Getting prospective students talking

Dave Lewis, from Birkbeck’s Widening Access team, talks about the College’s new mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. If you’re interested in taking part, contact gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.gettalking

Taking the plunge into higher education can be both exhilarating and daunting. Whether changing career, leaving school or coming back to education, students inevitably have questions about the years ahead. Navigating this transition with the support of a recent graduate can make all the difference, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a one-to-one mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. After an evening of training, our dedicated alumni draw on their own experiences to provide insight into both life at Birkbeck and higher education more broadly. In turn, students are given the opportunity to talk through any queries or concerns ahead of enrolment. Students are matched with their mentor based on what they hope to gain from the scheme and as such will often receive advice specific to their chosen field.

Meetings take place in a number of coffee shops close to campus, allowing participants to familiarise themselves with the Bloomsbury area and picture life as a student here.  Once students have enrolled at Birkbeck there is a wealth of continued support (including further mentoring opportunities) throughout their time at the college.

This type of pre-entry support is integral to ensuring university is accessible to all. Get Talking is one of many Birkbeck programmes that supports students from widening participation backgrounds. The scheme really is working too, with up to 75% of students who take part going on to enrol at Birkbeck. Deon, one student who took part in the scheme this year, said:

“The meeting with Dimitrios was very beneficial to me and l hope he feels the same. I am happy to say that these programs can only be an advantage to new and prospective students starting out as l feel no one knows better than those whom have experienced the task of completing an undergraduate whilst working. Dimitrios is a very helpful and understanding young man and l can only say l am honored that l was able to draw from his experience.”

This year Get Talking also began supporting applicants to the college’s Compass Project, a fund supporting forced migrants through scholarships to Birkbeck and information, advice and guidance on higher education in the UK. One of the applicants who took part this year said: “It was great to speak to someone who was as passionate about my subject as I was”.

Finally, Get Talking speaks of how closely connected Birkbeck’s alumni remain to the college. Our alumni mentors volunteer their time to support new entrants. Prospective students are supported in their decision making and begin networking before setting foot in the lecture theatre.

Would you like to get involved? If you’re thinking about studying with us or are a Birkbeck alum we’d love to hear from you at gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.

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100 letters changed my life

When Alison Hitchcock decided to write a letter to a friend after he was diagnosed with cancer, she had no idea it would lead to a new venture and an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She writes about how these letters changed her life. cancerlettersBack in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend, Brian Greenley, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.

In 2009 Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. When Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps because I didn’t know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I’m not sure what possessed me – I was no writer. But a promise was a promise!

The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage four, I kept on writing. I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.

My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters. He once said: ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.’

Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. My letters continued but Arvon had given me an appetite for writing and letters were no longer enough, so I applied to Birkbeck’s Creative Writing MA. The MA not only confirmed my love of the writing process, it gave me confidence to explore different styles. By the time the course ended, I had had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory.

cancerletters2

At the end of 2016, Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. At From Me to You we run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.  Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life. These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back.

Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. The letters had given me the gift of writing and a whole new life. That alone was, and still is, more than enough.

Contact details for From Me to You:

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I’m a scientist… get me out of here!

Hear from Dr Sanjib Bhakta about taking part in a new initiative to engage young people in science, and to give them a taste of the day-to-day life of a scientist.san1Dr Sanjib Bhakta from Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences recently took part in ‘I’m a Scientist’, an initiative designed to engage young people in science and the realities of the lives of scientists.

Students from schools across the country were able to log on and ask questions on any particular areas of the scientists’ research (or life) that they were curious about, then vote for their favourite scientists to win a £500 prize.

Dr Bhakta was one of the winners, and will be donating his prize money to a local school, and helping them to organise a workshop for World TB Day. We talked to him about the experience:

Why did you want to take part in this initiative?
I took part in this science outreach programme because I was keen to know how the young community generally perceive careers in science and the specific challenges of drug resistance. I personally envisage antibiotic resistance beyond a current global health emergency, having serious impact upon our future generations due to the limited resources and unwise exploitation of the current pool of drugs.

