced by analytical philosopher G. E. Moore and industrial psychologist Charles Samuel Myers. After academic positions at the University of Nottingham, St. Andrews University, and Bedford College, he joined King’s College London.

Mace’s route to Birkbeck was circuitous. Before the 1940s, psychological studies in the colleges of the University of London were part of a philosophy degree. Since Birkbeck did not have a Professor of Psychology, Birkbeck students took their two compulsory psychology papers at King’s College, under the tutorage of Francis Arthur Powell Aveling. With the start Blitz, all colleges in the University of London except Birkbeck fled the city for less dangerous localities. Aveling, however, was left behind and enthusiastically accepted an invitation by C. E. M. Joad, who was Head of Philosophy at Birkbeck, to transfer his teaching of psychology to Birkbeck’s premises.

It was a bold move, but, when Aveling died the following year, his lectures were taken over by Mace. Like Aveling, Mace was as much a philosopher as a psychologist—indeed, he served as President of both the British Psychological Society as well as the Aristotelian Society. At Birkbeck, however, Mace was responsible for enabling Psychology to be granted its own disciplinary status, separate from philosophy. By 1944, the Philosophy and Psychology Departments had become separate Departments, with Mace acting as Professor of Psychology for seventeen years until he retired in 1961.

Mace had interesting thoughts on the use of incentives in the workplace. He argued against the notion that workers were primarily incentivized my money. Rather, they had a ‘will to work’. Along with Bertrand Russell, Mace contended that ‘belief is central to any analysis of the mind’. He also reflected on how Cartesian concepts might be replaced by ‘psychosomatic’ concepts ‘in which the person is thought of as a being – a single being – who has both bodily and “mental” (or psychological) attributes and whose “experiences” are psychosomatic’. He believed that this would greatly help in physician/patient relations. Well before it became fashionable, Mace was curious about cybernetics and information theory. He was also passionate about the role of both philosophy and psychology in war. During the First World war, he had been a pacifist and, as a consequence, spent that war at Dartmoor prison where he studied the psychological effects of imprisonment. During the Second World War, he was Secretary of the Council for Assisting Refugee Philosophers.

Mace’s thoughts on the ‘psychology of study’ were important in the way he approached his classes at Birkbeck. Mace argued that too much attention was being paid to memorization, contending that the mind (similar to the stomach) ‘must take its meal in moderation’. Students benefitted most from lectures if they spent the time listening, rather than frantically jotting down notes (which, he wittily added, should only be contemplated when the professor ‘has a fit of sneezing’).  This was compatible with Mace’s ‘performative approach’ to teaching. He was an accomplished lecturer, giving his students highly stylized performances on subjects as diverse as the psychology of study, scientific management, the structure of the mind, mental deficiency, and logic. He was reported to have described his philosophy of teaching as ‘All one can do is think aloud, and hope that some of it will brush off’.  When Mace died in 1971, The Times reported that he had been responsible for creating ‘the biggest and best-known psychology department in the country’.

Cecil Alec Mace

Oil painting of Cecil Alec Mace, unknown artist, Birkbeck image collections: Birkbeck history BH0119

Share

Francis Ravenscroft and the Survival of the London Mechanics’ Institution

By Joanna Bourke, Professor Emerita of History, Birkbeck and author of Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People (OUP, 2023)

Francis Ravenscroft

The London Mechanics Institution (LMI, now known as Birkbeck, University of London) had many founders. Five deserve special mention. Obviously, there is George Birkbeck, physician and philanthropist, who lent his name and status to the fledging college and led it from 1823 to 1841. There are also Joseph Clinton Robertson and Thomas Hodgskin who, as editors of the Mechanics’ Magazine, sent out the initial invitation, inviting people interested in workers’ education to meet at the Crown and Anchor Tavern. Radical politician Francis Place and political and legal titan, Henry Brougham, are the other two founders of the college.

But one man is often forgotten: Francis Ravenscroft. Technically, he was not a founder. Indeed, when he joined the LMI as an ambitious nineteen-year-old in June 1848, the Institution was already in its twenty-fifth year of existence. However, the LMI was definitely in terminal decline. Founder and president George Birkbeck had died seven years earlier and his son, William Lloyd Birkbeck, had inherited the Presidency. William Birkbeck had different interests to his father. He was frequently absent from governance meetings. The LMI was also a victim of its success. It had convinced the elites of Britain of the importance of education, meaning that numerous other educational organisations and libraries had been established. The LMI found itself competing with thorsands of other ‘literary and scientific’ institutions, as well as government-funded schools. In the early 1850s, there were more than 1,500 evening schools for adults in England and Wales, catering for nearly 40,000 pupils. In London alone, there were 28 different Mechanics Institutes. Student numbers at the LMI had plummeted; it was unviable. As one long-standing member of the LMI’s managing committee later recalled, ‘public enthusiasm’ for the LMI was dying. The Institution was ‘hopelessly in debt, was badly housed, and dirty, and apparently at its last gasp’.

Ravenscroft was responsible for reversing its fortunes. He enjoyed a meteoric rise within the LMI, impressing the governing committee with his exceptional business and financial acumen. Within a few months of signing up to take classes, Ravenscroft had been elected to the LMI’s management committee; a month later, he was its Chair. As Ravenscroft later admitted at a public meeting, when he was first nominated to become a member of the committee, candidates were required to ‘make a solemn declaration’ that they were at least 21 years old. He wasn’t. ‘At that time I was in the eyes of the law an infant – (laughter) – and consequently was not entitled to serve’, he admitted. However, ‘being ambitious I recklessly signed the printed form – (laughter and ‘Oh, Oh’) – and I am pleased to find that the institution has suffered no harm’.

