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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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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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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Get Talking – our mentoring scheme for prospective and past students

Starting university is an exciting time, but we know it can be daunting too. Lots of students have questions about the years ahead, whether they’re joining university straight from school or going back to education after a break. Speaking to someone who’s been through it all before can be reassuring, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a mentoring scheme where former Birkbeck students are matched with those thinking about starting their studies for a coffee and a chat. It’s an opportunity for prospective students to ask questions or share any concerns they have about studying in the evening, and for mentors to share their experiences of studying at the College, and anything they wish they’d known before starting their courses.

If you’re interested in taking part in Get Talking, either as a mentor or a mentee, please get in touch.

Why I wanted to take part in Birkbeck’s Get Talking mentoring scheme
Eleanor Tough, current BSc Psychology student

I initially signed up for the Get Talking scheme because I felt quite overwhelmed at the notion of beginning my degree at Birkbeck and felt it would be beneficial to speak with someone who had experience at the university.

I sent an email to the Get Talking team and was put in contact with a graduate who had completed the same course that I was enrolled onto. After exchanging emails, my mentor and I met up face-to-face. During this meeting, we chatted about how I was feeling, why I had chosen my degree and the potential career prospects I hope to explore when I graduate.

My mentor described her own experiences and was able to fully answer questions that I had, about the experience she had at Birkbeck and how achieving her master’s degree had impacted on her own career.

I also received very valuable advice on how to structure my studying around working full-time and how to make the best use of the support services at the university. This helped me to engage with the full range of services provided at Birkbeck and has absolutely influenced the way in which I manage my own time, current career and personal life.

My highlights at Birkbeck are the course itself, the diverse range of people I have met through studying, the impressive facilities of the university and the support and positive environment that Birkbeck provides.

Why I volunteer as a mentor for Birkbeck’s Get Talking mentoring scheme
Richard Harrison, MA Arts Policy and Management graduate

I have volunteered for the Get Talking scheme over the last few years because I enjoy being able to support people who are thinking about embarking on a course of study at Birkbeck, particularly those who are new to higher education. University study is a challenge but also one of the most fantastic things a person can do, and I feel privileged to support people as they consider starting on this journey.

It is a real privilege to be able to support someone in making such a significant decision, and if that decision can be a little bit better informed by alumni like me sharing our experiences, that is hopefully useful to Birkbeck’s prospective students.

In meetings we tend to cover the practical aspects of university study, including how alright it is to feel quite overwhelmed in the first term! (This settles down after the Christmas break.)  I am sometimes asked about my experience as a student.  We are provided with excellent training by the Alumni Office, and are given resources to direct mentees to particular areas of the College for further advice, so when needed, I will share those resources so that my mentees can feel fully informed about the journey ahead of them.

Birkbeck is an incredible institution. It is full of passionate experts who impart their knowledge and share their love of their subjects readily.  I remember feeling thrilled to be studying again, and intellectually stimulated and challenged.  That is, in part, why I volunteer for programmes like Get Talking, so that others can access and feel most prepared for this life-changing experience.

 

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University Mental Health Day: managing student stress

Being a student can be stressful. This University Mental Health Day, Head of Birkbeck’s Counselling Service Charlotte Williams looks at the causes and impacts of mental distress on students, practical tips to manage stress, and where to turn if you need help.

What are the main causes of student stress?

Stress to some degree is a normal part of life, it is only when the amount of stress we are experiencing exceeds our capacity and resources to manage that we can run into difficulty and find ourselves using unhelpful defence mechanisms to try to manage and find ourselves in a vicious cycle of stress.

Many factors cause stress to students including the demands of juggling their studies alongside work and family responsibilities;  relationship difficulties; housing problems;  financial concern;, loss and bereavement; transitions and achieving their academic goals, essay writing, public speaking, exams. However what causes stress really is a subjective matter, what causes one person intense stress can be managed relatively effortlessly by another. It is important to be aware of things that stress you in particular and prepare to take care of yourselves at times of increased stress triggers.

Be aware of the first signs of stress in yourself and make a conscious effort to get on top of it and stop the cycle of stress getting a hold. Often when we are stressed we revert to old coping mechanisms some of which may be outdated and not helpful long term such as drinking alcohol, smoking, drinking more caffeine, eating sugary foods, staying up late, isolating ourselves, ruminating, avoiding matters, obsessing. When the cycle of stress gets a hold we need to break into it and make a conscious effort  to resist falling back on unhealthy coping mechanisms and make conscious choices to do things that may help. What helps will differ for individuals but here are some of the key things that can help manage stress.

