Mariyeh Mushtaq: Life in London as an international student

Mariyeh Mushtaq was awarded the Great India scholarship to study MA Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck. She was also selected as one of the recipients of the Birkbeck/International Student House Accommodation scholarship.  In this blog, Mariyeh shares what it was like settling into life at Birkbeck.

I decided to apply to Birkbeck because of the range of courses it offers, particularly in the field of women’s and gender studies. One of the main reasons I chose this university was the ample financial support it offers to international students in the form of scholarships, bursaries and fee-waivers.

As an international student applying for an MA at Birkbeck, I was intentional about applying for a scholarship. I came across the Birkbeck/ISH Scholarship when I was searching for accommodation on the Birkbeck website and was directed to the International Students House website, where I learnt about this partnership and the criteria for application and selection.

Being a Birkbeck/ISH Scholar has truly facilitated my learning and growth in a much broader and holistic way. I do not have to worry about of the financial implications of living in London and at ISH I have met fellow scholars and residents from all over the world that I have been able to forge meaningful relationships with, both academically and culturally. As a student of social sciences and humanities, I feel learning about other students’ cultural experiences has enabled me to open my mind to new possibilities and approaches in my own research.

There are so many great things about staying at ISH. Firstly, it is located in the vicinity of Bloomsbury area so it is only a short walk from the Birkbeck campus, and the beautiful Regents Park is only a three-minute walk away. But ISH is more than just a student accommodation, it is an international community of people and it actively facilitates interaction and cooperation among its residents through regular events and activities. Throughout the school year, I regularly attended ISH events, where I had the opportunity to interact with fellow residents and enjoy delicious food! I organised film screenings and discussions which provided a common space for students from different academic backgrounds to come together, share their opinions and hear from others. At the annual garden party, I got an opportunity to meet Her Royal Highness Princess Anne and exchange a few words about my stay at ISH and my studies at Birkbeck. I was also involved in filming a video about ISH which was screened at the event and later shared on the ISH website.

Getting used to an entirely different system of teaching and learning was a bit stressful in the beginning. I was a little apprehensive about the readings and the lectures in general.  My course tutors helped familiarize me with the process and reassured me through my frequent in-person meetings with them. Birkbeck organises regular study-skills workshops; ranging from academic writing skills to coping with student life in London. Attending these proved extremely helpful in terms of coping with my workload and gave me the confidence to conduct my own research. The library induction familiarized me with the relevant sections of the library and put me in touch with my subject librarian for guidance and support.

Coming to London as an international student was my first time abroad. Before travelling to London, I was anxious about many things as most international students are. Immediately after arriving here I met so many different people. It was a little overwhelming at first, but given the homely vibe of ISH, I was able to overcome my anxiety and start interacting with everyone quite quickly. London is a big and busy city, similar to home. Even so, dealing with the culture shock was difficult because it was a sudden change, from the food to the overall life here.

Having spent a year in London, I’d advise prospective international students to spend more time with their family before leaving their home country, and look forward to meeting and making a new family before you go!

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Why I chose to study Law with a Foundation year

Rebecca Wills, an aspiring barrister, decided to study Law at Birkbeck with a foundation year to get the best possible preparation for the LLB. Having her lectures and seminars in the evening has meant she’s been able to get a head start on her career by volunteering at a magistrates’ court during the day.

The law is the foundation in everything that we do and it is immersed into many disciplines. This is what attracted me to study law.Also, as an aspiring barrister, I want to make a difference inside and outside the courtroom.

I believe if I didn’t study law, I would remain ignorant to a lot of issues that are going on in the world when it comes to human rights abuses, alongside the historical significance behind the creation of the law itself and other moral issues. Once you know and understand the law it can protect and provide you with many advantages. When I graduate, I hope to have a successful career in law as a barrister or solicitor’s advocate.

“Studying in the evening suits my independent learning style.”

I was inspired to study at Birkbeck after my telephone interview with Professor Bill Bowring. I decided to enrol because it is a university based on critical theory and analysis, which I believe I excel in. Because lectures and seminars take place in the evening, I am able to volunteer at a magistrate’s court during the daytime. I also find evening study suits my independent learning style. I love to study during the daytime and feel I am more productive when it comes to self-learning during these hours. I read once that the human brain can absorb most information during the first three hours after waking up and the last three hours before we go to our bed which fits in with how I study and learn.

