Author Archives: Olivia

Returning to campus

Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar at Birkbeck, reflects on how life has changed since the start of the pandemic, and urges people to be kind and considerate of others as many students and staff return to campus next Monday 4 October for the start of the autumn term.

The past 18 months have been a roller coaster for everyone in the Birkbeck community, myself included. Overnight Microsoft Teams became our new best friend and the gateway to keeping in touch with colleagues, friends and family. I clapped for our NHS heros and learned the value of an hours walk when you were only allowed an hours walk a day. For those in hospitals and care homes every second was precious, and for many people they lived day by day as the virus ravaged communities. We were all living, praying and hoping the worst would not come. As the fragility of life and the power of viruses came to the fore so awakened our compassion for others and the importance and value we place on the NHS and keyworkers, many of whom are students at Birkbeck. Jobs and roles that we may not have considered that critical in the past became essential – carers, lorry drivers, supermarket workers, nurses and cleaners to name but a few. Seeing empty shelves highlighted the inter-connectedness of our society and the just-in-time nature of how we consume. When things got really tricky during lockdown I only had admiration for the people keeping our country running whilst trying to look after kids, the oldies and often in home circumstances that were not always conducive to work, study and home schooling. I didn’t take a drive to Barnard Castle during lockdown but following the rules and being a rule keeper as well as being a university rule maker really became important to me as someone who works in the public sector. Having colleagues and students trust you are doing the right thing by them was both humbling and a heavy burden in equal measures.

Altering the way school pupils and university students were assessed and examined was one of the most fascinating aspects of the lockdowns. Some pupils and students loved online learning and some didn’t. What we do now know is that there are options to the traditional 2 or 3 hour closed books exams that work and these options can create a more inclusive learning environment by taking out some of the ‘exam hall anxiety’. Learners can learn from the comfort of their own homes and academic standards can be maintained by careful assessment design. There is much we can learn and benefit from continuing to support elements of digital learning and assessment.

It was through higher education and our scientific community that hope emerged. Issues that would previously have taken years to implement happened almost overnight – lockdown, furlough and, of course, a vaccine roll-out. We learned that we could be agile and do things differently. For many of us, productivity increased whilst working at home and not having to travel 10 hours a week on public transport. Coming out of this phase of the pandemic I’m going to retain some of the benefits of this experience and work flexibly as are many of my colleagues in Registry Services and across the College. Personally I feel that a good home/work life balance makes us all more productive.

As I start to attend meetings back in Bloomsbury, l continue to take a cautious approach to coronavirus. Why? Part of it is me trying to be a good neighbour to others in clinically or emotionally vulnerable situations. Part of it is me wanting to avoid contracting COVID-19. My hope is care and compassion will continue into the future and a focus on mental health is only a good thing. So, I’m now double jabbed. Thanks to Oxford AstraZeneca I can say I’m an Oxford lad as well as an alumnus of Aberdeen and the Open Universities. I’ve also had my flu vaccine and will take a booster shot for COVID-19 when they become available and I’m eligible to have one. I’m happy to wear a mask on campus even if its uncomfortable. I don’t like wearing masks but it’s my personal contribution to the health and safety of a wonderful 12,000 strong Birkbeck community. I’ll keep washing my hands and I’ll give people space when they want it. I’ll also take lateral flow tests when I have to meet others indoors. Is all this an inconvenience and an assault on my personal liberty? No, not really because a resurgence of coronavirus is the real issue and the real assault on our freedom. Kindness costs nothing and it is our kindness that will be remembered by colleagues, friends and family in the years to come. As we go back to our new normal and regardless of how strongly we hold views; if we can be anything, lets be kind to one another.

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“The pandemic cannot be overcome if everyone chooses their own way to battle it”

Professor Renata Salecl, Professor of Psychology/Psychoanalyis and Law in the School of Law, delves into how differently people are perceiving getting the COVID-19 vaccination, and the dangers this presents to society.

Person getting COVID-19 vaccine

While developing countries are dealing with vaccine shortages, in many wealthy countries, people are fighting for the right not to be vaccinated. While these people perceive vaccination as a matter of individual choice, vaccinated people perceive it as a matter of social choice. They accept that the pandemic can only be overcome if people go beyond their anxieties and desires and try to protect themselves, others and society as a whole.