What 3 practical things should a student consider doing to manage their stress if suffering?

Exercise:

A meta-analysis (Cooney et Al, 2013) showed that exercise is as effective in treating depressive symptoms, as talking therapies or antidepressants. Another comprehensive study adds to previous evidence suggesting exercise is not just good for reducing symptoms of depression, but may also prevent it.’ (NHS, 2018). Birkbeck University Counselling Service, in conjunction with the YMCA has developed a MIND BODY MATTERS scheme and offers 8 week free gym passes including personal trainer to students suffering from mild to moderate depression or anxiety. Exercise helps to rebalance the physiological system when stressed and boost natural endorphins to improve mood.

Sleep:

Maintaining a sleep routine is of paramount importance to mental health and managing stress. Taking time to relax before you go to sleep can help the quality of your sleep. Try to go to sleep at the same time and wake at the same time each day – 7-8 hours is the recommended amount of sleep but of course this differs for each individual needs. Take a bath to wind down or watch something gentle on television like a nature or holiday programme rather than something that stimulates anxiety such as horror or thriller. If you study in the same room you sleep in, cover your books and desk with a sheet or a screen at around 9.00 each night and take some time to rest before sleep. For more tips on sleep read our self-help leaflet entitled Sleeping Problems.

Food and Drink:

If possible avoid self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, it’s a vicious cycle which will make you feel worse in the end. Also try to avoid relying on caffeine to keep you going If you are stressed and tired you need to rest, eat well and exercise at suitable times. Use herbal teas to calm and soothe such as camomile before bed; mint if your digestive system is upset and lemon in the morning to wake and refresh you. Avoid sugary carbohydrates – they will pick you up temporarily but you will soon crash – try to eat a balanced diet – some protein, carbohydrate and vegetables each day at regular intervals and carry nuts and seeds for a boost of your energy dips whilst on the go.

Manage your Mind

When we are stressed our minds sometimes behave in ways that hinder rather than help. Rather than ruminating over the problem, catastrophizing about the future or critically analysing your latest attempts,  take time out to focus your mind on something relaxing and positive. There are lots of apps and websites that offer mindfulness exercises and distraction techniques and links to those can be accessed from the Counselling Service Website Further Resources section. Alternately take a break, go visit a friend and tell them about the problems you are facing and then tell them about the good things in your life, ask them to help you to gain some perspective. Sharing difficulties can help: however going over and over them often doesn’t and is likely to tire your friends so ask them to listen first and then help you to get a different angle on things or a plan going forwards.

Manage your Behaviour

Our behaviour can also be affected by stress, some people avoid the problem, others tackle it manically never taking a moment for fun or rest. Avoidance increases our anxiety about something so breakdown the problem, set a plan and approach the issue step by step reminding yourself of similar situations where you have coped. If you behave in the opposite way make sure you take time out to  visit a friend, go to the cinema, or read a novel to give yourself a break.

Who can a student suffering from stress turn to for help/advice?

If you have tried all of this and just can’t seem to get a grip on the cycle of stress alone it’s fine to ask for help. The Counselling Service runs a workshop each turn entitled Stress Less and a self-help leaflet on managing stress is available for free download. You can also write to the counselling service and ask to meet with one of the counsellors to talk things through and think together about how to manage and move forwards. It may also be worth visiting your G.P to check that the symptoms you are experiencing are indeed stress related and there are no underlying issues.

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Banksy comes to Port Talbot

Amanda Roderick, MA History of Art student at Birkbeck, discusses Season’s Greetings, the Banksy piece that appeared on a garage wall in Port Talbot late last year, and the wider context of a crisis in arts funding. 

This is possibly the first time that Port Talbot has made news on Birkbeck’s blog – although I note that included amongst Birkbeck’s impressive alumni is one Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Party Prime Minster and MP for Aberavon in the 1920’s. Politics and connection to place are important in this story.