Why is it important to engage young people in science?
It is extremely crucial for school children to engage and partake in scientific research to solve local or global real-life problems in long term. It is also important for scientists to step out of their lab and spread the word about how enjoyable, rewarding and exciting science is as a career.

What were the most interesting questions you were asked?
Over these two weeks, I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the participating schools and sharing a typical day in my life. However, I must say it was much more easier to answer ‘what do you enjoy most in your job?’ than it was to answer ‘what was the worst moment you faced in the lab?’ or ‘why drugs are so addictive?’!

imascientistWhat would you like to say to the students who took part?
I would like to thank all the participating students, teachers and moderators for this opportunity to interact, and to share my personal and professional life, and our lab research with you! It has been such great fun.

After chatting with you all, I got some fresh ideas on how to deal with this emerging world health concern of drug resistance and also am reassured that when all your intensely inquisitive minds and extended hands are joined together, drug resistance (like many other health and well-being emergencies on earth) will be a trivial challenge for us to overcome. Please don’t let the bugs win and ruin anyone’s life, at our home, in our neighbourhood or anywhere in the world!

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Celebrating Women in STEM

Today Birkbeck celebrates the women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields as part of a campaign led by Media Planet, and supported by organisations such as the Institute of Engineering and Technology and The Women’s Network.

Across the STEM industries, women make up only 12.8% of the workforce in the UK, and encouraging more women into these fields is vital to address skills shortages in the UK economy, as well as to ensure there is a diversity of voices in the field.

As Alexandra Poulovassilis, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab puts it: “Since technology and science are shaping our societies at an ever increasing pace, it is important that the people who are making decisions on where to focus and how to prioritise innovation funding are representative of all our society globally.”

We spoke to women working in various STEM fields in Birkbeck about why they chose their careers, what excites them about their work and why it’s important for STEM disciplines to be diverse and representative.

Alexandra Poulouvassilis: Why is it important that STEM fields are diverse?

Jessica Swainston and Iroise Dumontheil: What excites you about working in STEM? 

Tingting Han: Why did you choose a career in Computer Science?

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Let’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached. Or championed the diversity of House overall, with rising numbers of BME, LGBT, and disabled MPs.But we’ve put the champagne on ice.

Yes, Westminster’s new intake has some notable ‘firsts’. Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP, winning Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour. Marsha De Cordova, a disability rights campaigner and Labour councillor registered as blind, overturned a large Tory majority in Battersea. Layla Moran’s win in Oxford West and Abingdon makes her the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, and the first female Lib Dem MP from a minority background.

But be under no illusion, the House of Commons is still unrepresentative. Relative to their presence in the population, the numbers of BME MPs needed to have doubled in 2017. It rose from 41 to 52 (8% of the House). Five disabled MPs have been elected (an increase of three from 2015), but this amounts to less than 1% of the House’s membership – compared to 1 in 5 of the population that self-identify as disabled.

In terms of women’s representation, we saw a small increase of 12 more female MPs. When the final seat was counted – for Emma Dent Coad in Kensington – the total number of women in the House of Commons was 208 (up from 196 immediately before the election). But these women constitute 32 per cent of all MPs – a mere 2% increase. Still less than one third female, the UK would now rank 39th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global league table, lagging behind many of our European comparators.

To portray – as many UK newspapers and websites did – the ‘unprecedented’ number of women MPs as some sort of ’smashing’ of the glass ceiling is simply incorrect – a few more scratches at best. Forget the ‘200 women’ mark, the real threshold to cross is 325.  And that seems as long a way off as ever.

No doubt we’ll be accused of being ‘feminist killjoys’ but there are very real risks in not contesting the plethora of upbeat media accounts. It, wrongly, suggests that: (1) the job is done: the ‘problem’ of women’s representation has been solved; or (2) gender equality is on its way (#justbepatientladies).

If only we could be that optimistic.