As a young man, Ravenscroft was not an obvious educationalist. He had been raised in a distinguished wig-making family and was expected to follow his father into that business. Ravenscroft was restless, however, and, at the age of fifteen, became apprenticed to a tea taster. After only four months, he quit. This was a serious matter since breaking a five-year apprenticeship could have seen him thrown into Bridewell prison. Fortunately, his parents convinced the master to cancel the indenture.

Ravenscroft then pursued a career in law, being appointed to work for a barrister and then a solicitor for seven years. The solicitor asked him to deal with a case involving ‘a building society in difficulties’ due to ‘the misconduct of the manager and the society being unable to meet its liabilities’. This gave Ravenscroft the opportunity ‘of thoroughly investigating and properly understanding the general routine and intricacies of building societies’. He concluded that, if ‘properly and honestly managed, with resources to meet withdrawals’, building societies could be a ‘safe and profitable investment’. Ravenscroft’s problem was ‘providing a fund wherewithal to pay withdrawals upon demand’. This gave him the idea of also opening a deposit bank linked to the building society, promising that at least three-quarters of the money would be invested in Consols (that is, government bonds), or other ‘convertible securities’. Ravenscroft drew up a set of rules and a prospectus for his ‘proposed new society’, which he then christened the ‘Birkbeck Bank’, due to his admiration of George Birkbeck. At around this time, his father died, which meant that he came into a large inheritance.

Ravenscroft was already taking classes and serving on the managing committee of the LMI by this stage. He believed that his two interests (banking and education) would benefit by being linked. He appointed Directors of the Birkbeck Building Society from his contacts in the LMI. He made the LMI’s President (William Lloyd Birkbeck) the Bank’s President; Andrew Macfarlane, secretary of the LMI, was appointed as Treasurer; William Eward, vice-president of the LMI, was appointed as a Trustee, as was John Rüntz, who ran the Birkbeck School. Ravenscroft even ‘borrowed’ rooms in the LMI’s building for his Bank and the two organisations shared costs by publishing their prospectuses in the same booklet.

As the Birkbeck Bank and Permanent Building Society flourished (within only a few years, Ravenscroft was turning over £20 million a year as a private banker), so too did his support of the LMI. In the words of James C. N. White (Chair of the LMI), ‘we went to [Francis Ravenscroft] whenever we required assistance, and we never went in vain’.

The most urgent problem for the LMI was their need for new premises. The Southampton buildings had been inadequate for decades but, when the governing committee of the LMI sought to raise money for a building through public subscriptions, they met with little support. This was where Ravenscroft stepped in, agreeing ‘to play the part of the Good Fairy’. Ravenscroft ‘personally guaranteed the entire cost of the new building; he also undertook, at a later stage, to obtain an advance from his bank on ‘favourable terms’. He threw his energies into collecting subscriptions for the Building Fund and collected just under £4,000 (that is, around half a million pounds today). Subscribers included royalty, William Lloyd Birkbeck, numerous guilds and corporations (including the City of London), and London’s most prominent citizens, including many of Ravenscroft’s friends and family. The building they acquired was Bream’s Building, located near Fleet Street and formerly the home to publishers and printers. The surveyors boasted that ‘Every part of the building is light: there are no dark corners’. In short, it was perfect for the LMI.

In 1866, Ravenscroft was also largely responsible for changing the name of the London Mechanics’ Institution to the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, commonly known as ‘The Birkbeck’. He could often be seen strolling around ‘The Birkbeck’ in a beautifully-tailored suit of ‘deep blue-black broad-cloth… with a waistcoat cut in a clerical manner, with a row of little buttons on one side, and black velvet skull cap’. Although the relationship between the LMI/Birkbeck had always been a mutual one, Ravenscroft was tireless in his praise of the college. ‘My gratitude’, he maintained, knows no bounds, for it is very largely [due] to my association with the Birkbeck that I owe my success in life. This obligation I can never forget, and the sense of it increases as the years go by. Any efforts of mine, therefore, to promote the interests of the institution I regard as but a poor and inadequate return for the benefits that I have myself received. It was a generous remark from a brilliant and benevolent man.

Ravenscroft served the LMI from 1849 until his death in 1902, 53 years. In 1893, The Birkbeck Institution Magazine quipped that ‘there is only one thing that Mr. Ravenscroft has ever refused to do for our Institution, that is to make a speech’. When asked to, he would reply ‘I am a man of figures, not of words’.

Today, Ravenscroft is known for the company ‘Ede and Ravenscroft’, the famous wig and gown makers, founded in 1689, whose robes Birkbeck students still wear on ceremonial occasions such as graduations. But Francis Ravenscroft deserves to be celebrated not only for building one of the greatest banks of the nineteenth century (later taken over by National Westminster) and creating exquisite gowns, but also for being a great educationalist. Birkbeck owes its continued successes to him.

Francis Ravenscroft on cover of dinner booklet

Breams building

Breams Building, which Ravenscroft helped Birkbeck to purchase- JSTOR image library

Share