Last December, one week before Christmas, a striking image of what appeared to be a small boy enjoying the snow was discovered on a garage wall in Port Talbot. The site, a lane behind a row of early nineteenth century terraces in an area called Taibach (means ‘small house’ in Welsh), is sandwiched between the M4 and Tata Steelworks. Recognised and then confirmed as Banksy’s work within hours on his website and titled Seasons Greetings, it had his typical combination of hard-edged social commentary mixed with humour. In this instance, a small boy playfully sticking out his tongue with arms outstretched catching snow is bundled up for winter with coat, hat and scarf, complete with sledge at his feet. Only by turning the corner can the observer have a different reading – the flakes are not snow falling from the sky but ash blowing over the boy from what is either a burning bin or chimney. Subverting messages, questioning authority and creating political site-responsive work, is all familiar territory for Banksy. He’d played on Christmas before: in August 2005, he painted a series of images on the Palestinian side of the West Bank barrier erected by Israel, returning again in December 2007 with new images for ‘Santa’s Ghetto’ in Bethlehem.

Port Talbot is my home town. The site of the Banksy is on the street I grew up in, its lane is the route my sister and I took as a shortcut to school every day, where we played in the evenings, learnt to ride our bikes – and interestingly where bonfires were a regular occurrence. Visiting the Banksy was the Boxing Day walk for many families – mine included – and the security staff in place there (paid for by the actor Michael Sheen who is also from Port Talbot) informed us that in the days leading up to Christmas alone, there had been around 2,000 visitors to this small lane, causing traffic chaos and security issues (the number of visitors apparently rose to a grand total of over 10,000). The guard also confirmed the stories of various attempts at vandalism and concerns that the work would be damaged, stolen or destroyed by those wishing to own a small piece. Life, news and the art world have moved on since then of course; the work has been purchased for an ‘undisclosed six figure sum’ which will be paid to the owner of the garage, a local man. John Brandler, art dealer, street art expert and collector of Banksy’s work, was the buyer; he, promised that it would remain in Port Talbot for two to three years but insisted it be relocated somewhere else in the town for protection: ‘The piece has a relevance with the surroundings. It is important for me to keep it in the town as art is very often specific to a place, especially street art. The piece conveys what Banksy is about – it has a social message and it doesn’t matter where you are. It is about global pollution. We are creating an environment in the planet that will wipe us out.’ He makes very pertinent points, importantly highlighting pollution – the dangerously high levels of pollution must be recognised as amongst the most damaging in the UK. It cannot however be attributed the steelworks alone. The fact that a motorway cuts through densely populated areas must also be considered. Apparently somehow ‘improving’ in recent years, in 1983 it was reported that the town was the most polluted place in Wales and the most polluted in the United Kingdom outside London – only Marylebone Road and Camden had higher levels. There is also no doubt about the level of support, enthusiasm and pride in the town. Cottage industries have popped up selling merchandise; Banksy’s work on mugs, key-rings, t-shirts and bags, with one man having the image tattooed across his chest! Questions have therefore arisen around ownership, copyright, intellectual property – and what it will mean if/when the work is placed in another environment or different context of a gallery/public venue. All are provocations which of course is what Banksy wants.

It’s worth pointing out that Port Talbot was already on the cultural map before the new Banksy appeared. The school mentioned earlier was also the primary school Anthony Hopkins attended and for a time, the young Richard Burton lived a few hundred metres away in that same street, also attending the comprehensive school in the town. Michael Sheen’s 2011 promenade performance The Passion, produced by The National Theatre Wales, used a biblical account to tell a contemporary story of the town’s social history and the destruction of homes there to build the M4. Significantly, the two largest cultural events to take place in Port Talbot over the last decade – Sheen’s performance and the appearance of the Banksy – existed outside of any fixed or ‘physical’ venue and attracted audience numbers estimated in the tens of thousands, proving there is a need for what the arts can bring – and that engagement with the arts is a natural instinct and could not be stronger. This is despite the town not having any arts venue at all and very little provision for such activity – but lots of potential. Bristol, Banksy’s hometown, is a city where street art has been used to regenerate an area but there are examples closer to home in Cardiff and Swansea where the street art group Pure Evil has already been commissioned.

One new home being suggested for the Banksy work once it’s removed from the garage wall is the site of an old police station centrally based opposite Port Talbot Railway Station. Recently developed by social housing group Pobl (translates as ‘people’ in Welsh) the £4m development has flats on the top three floors and would provide the visibility, space, protection and accessibility required with its large glass windows facing onto the street, on the ground floor. Brandler has said he would be prepared to show some of his personal Banksy collection there, adding that he was also interested in developing education and participation opportunities with groups in and around the town, proposing a ‘street art school together with a cafe run by people who were homeless or unemployed’. At a time when the Welsh Government is undertaking a consultation process regarding the site of proposed new modern art gallery in Wales, Port Talbot council must surely be hoping this boosts its chances. For now, Port Talbot joins the list of international locations and institutions in providing a home to prized Banksy work. It follows a flurry of Banksy news in recent weeks. His fake £10 banknote depicting Diana, Princess of Wales named Di-faced Tenner, joined the British Museums collection of coins, medals and other currency in February 2019; Love is in the Bin, the self shredding work memorably auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 2018 and a poignant artwork on the fire door at the Bataclan theatre in Paris thought to be Banksy’s homage to the 90 victims who died in a terrorist attack on the venue in November 2015 has been stolen.