I wanted to ensure that studying and taking on a career in law was the right decision for me.  After having a conversation with my sixth form head of year, the foundation year option seemed like the best course of action to take to ensure I obtained the right skills and best preparation for the LLB. I knew that studying law required a lot of reading; however I didn’t know much else about it. I thought taking the foundation year would best equip and prepare me for advancing onto the LLB.

Prior to embarking on the foundation year course, I prepared myself by attending Birkbeck workshops on note-taking, critical thinking, critical writing, critical reading, critical listening etc.

The School of Law, Birkbeck

 “The foundation year was challenging, but it made me more open minded in the way that I evaluate situations. It provided a useful transition between A-level and degree-level study.”

The foundation year was challenging and required a lot of hard work. Nonetheless, it was useful and insightful. The literature was not always easy to read, particularly when reading lengthy cases with complex vocabulary. Of course, in order to understand all the readings, it was essential to define all terms and read actively and critically. As a result, time-management became a really important skill that I honed in on.

The year provided a useful transition between A levels and degree-level study, because the course itself moulded and enabled me to adapt to different teaching styles. The course challenged my moral compass on multiple issues when it came to life and death situations, where the defendant was seen to be in the wrong. It made me more open minded in the way that I evaluate situations.  It prepared me for the workload that I would undertake for the first year of the LLB as I gained insight into the level of work required at university level. It increased my awareness of the importance of independent study.

To other students thinking about taking the law foundation year, I would say:

  • Utilise this time as practice for the LLB.
  • Take the course seriously – don’t underestimate it as being easy because it’s a foundation course.
  • Make use of the feedback given from lecturers after doing assessments.
  • Always ensure that you email the lecturers and keep in communication with them.
  • Take action after reading the feedback.
  • Never be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something or you want to confirm your Answer to a question is correct or accurate – no question is stupid.

“You need to proactively engage with the law, by going beyond the reading list.”

Do not rely on the lectures too much, you must become an independent learner and get used to the idea of trying to become the teacher of the subject yourself. The lecturers provide students with an outline during lectures and guidance on how to navigate legal resources and materials. However, they are not there to do your work for you. It is vital that you immerse yourself within the subject. This means attending every lecture and seminar even if you think it’s of no significance to you. This also involves proactively engaging with the law, by going beyond the reading list and further reading list, as well as answering all homework and seminar questions in detail.

Try to find your own way of working. Time-manage yourself, and work hard at being the best version of yourself as everyone learns at a different pace. You must believe that you can do it, and you must always aim for the highest possible grade.

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Life in London as an international student

We catch up with Yvette Shumbusho, an MSc Marketing Communications student from Rwanda, who in a December blog post talked about settling in London as an international student. As the academic year draws to a close Yvette reflects on what she enjoys most about living in the capital.

London has been home for the past ten months, and I have easily integrated into the diverse culture. This fast-paced, metropolitan city lives up to the hype for many reasons, its culture, food and entertainment, to name a few

The diversity found in London puts it at an advantage compared to many cities in the world. There are a number of food markets that I have been able to visit such as Maltby Street Market and more in various parts of London. I have eaten some of the best meals in these places, freshly made and satisfying overall.

You don’t have to worry about gaining a few pounds because there are so many gyms around the city – there are three different gyms within a radius of 0.3 miles of where I reside! This is surely motivation to keep fit but even if you’re not fond of gyms and exercise classes, walking around alone can help you get in a quick workout. I walk almost everywhere and now that it’s nice and warm (on some days), I walk a lot more than I normally would. I have come to realise that Londoners like to power walk everywhere.

Between juggling school assignments and regular everyday activities, it is a real challenge to get time off and explore, but I have managed to visit a number of places including the London Aquarium. I was a few inches away from a family of sharks, which was exciting as I had never been so close to them. I’ve also visited a number of parks, some unintentionally as I strolled to school or back home, which got me thinking how beautiful it is that London has so many green spaces; it makes walking and general living that much better.

Before I complete my course, there is still a number of places I need to visit within the city and even outside of London but all in all; my experience has been one to remember. I will surely miss this place.