The outcome of the 2017 GE raises classic issues for women’s representation:

  • Stagnation and Fallback. A 2% increase is, of course, an increase, but gains on women’s representation have been too slight and are taking too long. Neither has progress been straightforward. In Scotland the proportion of female MPs decreased in this election from 34% to 29%. This is largely due to Conservative gains – only 1 of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected is a woman. The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was also defeated in Ochil and South Perthshire, leaving Scotland without any BME MPs. Talk of parity in the House of Commons being achieved in 45 years incorrectly assumes that the direction of travel will always be upwards – which is why gender and politics academics rarely engage in forecasting the ‘number of years’ it will take to achieve equality projections.
  • Party Asymmetry. The overall percentage of women MPs also masks significant differences amongst the parties. There was some speculation in the run-up to the election that the Conservatives would see a ‘breakthrough moment’ on women’s representation in 2017, potentially catching up to Labour for the first time. This didn’t materialise – in fact, the gap widened slightly. Women now constitute 45% of all Labour MPs (119 of 262), up from 44% before the election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw a decrease in the number of female MPs, dropping from 70 to 67, with the percentage of women’s representation in the party unchanged at 21% (in the context of an overall loss of seats). The Liberal Democrats, which were a men-only party in 2015, now have four women MPs (33%, albeit still on low numbers overall), including the return of Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. Meanwhile, women are 12 of the reduced SNP group at Westminster (34%), a loss of six women from the previous Parliament. Only 1 of the 10 DUP MPs – now potential ‘queen-makers’ – is a woman.
  • Quotas worked, yet again. As in all elections from 2005, Labour successfully employed gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS). This quota is the reason why it has been the ‘best’ party for women’s descriptive representation at Westminster. It is a shame that Labour’s quotas haven’t been more contagious – without commitments from all of the parties, progress will continue to be glacial.

Classifying the 2017 GE as ‘record-breaking’ for women is lazy journalism that belies the reality, and breeds complacency. It gives some parties a congratulatory pat-on-the-back for minimal progress, if not decline. Moreover, it side-steps the question of interventions: will the government now commence section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 – so that parties publish their candidate diversity data? Will the Government respond to recommendations advocating legal quotas, which, all the global evidence shows, are the most effective way to ensure significant increases in women’s representation? (Check out The Speaker’s Conference report 2010, The Good Parliament Report 2016, and the WEC report 2017).

The next election might be a few months away or it might be in five years time – but it is clear that the issue of equal representation is too important to leave up to the discretion of political parties. Warm words are not enough – with over 100 women MPs still missing from Parliament, it is time for legislative quotas to embed equality in our political institutions. Without them, the search party will not be called off anytime soon.

This article was originally published on the UK PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group blog

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What can organizational psychology tell us about the calibre of our political leaders?

Organizational psychology provides substantial evidence about the characteristics of a successful leader, yet as Dr Almuth McDowall explains, this knowledge is not consistently used when considering the suitability and capability of our political leaders in the UK.

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK (23261468319)

By Chatham House (Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It never fails to astonish me that much of what we have learned from applying the science of the mind to the context of work does not seem to have made much of an impact on the world of politics. Politicians, by definition, are leaders – so we should apply leadership theories to our assessments of their performance. Politicians’ day job is politics, but surely they need to bring the right knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs) – things that we would measure in any other job to see if people are suited to what they do.

In 2007, Jo Silvester and Christina Dykes published a longitudinal study of prospective political candidates. The  researchers conducted a job analysis, which is the first step in organizational psychology for a range of activities including selection and training, to draw up a competency framework – what do politicians need to be good at? The resulting competencies (KSAs) looked very much like those we would expect to find in other organisational contexts, including ‘intellectual skills’, ‘relating to people’ and ‘leading and motivating’; the only politics-specific competency was the level of ‘political conviction’. Performance, as measured in this way, predicted political performance, but so did their critical thinking capacity as measured by psychometric tests. So what can we learn from this study? Political performance can be measured, and surely it should be transparent to both politicians, but also voters, what marks ‘good’ performance in this context. This study found no evidence for any gender differences either.