As I write this, three new murals have appeared on walls in Port Talbot, which are not Banksy’s. They depict Lego mini-figures, all referencing the Banksy piece: its sale and removal and its critique of pollution. The artist responsible, who goes under the name Ame72 and is also known as ‘the Lego guy’, has confirmed that the three pieces are his work. For Brandler, this is exactly what is needed; ‘By using the Banksy to bring other interesting pieces into the town, I want to make Port Talbot the go-to place for street art in the UK’. He continues; ‘Ame72 is an up-and-coming artist, well known and well-respected within that sphere and the first one to come to the town – he would not have come here without the Banksy. I want to bring Blek Le [a French graffiti artist that inspired Banksy], Pure Evil and Damien Hirst. Internationally known artists will come if we give them Banksy. This is just the starting point; the more you have got, the more people will come’

Ame72 Lego Mural, Feb 2019. Taibach Rugby Club, Commercial Rd, Port Talbot.

There is a very important backstory here however and Brandler through his patronage perhaps unintentionally foregrounds the crisis that now looms. The danger for Port Talbot is that all the excitement generated by the media will fade and, as with other areas across Wales, these rare moments of inspiration and opportunity are rarely appreciated and acted upon by the Local Authority and Welsh Government. Without the philanthropy we have witnessed here, it is difficult to envisage how artists and small regional arts organisations will thrive and survive as public funding rapidly dwindles. The UK is fast approaching the US model of reliance on private and charitable funding – a strong tradition there, its infrastructures are built up over many generations where money is usually raised by wealthy Board members and Trustees. The encouragement of similar ‘business’ models in Wales has been a brutal transition into a different kind of dependency and one not easy to achieve, especially in the poorer regions or inner cities of Wales and England. Here there can often be little or no track record, resources or economic success related to individual giving and corporate sponsorship.  An arts venue in Port Talbot off the back of the Banksy would be hugely beneficial but the reality is that any new or ‘redeveloped’ space for showing or producing art, would come with unaffordable rents, overheads and often insufficient budget allocation to pay its artists and staff properly. It would, like, increasingly, the NHS and many school classrooms, be reliant on volunteers for many front of house staffing and operating responsibilities.

Secondly, there is a question as to whether urban graffiti is the only kind of art that can now be truly accessible, affordable and popular in some areas. It does not require a building but will it always need to be covered with ugly protective screens and fencing (as is the Port Talbot Banksy). What of the emerging, local artists, the art students and grassroot collectives? How and where will they make their art, who will pay to see it, buy – and how will it be collected, maintained and archived for the future?

Banksy has been labelled a Situationist, and ‘part graffiti artist, part windup prankster’. In Port Talbot he has created a timely metaphor to shine a light on the town and through his art, re-opened and reignited excitement and creative discussion amongst its inhabitants across class and generation – appealing to all those who identify with notions of self-expression and the spirit of rebellion that he represents. He has also reminded us, in case we needed it, of the dereliction of duty towards arts and culture (and other public services) by the current government ideology of austerity – the repercussions of which are manifested in cost-cutting exercises by regional authorities across Britain. How this impacts the next generation of artists and museum visitors and collections we will see. The final word goes to London-based Welshman, Iain Sinclair who refers to Banksy in his thoughts and writings on an urban walk through Hackney;

There is now a fascinating interzone where a guerrilla street artist like the character known as Banksy is collected and patronized by Hollywood stars. Stencils and strategic cartoons are either destroyed as acts of public vandalism or endorsed by changing hands for huge amounts of money. And you have to argue over the fabric of the city as to whether this is the art the authorities want to sponsor (as they have done in St Leonards-on-Sea, by immediately sealing a Banksy paint job under perspex); or whether, in some way, these interventions should remain an encrypted secret. We live in a society avid for gathering up anything that seems to have spirit; anything that is dangerous can be captured and converted into a form of energy. Which is also wealth, money and credit.

All images and John Brandler quotes courtesy of Wales Online & BBC Wales.

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