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Jump starting a new career with a Birkbeck Certificate

Former dancer Princess Bell had to stop working to care for her two children, aged 11 and 9, who have a complex, undiagnosed neurological condition. But a few years ago she decided it was possible for her to pursue a career too and started looking into how she could become a respiratory physiotherapist. She took the first step towards this goal by enrolling on Birkbeck’s Certificate in Higher Education for Life Sciences.  

Princess joined Birkbeck’s Certificate Holders Celebration tea party alongside dozens of her peers, hosted by Master of the College Professor David Latchman, at the University of London’s historic Senate House headquarters.

Now that she’s finished the course, with a distinction, she’s accepted a place at St George’s University to study physiotherapy. 

Princess and her children at the Certificate Holders celebration tea party

“A couple of years ago, I decided it was possible for me to try and have a career as well as caring for my children. I knew I wanted to get into physiotherapy because of my children’s needs, especially my daughter who has a lot of respiratory issues. There were a couple of ways I could have done it, but I chose to do the Certificate at Birkbeck because of the flexibility, and because being able to study in the evening was extremely helpful. My daughter needs a nurse when I am not available, but evening study meant fewer staff were needed because my children were in bed, as opposed to when they’re awake and active. It just made balancing everything a lot easier for me.

“It was also the fact that Birkbeck has a really good reputation. When I went to St George’s for an Open Day, I said to the Head of Admissions for Physiotherapy that I was looking at the Certificate at Birkbeck. She said that any students they’ve ever got from Birkbeck have always been really good and achieved really well, so that cemented that Birkbeck was the ideal place to start off my retraining.

“Juggling my studies with looking after my children was very difficult in honesty, especially as the course had a lot of independent study. I could only get support from social care for the hours where I was physically out of the house at lectures, so when I had to study in the house, I still had to care for my children at the same time.

“However, I really enjoyed learning and getting to use my brain again, and my lecturers were really supportive. When I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to do it, they were very encouraging and understanding of my situation. One of my lecturers, Dr Gwen Nneji, even Skyped me to do some tutoring for the sessions that I missed when I had to care for my children. She gave me extra guidance in the areas that I needed to look at to be able to catch up, so I could still manage to complete the course.

“I was so relieved when I got my results and realised that I actually did well. Even though I’m going on to the next step and I haven’t finished my training yet, it gave me a huge sense of achievement: ‘I got through it, I managed to do it!’

“My plan now is to go into respiratory physiotherapy within paediatrics, once I qualify. That’s going to be a few years off, but I have a place at St George’s University starting next year. I have to do rotations first which includes adult and paediatrics, before I get to specialise.”

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Life as a Legal Studies student at Birkbeck

Amma Donkor completed the Legal Studies certificate of higher education at Birkbeck last year, and has since commenced on the LLB course. She explains how returning to studying after a break has helped with her career as well as enhancing her worldview, confidence and well-being. 

I enrolled on the Certificate in Legal Method course (now known as Legal Studies) in 2016 as I wanted a change from my previous role in TV sales at the BBC. I also figured that it would be a great opportunity to gain useful skills that would complement my new role within the Rights Department at Channel 4. I wasn’t interested in pursuing a Law degree at that time, but little did I know that once I began the course, I would fall in love with the subject and progress even further!

It had taken a good few years to summon the courage to pursue this journey. As a mature student, the prospect of returning to education after many years was a daunting prospect because my previous experience of education had been disappointing. To add to that, only a month after enrolling on the course, my dad passed away suddenly; this was a year after losing my mum back in 2015 so I decided to defer for a year.

However, determined to complete the course, I enrolled again the following year and was offered a place to start in October 2017. Like all Certificate courses, the duration is a year-long and took place over three terms and a few Saturday’s so there were four modules that we studied. There were two options to take the course either on one evening a week or one day a week. As I work full-time, I opted for the evening classes.

There were twelve of us in the class which included a wide mix of people. We are all at various stages of our lives; some straight out of six form college whilst the rest of us were combining full-time work with study. Everyone in the class was friendly and supportive throughout the year and we established a WhatsApp group early in the course, where we shared information and tips to help us through the course.

The course was an introduction to the study of Law and the modules provided an understanding of the foundation of the English legal system, practical skills such as mooting and advocacy and even attending a courtroom, legal reasoning where we learnt how judges used various skills to adjudicate on seminal cases, as well as learning about salient areas of English law such as Human Rights and the European Union. There were eight assignments set throughout the year and we received lots of assistance from our tutor and from the various study skills workshops that were available to assist us with legal writing. The combination of studying in the evening whilst working, although tiring at first, was the only option for me to return to education and so, after a few months, it became like second nature. Very early on in the course it began to dawn on us how prevalent the subject of Law featured in all aspects of society.