How is it that people have such a different understanding of choice? From the times of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, people have been hearing that there is no society, that the individuals are utterly responsible for their wellbeing and that their success and happiness are related to their choices. Health has especially been perceived as a matter of personal choice. When people fall ill, they are often accused of it being the result of the bad choices they made in the past. They are reminded that they have not embraced a healthy lifestyle, not eaten the right food, not exercised, or not limited stress. Even overcoming illness has been in some circles propagated as a matter of choice. Thus, one often hears that one needs to choose to overcome illness, work hard to change bad habits, and embrace positive thoughts.

The underside of the ideology that puts choice on a pedestal has led to an increase in anxiety, guilt, and inadequacy. People struggle with the questions: What if I am making the wrong choice? Why are others getting better outcomes from their choices? Which information to trust when we are making our decisions? And when things do not go well in people’s lives, they often blame themselves for their lack of success, even if poverty and other social factors might have very much limited their choices.

Since people have been told that everything in their lives is a matter of choice, it is not surprising that choice plays an essential role in current discussions about vaccination. When people have constantly been hearing how important it is to make the right choices, especially when it comes to their bodies, anxiety over the question of what one is putting into one’s body and whom to listen to about vaccination can, for some, become overwhelming.

Rational choice theory presupposes that people think before they act and try to maximise the benefits and minimise losses. Given sufficient information, people are supposed to choose what is in their best interest. This is, however, often not the case since many people behave in ways that do not maximise their pleasure and minimise their pain, and some even derive pleasure from acting against their wellbeing. Our choices are also far less “free” than we think. We often choose under the influence of others, social expectations, and unconscious impulses. And after we have already made a choice, we might second guess if it was the right one or search for assurances that we did not make a mistake.

Among people who are not vaccinated, many are procrastinating over their decision. Some cannot decide whether to get vaccinated or not, and some are waiting for reassurances. In the US, some people said that they were waiting for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine fully. One, however, wonders if they have got vaccinated, now that this approval has happened.

The way people make choices is influenced by decisions that old and new types of authorities are making. Political leaders, media personalities and internet influencers have the power to sway public opinion with the choices they are making in their lives. If people who are influential in their communities get vaccinated, this makes an impact on people’s attitudes towards the vaccines. For some, seeing their loved ones and especially their children suffering from COVID-19 might also be an incentive to make a choice and finally get vaccinated.

Freedom, rights and choice are cornerstones of democracy. However, the problem starts when societies cannot find a consensus on what the way out of a crisis is and when individual choices take precedence over social ones. Sadly, the pandemic cannot be overcome if everyone chooses their own way to battle it.

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How to fulfil your academic potential at Birkbeck

With the 2021-22 academic year commencing in October, Dr Deborah Grange, Learning Development Manager, highlights a range of study skills services available to all students.

At Birkbeck, we do everything we can to assist our students in fulfilling their academic potential. We are here to support students with various channels of study skills support and assistance, including live workshops, extensive online resources and 24/7 academic writing support 365 days a year.

24/7 academic writing and study skills support

We were one of the first universities in the UK to adopt a 24/7 service to assist students with academic writing, and we remain pioneers in this area. All undergraduate students and those who are on MA or MSc programmes can upload their assignment drafts to our Studiosity service and receive feedback within 24 hours in terms of the grammar, punctuation, spelling, structure, and academic referencing. Some of our students have not written formal academic English for a long time so this service has proved to be remarkably successful, with 96% rating it 4 out of 5 or above.

We also have an extensive range of online resources, including interactive activities, handouts and videos. We know that Birkbeck students tend to be juggling other time commitments, so we have designed our online resources in such a way that they can benefit, whether they have five minutes or an hour to spare.

Live workshops

Throughout the academic year, live workshops run every week on topics like essay and assignment writing, critical thinking for university, and exam revision. All workshops are free, and students can sign up for as many as they wish. Recordings of workshops are available if they are running at a time that isn’t convenient. Student feedback from the last month includes:

“Having access to a tutor who really understands the process and can answer questions immediately was brilliant. It was also good to see other students have the same problems as me.”

“Finally, it all makes sense! I have never attended a workshop so comprehensive before – it has really helped me understand the nuances of different dissertation and writing styles, and the expectations.”

Have your skills in place for the start of the academic year

Our intensive series of live online workshops – ‘Get Ahead Stay Ahead’ – run throughout September so that students are primed to engage with their courses right from the start of the academic year. Workshops run every Monday to Thursday evening, lunchtimes throughout the week, and on Saturdays. Topics cover key academic skills like notetaking for lectures and academic reading; academic writing conventions; and apps and software for study. All workshops are offered completely free of charge. Sign up for as many as you like via our Events page.