So how do Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn fare when measured against aspects of this framework, based on what we have observed of their leadership during the general election campaign? I remain unconvinced that either displayed critical thinking capacities if we take the election manifesto of either party as a performance output. The conservative manifesto was ill judged, alienated core voters (the dementia tax….) and overall just did not convince enough people that the Tories were worth re-electing. The Labour manifesto scored higher on political conviction, but had almost no suggestions for how any changes might be funded, putting strategy before any references to feasibility of implementation.

What about each party leader’s capacity to lead and motivate? Corbyn and his party clearly succeeded in mobilising grass roots support and also mobilising the young electorate which had absented itself from the Brexit referendum.

‘Communication skills’ and ‘intellectual skills’ are another aspect of the model of political performance. Taking reactions to the recent terrorist attacks as an example, May failed to show any human reaction to what were two sets of tragic events in short sequence, at a time when the general public is in great need of reassurance and support. Corbyn, on the other hand, attributed the happenings as a reaction to the UK’s involvement in war in Muslim countries; not a correct inference, as neutral countries have also been subject to attacks.

In terms of leadership, Theresa May seemed uncertain during what political commentators unanimously refer to as a disastrous and misguided election campaign. Her chief aides have now resigned, which throws into question her judgment on which advisors to surround herself with. Good advisors and teams are crucial to any political role. Modern life is so fast-moving, complex and, as recent events have demonstrated, unpredictable that no one person can lead a party, let alone a country, on their own.

In organizational psychology terms, there is a substantial body of research which demonstrates that ‘shared leadership’ across teams and organisations leads to better performance and better outcomes all around. Yet, in politics as well as in corporate life, we tend to pin our hopes on the one person at the top. Surely the time has come to change this, and make political leadership a more balanced, fair and transparent process than is currently unfolding in front of our eyes.

I grew up in Germany, learning in English textbooks about the Anglosaxon culture, about the power of the voice of the people and the unique British democratic process. Yet, recently, I no longer feel so certain that the current political system is serving us well and reading the political press in my home country, it seems other voices in Europe agree.

The time seems to have come to rethink politics and democracy to instil fairer and more transparent processes to ensure that a) politicians are up to their job and b) voters can make informed decisions.

Further information:

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General Election results: Birkbeck comments

The shock of a hung parliament following what only a few weeks ago looked certain to be a landslide victory for the Conservative Party has made this election one of the most unpredictable in recent generations.

The election also saw a number of Birkbeck alumni elected or re-elected as Members of Parliament: congratulations to: Kemi Badenoch (Con, Saffron Walden), Kwasi Kwarteng (Con, Spelthorne), Gloria Di Piero (Lab, Ashfield), Lisa Nandy (Lab, Wigan), Lucia Berger (Lab, Liverpool Wavertree), John McDonnell (Lab, Hayes & Harlington), Tulip Siddiq (Lab, Hampstead and Kilburn) and Sir Ed Davey (Lib Dem, Kingston).

Since the election was announced six weeks ago, Birkbeck academics have been using their expertise to offer insightful analysis of the unfolding political developments.


The Queen’s Speech

“While there is no specific Higher Education legislation the Government are still committed to an Industrial Strategy of which skills and training are a component and they are further committed to creating Institutes for Technology at locations throughout England. Whether these will embrace FE and HE qualifications or delivery we don’t yet know. The Conservative manifesto had also committed to a review of Tertiary education funding. While this is unlikely to happen more due to parliamentary arithmetic legislation would not be required should it choose to undertake this review. Finally, the Queen’s Speech is not the only opportunity for a Government to bring forward new policy. It is almost certain there will have to be a Budget and many positive measures for Birkbeck eg: PG Loans have come about that way. Let’s watch this space!”

– Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Advisor, Birkbeck


sarah-childsLet’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

With a record high number of women elected to Parliament, was the 2017 general election something to celebrate? Professor Sarah Childs (who will join Birkbeck’s Department of Politics from 1 September – pictured left), Meryl Kenny (University of Edinburgh) and Jessica Smith (Birkbeck PhD student) re-assess the recent result and consider what it means for women’s political representation.


almuth-mcdowallWhat can organizational psychology tells us about the calibre of our political leaders?

Organizational psychology provides substantial evidence about the characteristics of a successful leader, yet, as Dr Almuth McDowall explains, this knowledge is not consistently used when considering the suitability and capability of our political leaders in the UK.

 


ben-worthyWe need to talk about Jeremy: why I was wrong about the 2017 General Election

Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, examines why so many people underestimated the effectiveness of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign prior to the election.

Hung parliament

As it becomes clear that the most likely scenario following last week’s election is a minority Conservative government, with the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party, Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, discusses what a hung parliament is – and how long it is likely to last.


Results day reaction

jason-edwardsDr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics :

“The election result reflects important and ongoing changes in British politics and society. First and foremost, it shows how far  the old ways of doing politics have declined. The vitriol against Labour and Corbyn expressed in the traditional right-wing press seem to have had little impact. Social media now seems to be of much greater importance in motivating people to vote, and in shaping who they vote for.

“One effect of this is that the electorate is much more informed and policy-focussed than usually thought. This can be seen in attitudes towards Brexit. The lazy belief that most people either want to remain in the EU on current terms or have a ‘hard’ Brexit has been exposed. There is no clear divide between remainers and Brexiteers and people’s attitudes are much more nuanced.

“Above all, and some might say encouragingly, the election shows the clear limits of populism. The Conservatives played the populist card fully in this election and paid the price for it. UKIP were demolished. Labour, despite some calls to transform itself into a leftist populist movement, and while undoubtedly playing on some populist tropes (‘for the many, not the few’), set out a relatively clear and detailed programme that, despite widespread doubts about Corbyn’s leadership, attracted large numbers of people.

“Some will despair at the messy outcome of the election, but it marks significant shifts in society that offer great opportunities for – as well as threats to – democratic renewal.”

ben-worthyDr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics:

“Theresa May’s premiership looks over almost before it has begun. So how did it happen? And how do Premierships unravel? Here are three rules that, if broken, can get a Prime Minister in severe trouble:

  1. Don’t take too many risks

Leaders need to take risks but they should be calculated. Eventually a leader will simply run out of luck. Though she styled herself as the careful and thoughtful Vicar’s daughter she was actually a terrible risk taker. May gambled on being able to negotiate Brexit in secret (and failed), gambled on article 50 not going through Parliament (ended up in the Courts and failed) and then decided on an election. In the election she then gambled on a UKIP vote, her own leadership abilities and a set of untested policies (all of which failed). The old adage is that successive Prime Ministers are successively vicars and bookies. Theresa May posed as vicar but punted like a (rather reckless) bookie.

  1. Don’t underestimate your opponents

May clearly believed she could beat her rival and capitalise on his unpopularity. She thought wrong. Corbyn has energised young voters and, unbelievably, also appears to have won over the over-65s, gaining a remarkable 40% of the vote. Corbyn’s campaign has somehow united Remainers and Leavers and young and old. It may be, as some have argued, that the non-stop Conservative and right-wing media barrage at Corbyn boomeranged straight back at them. After two years claiming the Marxist extremist Corbyn would have us all ‘wearing overalls and breaking wind in the Palaces of the mighty’ the public just saw a reasonable, positive man promising more money for public services.

  1. Don’t overestimate yourself

Hubris is always lurking. May clearly somehow came to believe that she could carry an election based on herself, a kind of cult of personality built around her ‘strong and stable leadership’. The campaign ruthlessly exposed May’s many weaknesses and Michael Crick memorably said how ‘strong and stable’ had become  ‘weak and wobbly’. In the space of six brief weeks, as Paul Waugh put it ‘the cautious pragmatist allowed herself to be portrayed both as a Leave-loving zealot and a flip-flopper’.