I knew that previously, I had been pretty lackadaisical about studying. However, as a mature student I didn’t want to waste such an opportunity again and began to apply myself. As a result, I received good grades in all my assignments.

The teaching on the course was excellent and I personally believe that was the reason why I flourished on the course. Our tutor was also a part-time barrister, so we received a first-hand account of what it was like to practise law and how the legal process works. Her passion and dedication to ensure that we all did well on the course inspired most of us to do just that. My tutor also encouraged me to continue with my education and to enrol on the LLB Law course.

Consequently, I’ve just completed the first year of the LLB Law course here at Birkbeck, University of London. The first year was more demanding than the Certificate course as we studied three modules simultaneously throughout the year which took place over three evenings a week. However, it was encouraging to discover cases or concepts that we had been introduced to in the Certificate course being developed further on the LLB course. And because of this, I was able to keep up with the volume and the pace of study.

I’ve also noticed that concepts such as Human Rights, Constitutionalism and Parliamentary Sovereignty are a lot more plausible when watching or reading the news since returning to education and my confidence and well-being has increased considerably. I’m still not sure whether I want to practise as a solicitor or even a barrister or even at all, but I am looking forward to the year of study ahead and to successfully completing the LLB!

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Ground Hog Day for our next Prime Minister

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics reflects on the challenges facing the new prime minister and suggests that there is a way to overcome them.

Only one thing is predictable about our next prime minister: they will be a ground hog day leader. For all that the candidates are promising new deals, no deals and new directions, from day one they’ll face the same traps and tripwires that have destroyed May’s premiership.

No doubt May faced an uphill task, and had one of the worst in-trays of any peacetime prime minister. Particularly after June 2017, Theresa May faced a divided party, a split House of Commons and a divided country.

We should remember, before sending off our sympathy cards, that her decisions worsened what was already a bad situation. Her premiership was wrecked on her own promises and ‘red lines’, which she had to retreat from. Her neglect of Scotland and Northern Ireland led to talk of new referendums and separation.  And the less said about her decision to hold a ‘snap’ election the better, as she manged to somehow win while losing, doing away with a majority she very, very badly needed.

The problem for whoever the next prime minister is that nothing will have changed. It may be that the new prime minister has some skills that May lacked. Perhaps she will be more decisive, a better communicator or less divisive. She could even enjoy a (brief) bounce in the polls and, if she’s lucky, some good will.

Yet like Theresa May, our next leader will be a ‘takeover’ PM, getting to power by replacement not an election win. Being a takeover almost always limits a leader’s lifespan and, sometimes, their authority. I estimated ‘takeovers’ have about three years.

The Conservative party will still be deeply, hopelessly split. There’ll still be no majority for the government in the House of Commons, and the option of a general election, given the local and EU election results, should be, to put it diplomatically, reasonably unappealing. As for ‘re-opening’ or ‘no dealing’ Brexit, the prime minister looks set to be trapped between an EU who will not renegotiate and a parliament that will not allow a no deal Brexit.

In fact, it will probably be worse for May’s successor. If our new prime minister wins by promising no deal or radical re-negotiations, they’ll have to U-turn or backtrack. Tensions will probably worsen with Scotland, where there are new referendum rumblings, and the complexities of Northern Ireland and the border will stay unsolved. Labour’s dilemmas and problem could make everything worse, not better.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. Prime ministers, like presidents, have a power to persuade. John Harris and Marina Hyde, as well as academics like Rob Ford, have been making the point that no one is trying to change anyone’s mind, or even suggesting it could be done. Yet why people voted how they did was complex and changeable. The whole debate about Brexit has been tied up with a belief that the UK is hopelessly and irredeemably polarised, and that the will of the people is now set in stone (listen in to Albert Weale’s great talk).

Instead of labelling opponents as enemies, why doesn’t our new prime minister try to persuade them? Time after time, from Iraq to same-sex marriage, politicians have tried to persuade the public to re-think their views. Parts of the population were persuaded in 2016. Can’t they be talked back again? It’s the only way out of the loop.

Ben Worthy is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck. You can see more of his work on political leadership here.