Support for neurodiversity

Some of our study skills staff have additional qualifications and specialisms, such as working with students who have dyslexia and inclusive technologies. We also offer live workshops and resources on time management, organisation, and the development and support of concentration skills.

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“Undertaking my curatorial internship has allowed me to discover the world of curating contemporary art and has enabled me to gain invaluable first-hand experience”

Mathilde Jourdan, MA Museum Cultures with Curating student, is undertaking a work placement at the P21 Gallery, London, as part of her degree course. In this blog, she highlights the experiences she has gained so far on her placement and her ambitions for the future.

The ‘We Refuse To Be Scapegoats’ exhibition

Work experience is increasingly essential to the development of a career, sometimes even more so than degrees and skills. For many students or recent graduates, acquiring that work experience is made difficult by the lack of opportunities in the professional world. Therefore, work placements and internships are often the first step into building one’s experience.

After an initial career in archaeology specialising in Greek cults and sanctuaries, I decided to switch to a museum career. The degrees available in France did not offer an interesting overview on the field of museums nor practical work experience; for those reasons, I decided to continue my studies in the UK. In the context of my MA Museum Cultures with Curating degree at Birkbeck, one of the main aspects I was looking forward to was the work placement, and I was thrilled when I was offered an on-going placement at the P21 Gallery in a curatorial role under the guidance of the director, Mr Yahya Zaloom.

During my degree I have been focusing on studying the impact of colonisation on museums’ collections and the decolonising process in art institutions. The P21 Gallery felt like the perfect environment to develop my ideas and curatorial experience. The gallery, located in Somers Town, is a London-based charitable trust promoting contemporary Arab art and culture. It also commits to increasing the visibility of Arab artists, partly thanks to their residency programme, reACT, offering opportunities for emerging student artists to contribute to the creating of art that aims to strengthen cultural ties and open dialogues between the East and West.

In the first few days of my placement, I met Pam Skelton, a British artist with mixed Eastern European Jewish heritage, who was preparing for her exhibition. We Refuse To Be Scapegoats was Pam Skelton’s first solo UK exhibition in the last ten years and it was the result of Skelton’s long-term research on her own family history, in particular the memories and impact of the Jewish Shoah (Holocaust) and the Palestinian Nakba (meaning ‘catastrophe’ or ‘disaster’) on ensuing generations. I helped her and the exhibition curator, Iliyana Nedkova, with social media posts and related publications, which enabled me to explore the exhibition resources they curated – all free to read, listen to, watch or download. Pam draws her work from different sources, including her own video and audio archive from her research trips to Poland in 1993 and 1996, Israel and Palestine in 1995, and Scotland in 2016, alongside online archives selected from Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organisations, human rights charities, and media resources.

It was an amazing opportunity to be able to work alongside an experienced curator and an inspiring artist while discovering the importance of social media and diverse forms of communication to reach audiences, especially in a COVID-safe gallery environment. In the future weeks, I have the chance to develop my own online exhibition on the representation of Algerian women, by female artists of Algerian origin. The exhibition has two main goals: firstly, to denounce the hurtful stereotypes created by Orientalist men-artists from the 19th centuries which, to the present day, have consequences on the view of Arab women; and secondly, to help women of Muslim and Arab backgrounds reclaim their history, their bodies, and their image, eroticised and oppressed by the Western world.

Undertaking my curatorial internship in the lead to the private view of the We Refuse To Be Scapegoats exhibition allowed me to discover the world of curating contemporary art and has enabled me to gain invaluable first-hand experience of publicising a solo exhibition comprised of moving image works which span 20 years.

In the future, I intend to continue expanding my knowledge and experience to work in curating, in particular for difficult and silenced histories which are, more than ever, relevant nowadays. This work placement made me realise the importance of peoples’ struggles through history, the impact these events have had on our current society, and the priority we should give to those narratives to develop our understanding of the past to create a better future.

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A new era for Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus

Birkbeck has now acquired the Student Central building adjacent to the College’s main site in Bloomsbury. Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Matthew Innes, explains how the acquisition will transform the experience of Birkbeck students and staff as well as renew Sir William Beveridge’s original vision of creating a campus which enriched the city, supporting ‘a civic university for the…millions of greater London….an academic island in swirling tides…a world of learning in a world of affairs’.

Construction of Birkbeck College Malet Street Building. Planning for the building began in the 1930s and it was built between 1947-1952.