So now Theresa May’s premiership is unravelling before our eyes. Whatever deal is done with the DUP May is in her end game. Any Prime Minister that has to announce they won’t resign is already in deep, deep trouble. She has few allies and has fallen out with her Chancellor and isolated herself from her party. Even if May survives and limps on, she is damaged, captured and will be portrayed as being controlled by others: hanging on by her constitutional responsibility rather than her authority. Theresa May broke the three rules and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

woodheadConsequences for Higher Education
Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Advisor at Birkbeck:

“As the dust settles on what has been an extraordinary General Election campaign and result we ought to take time to see what this means for Education and Universities in particular. The ink hadn’t even dried on the Higher Education Act when the election was called and that Bill was as a result of a number of changes committed to in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. It shows how long the political process can take.

At the start of the election campaign and the subsequent manifesto launches it was quite clear that Education along with Brexit and Social Care would become one of the key issues. Labour’s commitment to scrapping tuition fees and introducing grants was a bold policy (costed around £10bn) but was clearly designed to appeal to the under-25s. This is a demographic that rarely voted and felt, particularly after the EU Referendum that they were not being heard. Many seats where universities had residential accommodation saw surges in the electoral roll. Curiously when the Lib Dems tried the same policy in 2010 which secured them a record 57 seats but when in Coalition and compromises had to be made it was abandoned and support from students ebbed away. On top of scrapping fees Labour also offered a review into lifelong learning which would have been relevant to Birkbeck but little detail was given.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto went into some detail about research funding and restoring student grants again to appeal to its university heartlands of Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam and Bath however they were only successful in the latter of these seats. While the Lib Dems wanted to put Brexit at the heart of the election campaign it seems that the electorate didn’t have the same priorities.

Turning to the Conservative manifesto there is mention of a Tertiary Funding review, the creation of Institutes for Technology and the Industrial Strategy Green paper – all with a focus on Education and Skills. There is also a looming question as to whether there will be further restrictions on international students coming to the UK. Depending on the stability of the Government it will remain to be seen how many of these manifesto pledges can be implemented or whether we will in fact be in election mode so soon after this one…”


How people decide who to vote for

rosie-cPolitics Professor Rosie Campbell reported on how people actually decide how to vote for the BBC, noting that ‘more of us are changing our minds,’ citing the framing of campaigns by the media, as well as major national or international events (such as recent terror attacks), and emotional influence as likely to change the course of a vote.

 


Iconography in politics

Sue Wiseman, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature at Birkbeck discussed the iconography of hair of different politicians, and how it affects perceptions of the politician.


Theresa May – leaking leadership capital?

Shortly before the election, Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister commented on the diminishing leadership capital of the Prime Minister, and how leadership can be measured.

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Theresa May: leaking leadership capital?

Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, and Mark Bennister explore Theresa May’s leadership capital. They conclude that although she may gain capital after an election win, her strained relations with her Cabinet and the ongoing crises of Brexit, Scotland, and Northern Ireland may eventually diminish her reputation.theresamay

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it. High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?

leadershipTheresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election. May arrived after a vicious and very public internal party war, to become the unifier for both the Conservative party and the country in the grip of uncertainty and division.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party after the civil war over Brexit. Her experience as Home Secretary was seen to demonstrate both firmness and a mastery of details.

In policy terms, May blended a wider policy agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals with only Boris Johnson in the ‘gilded cage’ of the Foreign Office where he could do no harm. May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives. This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent.

But there have been signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, once her tendency towards secretive and closed group decision-making became evident, and after some less than certain public performances. The Brexit process has seen White Papers and speeches that appeared less than detailed, while electioneering slogans have glossed over a lack of depth of policy planning. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted to them by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party rather unhappy and less convinced by her competence. As Janan Ganesh argued:

“Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea…Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.”

The social care climb down has not been an isolated incident. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’ and Paxman, with a phrase that could haunt May, suggested she was a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.