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Downing Street Blues: why write a memoir?

Ahead of a talk on the same subject on 23 May, Dr Ben Worthy discusses the purpose of prime ministerial memoirs is – how these apparently personal histories provide insight and are also used to justify, explain and establish a leader’s persona and, most importantly, their place in history.

We are all waiting with baited breath for David Cameron’s possibly-soon-to-be-published memoirs.  Prime ministerial memoirs are now an event, and the media and the public await revelations from the moment they leave office. Nevertheless, they carry a reputation for being pretty dull and unrevealing. ‘Traditional political memoirs’ Tony Blair argued in his own book, are ‘rather too easy to put down’. So why would a prime minister want to write them (and go to the trouble of buying a new shed to write them in)?

For readers, memoirs can offer a unique insight into seeing through their eyes. They can help us to see how they felt in office and their views of their own triumphs and, more rarely, their tragedies. They do come, however, with a rather big health warning. Like all memoirs, the reminisces of prime ministers can be flawed by poor memory, often sharpened by the politics of revenge and the need to be shown well in the light of history.

Money plays a part. Lloyd George, who wrote the first real blockbuster memoirs in the 1930s, was paid record breaking amounts of money for both the books and serialisation rights. Later Margaret Thatcher’s £3.5 million earnings and Blair’s reported £4.6 million advance caused controversy (Cameron got ‘only’ a third of that, it seems). Blair donated his proceeds to the Royal British legion.

If asked why they were writing, most political leaders would say they want to ‘set the record straight’. Sometimes, this can be framed as an almost ‘moral’ claim to tell some sort of ‘truth’ (when everyone else hasn’t been). Lloyd George declared that he owed it to ‘the public and posterity’ to ‘tell the whole truth’ after being slandered and attacked for his conduct of the First World War by military leaders.

Every prime minister since has followed a similar line and we have learned things we didn’t know. We know that when Harold Macmillan famously told a heckler they ‘never had it so good’ he meant it as warning not a celebration.  Margaret Thatcher felt everyone misunderstood her quoting of Francis of Assisi on the steps of Downing Street. Tony Blair revealed that he always saw himself as being ‘married’ to the British people. We even know some things we didn’t want to know-such as Blair’s revelation that all the travelling messed with his ‘digestive system’.

Whether they are really setting straight is questionable. Selective recall and forgetting is a particular problem for politicians. Anthony Eden managed to not mention in his reflections the collusion with France and Israel that ended his career. Blair’s informal, almost chatty tone changes to ‘Anthony Blair the lawyer’ in his chapters on Iraq-and when he talks about what he calls the ‘dossier’ most readers would recall it better as the ‘dodgy dossier’. Sometimes setting the record descends into some pretty serious wishful thinking, as when Thatcher writes of how the Poll Tax would have worked out if it had been given a few years more to run.

For a leader in retirement, the writing of a memoir is above all a final political act on the stage and final appeal to history and the public. Some then gather dust in bargain bins but some leader’s recollections can determine how we see our history. As Churchill used to warn other politicians ‘all right, I shall leave it to history, but remember that I shall be one of the historians’.

Ben Worthy is giving a talk on prime ministerial memoirs at Birkbeck College, University of London on 23 May 6pm London as part of Birkbeck Arts Week with Birkbeck Politics Writer in Residence Sian Norris. You can book tickets here.

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Championing higher education through trade union discounts

Earlier this year, to mark Heart Unions week, we showed how Birkbeck recognises trade unions through offering a 10% discount for union members in partnership with Unionlearn. In this instalment of the blog, we’ll meet two students who have taken up the trade union discount at Birkbeck, to hear about why they have come to Birkbeck and what the discount means to them as trade union members.

Felix Hamilton is a member of Unite and is a former secondary teacher from Ghana who is in the second year of the BSc Criminology and Criminal Justice. He came to Birkbeck for a change of career.

“Birkbeck’s evening classes are perfect for working people in London. I work full-time as a health and safety inspector for a housing trust and also study full-time. It’s very difficult but I have to manage my time well. It’s not easy doing a full time course and working. It’s all about dedication and commitment. I couldn’t afford to do the full time course without working because I have other responsibilities so I couldn’t give up work, plus I wouldn’t get any other financial support. The discount is really helpful in that respect.