Birkbeck, the University and the Bloomsbury site

The University of London acquired its current site in Bloomsbury in the 1920s to consolidate its disparate administrative offices. Prior to this, the University’s central offices were in South Kensington, alongside the museums and were housed in the Imperial Institute (now Imperial College).  Vice-Chancellor, Sir William Beveridge – the social reformer whose 1942 report was to provide the blueprint for the post-war Welfare State – was fond of recounting how, when he first took up his post at the LSE, he had asked a cabby to take him to the University of London. The cabby had looked blank and then volunteered ‘you mean the place near the Royal School of Needlework’.

Beveridge’s determination to create a central site for the University, which captured the mission of ‘a University for the nation and the world’, came at the end of a significant period of change for both Birkbeck and the University of London. This was the logical conclusion of the reforms that had been introduced following Lord Haldane’s Report into the University of London, which had created a more co-ordinated structure as well as championing Birkbeck’s long awaited admission as a college of the University. Haldane – who held the distinction of having served in both the last Liberal government and the first Labour Cabinet – went on to become President of Birkbeck, which at this date occupied Breams Building in Holborn.

A large block of land immediately north of the British Museum was acquired for the new University site, stretching from Montague Place to Byng Place. The initial plans were for a single complex encompassing the entire site, with a series of wings and courtyards emanating from a central spine, a perimeter facade and two towers, with the current Senate House landmark echoed by a slightly smaller structure at the northern end of current Torrington Square.

Funding shortages and the Second World War meant that the original scheme was never completed in its entirety, with the current Senate House building only filling the southern half of the site. Although the University Principal was tragically killed in a building accident when inspecting the works with other University officials in 1936, Senate House was completed in 1937, rapidly to find fame as the wartime home of the Ministry of Information as well as one of London’s most iconic buildings.

After the War and a direct hit on Breams Building by a V2 flying bomb, Birkbeck found a new home on part of the undeveloped Malet Street-Torrington Square site in 1952. Further neighbouring locations were acquired by the University to house other member institutions such as SOAS and the IoE.

Birkbeck future

Following the acquisition of the former Student Central building, Birkbeck will have expanded to fill a majority of the never-realised northern half of the University’s original Bloomsbury site. With a continuous run of buildings along the Malet Street side of Torrington Square, and the Toddlerlab, Babylab and Clore building opposite, Birkbeck now has the opportunity to create a central campus focused on a consolidated Torrington Square core site, an inclusive environment focused on the needs of our students and open to the broader Bloomsbury and University community.

As our successful bid for the Student Central building pointed out, this acquisition places Birkbeck’s access mission and a student community reflective of London’s diversity, at the heart of the University’s Bloomsbury campus. Our aim is to provide the state-of-the-art teaching, learning and social facilities that our students deserve to support them to succeed and thrive.

The additional space takes us a huge step closer to our aim to deliver all of our teaching in Birkbeck-owned facilities, responding to student and staff feedback that teaching in dispersed rented venues has a huge negative impact on their learning experience, student retention and academic outcomes. We will also ensure that students can easily access the services and support they need and we will move the Students Union to a prominent, more accessible and visible, location.

This is the biggest change for Birkbeck since it moved to Bloomsbury in 1952. With the acquisition of the new building, Birkbeck now occupies most of the northern half of the site for which Beveridge and his contemporaries planned so ambitiously. It is a remarkable outcome for a small institution that has had more than its share of crises.

Beveridge and Haldane in their different ways envisaged a distinctively modern University. As we approach our bicentenary and plan a new consolidated and open Birkbeck campus, we too should aim ‘to give London at its heart not just more streets and shops’ and aspire to create ‘an academic island in swirling tides… a world of learning in a world of affairs.’

It is exciting to think that, via a circuitous route we have become the inheritors of Beveridge’s vision, in the new context of a 21st Century metropolis recovering from Brexit and COVID.

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The missed opportunity of the National Food Strategy

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in the Department of Politics, shares his opinion on the National Food Strategy, a report released last week. It’s the first independent review of England’s entire food system for 75 years, and it makes recommendations for the government, which has promised to respond formally within six months.

The publication of the much-heralded independent review of the National Food Strategy – the so-called ‘Dimbleby Report’, named after its author, the food entrepreneur and writer Henry Dimbleby – marks an important moment for food policy and politics.

The report is divided into a consideration of the effects of the food system on health and the environment. The health question is centred on the problem of what Dimbleby calls the ‘Junk Food Cycle’. He sees it as a central failure of the food system, promoting a poor diet with disastrous consequences for public health, in particular the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The cycle begins with our appetites for highly calorific food being preyed upon by the junk food industry, which churns out ultra-processed foods containing very high levels of sugar, salt, and fat. Market competition means that any reduction in the levels of these (unconsciously) desired ingredients in food products would lead to loss, and so food production companies have become involved in an arms race resulting in the proliferation of junk food. The more this junk food becomes embedded in the culture, the more it has increased appetites for it, both physiologically and psychologically.