May appears set for a convincing win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

She may gain capital on the back of an election win, but expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s leadership capital could well diminish swiftly after her election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

Worthy and Bennister are co-authors, with Paul ‘t Hart, of The Leadership Capital Index, available from Oxford University Press.

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Artificial wombs and the law

Claire Horn is in the first year of her PhD in Birkbeck’s School of Law. She is researching the legal and ethical implications of artificial wombs.

credit-partridge-et-al-nature-communications

Credit: Partridge et al. Nature Communications

A few weeks ago, a team of scientists published their research on “An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb” in the journal Nature Communications. Within a few days of being posted online, the study had received enthusiastic coverage from major international news outlets and popular think-piece platforms alike. In the media, the language around the research changed: the “extra-uterine system” was redubbed “the artificial womb.”

Currently fetal viability in humans (the time at which a foetus can survive outside the mother) happens around 28 weeks. As the original article states, recent developments have pushed this timeline back to 22-23 weeks, but not without continued complications for the baby. The Biobag, designed to mimic the womb, has allowed a lamb foetus inserted at the developmental equivalent of 23 human weeks to survive and grow to healthy viability.

While, as the scientists who conducted this research state plainly, this technology is still a long way from being trialed with humans, and while the Biobag is only a partial artificial womb (an artificial womb proper would entail the foetus growing outside the body for the duration of gestation), the popular presses which picked up this news focus on questions emerging from the presumption that an artificial womb is inevitable. Their queries range from what an artificial womb might mean for how we conceive of personhood, to discussions of the ethics of research on foetuses, to debates over what impact such technology might have on the infants who are born through it.

In one way, these are very old debates that have echoed throughout science—and science fiction—for centuries. But the artificial womb has never felt closer than it does today, and while it is the work of scientists to proceed with caution, scepticism, and the suspicion that what aids a lamb may not aid a human, it is the work of legal scholars and bioethicists to imagine the possibilities, dangers, and issues inherent if this technology does in fact arrive.

My PhD research begins with these premises: that the artificial womb is on its way, that the law is rarely prepared to meet the challenges of new reproductive technologies, and that we should consider the different frameworks available to us ahead of the artificial womb’s arrival. Thinking about the ethics of the artificial womb allows us to consider new ways in which we might approach reproduction, familial relationships, and gender in the future. AAs the primary tool that structures the rules of engagement in our societies, legal frameworks can be introduced or renegotiated in ways that could make space for new social developments.

The artificial womb is an opportunity for legal scholars to consider important questions in this regard. With the artificial womb—which could constitute the growth of a foetus separately from the mother even at the earliest stage of development—might we be able to beneficially renegotiate abortion law to protect womens’ bodily autonomy? Could the artificial womb prompt us to reframe legal doctrines of parenthood in ways that offer greater protection to trans and queer parents, and greater equality in co-parenting? Could it render gender entirely irrelevant to parenting roles?

A central consideration in my work, and one that I have found absent in many media discussions of the artificial womb is the ways in which reproductive technologies have historically been used to benefit some communities while subjugating others. As Deborah Wilson Lowry writes, “new technologies, when not accompanied by equal access or distribution, can increase existing disparities related to race, class, and gender”. Such inequalities have been starkly demonstrated with regard to the introduction of the pill (which, prior to being marketed as the key to sexual liberation was tested on poor women and women of color, often without their consent), and with regard to surrogacy (only available to those with financial and social means, often outsourced to poor women in the global South), to name just a few examples.

Like these technologies before it, the artificial womb is unlikely to have either purely utopian or purely dystopian results, and it is necessary to be attentive to the dangers it might present for those who have been made vulnerable by these technologies in the past. Research by legal scholars and bioethicists which places marginalized people at the forefront, work which is lead by and consults with diverse groups of women, including women of color, trans women, and women with disabilities, is necessary in advance of the artificial womb’s introduction.

Scientists may be rightly skeptical of the speed at which humanities scholars have rushed from the growth of a premature lamb in a Biobag to heralding the growth of human babies outside the body. But proceeding with this future in mind, and carefully considering the ethical dilemmas that it presents, will allow us to interrogate its dangers and consider the best possible legal frameworks and policies to protect women when it arrives.