“I came out of teacher training college in 2002 so I had been out of education for a long time. I had done other distance courses but it had been over 10 years without being in the classroom.

“I’m studying Criminology and Criminal Justice because I love the criminal aspects of sociology and learning about human behaviour and how to solve crimes. I’ve been a victim of crime myself, and through my experience I was interested in why people commit crime and wanted to learn more. I had done a Forensic Psychology course before but now I’m learning more about the theory behind offending. Hopefully I can gain experience in the practical side through a career in the Probation & Prison Service after I graduate.”

Barney O’Connor was a rep for GMB which gave him a head start for the LLB course, and he is now in his second year of the Law (LLB) course at Birkbeck after having a difficult time at school:

“School didn’t work for me, I never enjoyed it. I am dyslexic then in my twenties I’ve also been diagnosed with ASD, dyspraxia and ADHD. I‘m bright, I’m clever, I’m just ‘not academic’. This year I got my first 2:1 and I feel great.

“One of the benefits of doing this and being older is that if I’d gone at 18 and failed a module like I did last year, I would have dropped out. Now I’m older, I’ve realised that not everything goes well first time and you just learn to keep on trying. I was told I would never read for pleasure as a kid so nobody would have expected this.

“I heard about Birkbeck through my trade union, GMB, because someone mentioned you could get a discount and then I found out that Birkbeck had a good Law School. I liked that Birkbeck looks at your background, what you’ve done in life, your work experience, trade union work. It just fit what I needed at the time, and it’s still working.

“The trade union discount helps to tell people what Birkbeck was, why it was set up and how it’s still connected to that. My interest in employment law got me here. Through being a trade union rep, I did training on health and safety and the law behind that but I’ve now had the chance to learn more about different areas of Law. I get excited when I talk about Law. I’ve found something academic which I enjoy and that’s never happened before. It’s improved me all round, helped me to deal with lot of stuff from the past, school-wise. Not everyone does law for the same reasons but if you’re involved with the trade union and you have the trade union mindset then it’s a way of keeping that going.”

Further information about the trade union discount can be found here: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/student-services/fee-payment/discounts

To find out more about the union learning project at Birkbeck and opportunities for trade union members, contact union-learning@bbk.ac.uk

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Birkbeck students launch Mammalo – the new “Uber” for on-demand services.

Former Birkbeck students teamed up to start Mammalo – a startup that connects London’s population to hundreds of verified industry professionals.  

Maxime van den Berg, former MSc Management with Business Strategy and the Environment student, and Andrea Armanni were just as eager as many students here at Birkbeck to start their own company. During their studies, they found the time to plan and implement a brand new idea known today as Mammalo.

As a quick introduction, Mammalo is an online marketplace to quickly search and book any professional services. Conversely, if you have any skills that you want to make money out of, you can create a personal profile and list your skill in order to get exposure to people looking for your service.

According to Andrea, “Mammalo is truly a revolutionary platform that we would like to scale globally someday. Until then we are focusing on the expansion here in London and the rest of the UK.”

Starting a business is tough, and Maxime and Andrea recognise the importance of having others to support them on their start-up journey. They are getting involved with Birkbeck’s Enterprise Pathways to give back to fellow Birkbeck students and encourage them to support each other as much as possible. As we learned from them, to be able to start a business you only really need three things:

  1. An idea
  2. A plan
  3. The knowhow

An idea is only 10% of the solution; the execution will determine your success. Carefully consider your business model and competition. Failing to plan is planning to fail, after all.

Lastly, knowhow encompasses what you have learned in university, in the workplace and in life. You need to have some basic knowledge to get a company physically started. If you don’t have this knowledge, be curious! There is always room to learn to do what you cannot today.

Maxime mentioned “The thrill of not knowing what will happen but putting in as much effort as possible to make the best come true is what got us started and keeps us going. Not only are we solving an issue for everyone in London but we also get to build the solution from the ground up.”

This is an example of a success story in which students have used the knowledge they have gained to pursue a dream of starting their own company.

So, if you have some time feel free to check out the platform on www.mammalo.com and signup today! They can use all the feedback they can get and would hugely appreciate your thoughts.

Maxime will be coming to Birkbeck to share his start-up story soon – look out for the event details when they go live here.