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Guardian University Guide 2018

Today’s 2018 Guardian University Guide league tables include Birkbeck, University of London, for the first time, with Philosophy ranking  3rd in London and 17th in the UK, while English as well as Modern Languages and Linguistics feature in the capital city’s top 10.

However, the value of what Birkbeck offers in changing lives is not always well represented in league tables and rankings. Birkbeck remains true to its founding mission of widening access to education for all Londoners and our evening teaching makes Birkbeck uniquely different from all other universities included in the Guardian’s ranking.

Many of our full-time undergraduate students are the first in their families to study at university, or are returning to education after many years of lacking the confidence to do so. The Guardian league tables measure, among other things, the qualifications that students arrive at university with. Across the sector, just 2% of full-time undergraduates begin university without A-Level or equivalent qualifications. But Birkbeck demonstrates an unstinting commitment to accepting applicants with non-traditional qualifications: 35% of our part-time and 21% of full-time students arrive without A-Level or equivalents.

And our students have outstanding success in progressing to further study and rewarding, fulfilling careers, with 95% of our full-time students and 97% of part-time students in employment or further study upon graduation.

Birkbeck’s appearance for the first time in this ranking is a consequence of the College’s innovation in offering three year evening undergraduate degree courses which are classified as full-time.

Many years of hard work have gone in to establishing Birkbeck’s full-time undergraduate degree programme: in less than a decade the College has gone from having no full-time undergraduates to over 3,000. However, like all other Birkbeck undergraduate courses, they are accessible to motivated students without formal qualifications, and most importantly, take place in the evening, allowing students to work during the day.

Birkbeck is a research-led institution and this directly informs our teaching of predominantly non-traditional students but the Guardian’s league tables do not take research metrics in to account. Our scholarship informs public policy, delivers scientific advances, supports the economy, promotes culture and the arts, and makes a positive difference to society. Over half of our research was in the top 20 in the UK in the most recent REF exercise and our 40+ research centres and 700+ research students play a vital role in our success. Birkbeck has corresponding excellence, too, in postgraduate programmes, which have a superb reputation both nationally and internationally.

The College’s world-leading reputation for both research and teaching is well established. Birkbeck has been ranked in the top 250 universities worldwide in the latest THE World University Rankings and has been placed within the world’s elite institutions in a number of subjects in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, published earlier this year.

In the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) Birkbeck was ranked 30th nationally in terms of research intensity, with three departments in the top 10 nationally. Birkbeck’s academic staff are active researchers, many with world-leading reputations, and no fewer than 83% of the eligible academic staff were returned to the REF.

Birkbeck’s track record of opening routes to highly-skilled employment, in particular for students beginning their studies without standard academic qualifications, demonstrates that learning gain is a core aspect of teaching excellence at Birkbeck. Our mission is to make previously unthinkable life choices thinkable and achievable; a transformative impact demonstrated by the core metrics and the high proportion of undergraduate students who go on to postgraduate study.

“We offer all our undergraduate students, of which a sizeable proportion come to us with no formal qualifications at all, rigorous teaching and a transformational intellectual experience, enabling them to achieve a University of London qualification,” said Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck.

“Since its inception, Birkbeck has offered a distinct opportunity for working Londoners to gain qualifications through evening study. Nearly 200 years later, the College is still unlike any other higher education institution in the UK today – a distinctiveness of which we are proud.”

In issuing its league tables today, where Birkbeck entered the rankings at 113th, the Guardian University Guide noted: “Birkbeck is ranked alongside other universities in the league tables for the first time this year. It has not appeared in our league tables before now because its full-time provision is a relatively new development. The majority of Birkbeck students still study part-time, alongside full-time students. However, Birkbeck remains unique in that all its provision (full-time as well as part-time) takes place in the evening. This needs to be kept in mind when making comparisons with the rest of the sector.”

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