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Why even a soft Brexit gives the oil oligarchs what they want

Dr Frederick Guy, Senior Lecturer in Management, explains how Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will hamper efforts to combat climate change and bolster the power of Putin and other major fossil fuel exporters.

Putin – whose name I use here as shorthand for the entire oligarchy of not just Russia but all major fossil fuel exporters – wants to prevent the emergence of international institutions which would be able to bring climate change under control. That is because the control of climate change would require destroying the oil and gas business, and with it his wealth and power.

To this end, two of the central objectives of the oil oligarchs have been the installation of a US government which is hostile to international cooperation in general and cooperation on climate in particular; and the fragmentation of the European Union. Trump, and Brexit; more broadly, a science-denying Republican party, and resurgent nationalism in every European country and region.

Even soft Brexit will be enough for Putin
I will explain below why these two political objectives, in the US and in the EU, are necessary – and, unfortunately, probably sufficient – for Putin’s ends. But first let me just say that, for Putin’s purposes, any Brexit will do, Hard, No Deal … or the softest of soft, as long as Britain withdraws from the political institutions of the EU.

In Britain, where anti-Brexit arguments have focused on the damage to the UK economy and the threat to peace in Ireland, a very soft Brexit is alluring: some kind of Norway ++ which keeps the UK essentially in both the Single Market and the Customs Union, but removes it from the political institutions of the EU. In British politics such an outcome would of course be a sorry face-saving compromise, letting politicians claim to have left the EU while retaining the economic advantages of membership (at some considerable cost in the form of lost voice in making the economic rules). For Putin, though, it would be a great victory, because what threatens Putin is a coherent West- and Central European voice on climate policy. The more he can fragment the EU – through the withdrawal of a big actor like Britain, and the discord which follows – the better off he is.

We can’t know how large a factor Putin has been in the political successes of Trump and Brexit. Obviously, there’s a lot more behind the surge of nationalism around the world than such plutocratic manipulation. Yet propaganda does work – ask Goebbels, ask Maddison Avenue, ask any company or political party that invests in public relations or advertising. And just the fact that Putin has made such obvious efforts to influence domestic politics in so many countries, raises the question of why he would do so.

Geopolitics in the anthropocene
I am writing here about the power of the oligarchs of oil: about the politics of plutocracy, and also about geo-politics.

The oligarchs of oil are just one segment of the larger plutocracy which afflicts our age. The oil oligarchs present us with a different set of problems than other oligarchs, however; our diagnosis of these problems is hindered if we think of plutocracy, or of capitalism, as one undifferentiated thing.

The other most prominent members of the plutocratic class have fortunes based on locking down parts of the digitized network economy (Amazon, Google, Microsoft,  privatized telephone networks, and so on), or on the extravagant protections now offered intellectual property (notable in pharma, biotechnology, and certain profitable corners of publishing). We might add to this list fortunes from the world of finance, but finance needs something to finance, and it is the monopoly sectors of the “real” economy – both in natural resources like oil and in information resources – which nourish finance. So let us speak simply of oil oligarchs and information oligarchs.

The two groups of oligarchs have a common interest in preventing the public from taking away their unearned hoards of wealth. The information oligarchs fear laws that would restore both our digital networks and our funds of accumulated knowledge to their proper state as a commons without monopolist tollgates – in short, that we will make their products free. The fossil fuel oligarchs fear that we will simply stop using their products. If justice ever comes for the information oligarchs it will be a piecemeal and prolonged set of battles, leaving the principals humbled but probably well heeled. The oil oligarchs, on the other hand, have their backs against the wall: they know that the health of the biosphere requires that their euthanasia – to borrow a technical economic term from Keynes – comes soon.

We can also think of what Putin and his ilk do in terms of state power – they act not merely as wealthy and influential individuals but as rulers – and thus of geo-politics. At first blush, we might think in terms of traditional Great Power or superpower rivalries. Putin’s politics, however, are about oil. And the geo-politics of oil is no longer primarily about control of the oil supply, but about the right to keep selling it. Any effective climate policy will sharply reduce demand for fossil fuels, which will mean, even if it is not all left in the ground, that both the quantity sold and the price will fall – shredding colossal oil fortunes.

If it seems far-fetched to reduce the policy objectives of a large state, once a superpower and still possessed of a huge nuclear arsenal, to permission to sell a single product, just look at the dependence of Russia on fuel (oil, gas, coal) exports. In 2017 – the latest year for which the World Bank provides these figures – Russia’s net exports of fuel amounted to 13% of GDP – an astonishing level for a country of that size. The only countries with higher levels of dependence on oil exports are states, like the Gulf monarchies, which produce little else (see Figure 1). Leaving the oil in the ground would not destroy Russia – if anything, it would free the country from the influence of oil, which entrenches corruption and despotism, and crowds out most other economic initiative – but it would destroy Russia’s oligarchy.

Figure 1

This is why the interests of the Russian state and the House of Saud, despite their quarrel over dominance in Syria and the Gulf, align at the global level: they need to block the emergence of institutions of international governance capable of dealing with the problem of climate change.

Governing climate change
The governance problem is well known: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions requires deep changes to our material way of life; attendant social changes; and vast investments in new clean technologies and clean infrastructure. Moreover, we have dallied so long that, in order to have any realistic hope of preventing very dangerous climate change, we need to decarbonize fast (Figure 2) – meaning that the process will be more expensive, more socially disruptive, and more politically difficult than it would have been had action been taken when the problem was first understood some decades ago.

Figure 2. Past delays mean that rapid decarbonization is necessary for climate stabilization. Graph from http://folk.uio.no/roberan

What nation will undertake such changes without the assurance that other nations will do so as well? Technically, this is what we call a “collective action problem”, a prisoner’s dilemma game with many players, blown up to the global level. Agreements are made – in Porto Alegre, Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris – but there is nobody to enforce them, and greenhouse gasses continue to accumulate.

Dealing with climate change of course requires action at every level, from the global down to individual and community choices about how to live and what to consume. But without an overall grip on the collective action problem between countries, there won’t be effective national policies in most countries. And without effective national policies, the efforts of individuals and local communities will be weakened by the knowledge that others are taking no action, and so will not add up to enough.

For the past quarter century we have had climate agreements which have no teeth. There is no prospect of having an actual global government to enforce the agreements. How, then, do collective action problems get solved at a global level? Some say it only happens in periods of history when single hegemonic power – notably, Britain from the defeat of Napoleon until the mid-1800s, and the USA in the decades after World War II – had the weight to enforce international rules of trade and finance (rules used, of course, to the hegemon’s advantage); the same might serve for rules about greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no single dominant world power to play that role today.

Our best hope – is it shocking that it has come to a point where this is something more to hope for than to fear? – is that a small number of very large powers would act in concert as leaders, and enforcers, of international agreements to cut greenhouse gasses. The method of enforcement could be a combination of threatened withdrawal of access to export markets, and conditions placed on foreign investment.

What countries could exercise such power? In Figure 3a I plot the GDP and the greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s 25 largest economies – again, treating the EU as one country. Note that I have used ratio (logarithmic) scales, so the differences between the larger and smaller countries are compressed on the graph, but even so three big ones stand out in both GDP and emissions: China, the USA, and the EU. Big as they are, if these three giant economies decarbonized, it would not be enough to stop global warming. But all other countries depend on access to these three big markets, and investment from them. Individually, none is globally hegemonic; together, they could fill that role.

Figure 3

Figure 3b plots the same information, but with the EU split up. This leaves the US, China, and then a large mass of mid-sized emitters: six of the 25 biggest CO2 emitters are members of the EU. It is within in the mass of mid-size CO2 emitters that the collective action problem becomes overwhelming, each saying “after you”, each proposing actions that will shift costs to others. It is a recipe for non-action, for fatal delay, and that is why Putin needs to make the EU ineffective as a political unit. If you add to that the effective side-lining of the USA – its de facto alliance with Putin and the House of Saud – this configuration leaves no plausible leader, no plausible enforcer, for climate policy.

It may seem a faint hope any of that those three powers – China, the EU, and the USA – will actually choose to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it is, but other hopes are fainter still. And, if it were really such a far-fetched possibility, I do not think that the petro-powers, together with fossil fuel interests in the industrial countries themselves, would be doing so much to prevent it. Their support for both Trump and Brexit – any Brexit – is a central part of that effort to prevent the US and EU from taking decisive action on climate change.

What this should say to you if you are looking forward to any sort of Brexit, whether it be the ice bath of No Deal or the warm shower of Norway++, is that Putin will thank you for it, and that your great grandchildren, if they are among humanity’s survivors, will curse you.

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