Dimbleby’s solution is to break the cycle by imposing a wholesale tax of £3 per kilo on sugar and £6 per kilo on salt. The report headlines this proposal, and it has been the main focus of the media coverage. But the immediate response of the government to the idea of a sugar and salt tax has been, at best, lukewarm. That seems like an anticipation of the picking apart of the report’s proposals by corporate lobbyists that will inevitably come.

Dimbleby is probably right that the imposition of these taxes would have the desirable effect of reducing the consumption of foods harmful to human health. But the issue is with the whole approach of the report and how likely it is to secure the kind of policy changes required to deal with the deep-seated problems that Dimbleby rightly attributes to systemic features of food production and consumption. These problems cannot be resolved without raising questions about power, ownership, and control in the food system, yet Dimbleby skirts over these.

Dimbleby rejects the belief in de-regulated food markets that occupies the Conservative backbenches and some of the chairs at Cabinet. Nonetheless, he does not escape from the market’s view of food as at base a commodity designed to satisfy the biological appetites of the consumer. Here it is clear that Dimbleby has fallen under the spell of the Behavioural Insights team, popularly known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, established in the Cabinet Office in 2010 to apply behavioural science to public policy. What they are reasonably good at is predicting behaviour where a simple and clear instrumental choice is on offer. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, when it comes to patterns of activity that involve complex, strategic choices with unclear outcomes, they are at sea. Diet is such a pattern of activity, not a set of discrete instrumental choices. It does not boil down to the selections we make at the snacks shelf in the supermarket or the counter at Leon.

Dimbleby is right to argue that we should be wary of solutions to food inequality and poor diet that shift the responsibility to the individual, emphasising personal food knowledge, cooking skills, or commitment to exercise (which has little impact on weight loss anyway). This leaves the door open to those who all-too eagerly and loudly blame the poor for their poverty. But raising questions about how people could and would act under very different conditions of choice is neither to individualise responsibility nor to renounce the necessarily systemic setting of our food choices. The failure to pose these questions is the principal disappointment of the report. To be fair, it does make a number of recommendations about changing the circumstances in which we make our food choices, such as the Eat and Learn initiative for schools that encourages food education from early years. But more generally there is silence in the report on questions of citizen involvement in the food system. At a time when local councils are selling off allotment sites to fund ‘essential’ local services, there isn’t a single mention of the availability of land for small horticulture, funding for cooperative local food-growing schemes, or the provision of public spaces for common cooking and eating. In short, on these crucial questions of food citizenship, Dimbleby simply has nothing to say. The report needed to question the very foundations of the food system: far from doing this, it merely asks for a reformulation of its parts.

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“The work placement as part of my degree course has given me the opportunity of a lifetime”

Sarina Munro, MA Museum Cultures with Curating student, is in the midst of a work placement at the Swedenborg Society, an educational charity in central London which publishes the works of Swedish scientist, philosopher and visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). In this blog, Sarina shares how she is undergoing a complete career change and explains what she is doing on her placement.

Sarina Munro

On a rainy April morning I stopped outside a beautiful bookshop that looked like it was out of a Charles Dickens novel. I walked up the side steps and entered this enchanting little gem in the heart of Bloomsbury, London. Yet, what happened was more than stepping into a bookshop – I had just stepped in through an invisible wardrobe into my very own Narnia. As I closed the bookshop door, I closed the door to the outside world – a high-octane, fast-paced, ever-instant digital world, which can sometimes feel so overwhelming and utterly consuming.

I made my way to the Gardiner Room and found myself in an amazing room with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. I stood there and did a 360-degree turn, smiling to myself because I felt like I had just walked into Tommy Lascelles’s room in The Crown. This was going to be my workplace for the next three months, under the mentorship of a Swedenborg Society librarian and archivist, Alex Murray. I was starting a work placement as a collections and archives assistant, as part of my MA Museum Cultures with Curating at Birkbeck.

I am a mature student. The first time I went to university was in the 1990s. I read English, then did a post-grad in print journalism, and went on to have a career in national newspapers and magazines, which culminated in a staff job at a national broadsheet. However, even when working on a newspaper, I would daydream about going back to university to study at Birkbeck. That daydream to study, then became a dream to pursue a whole new career in museology. When the world went into lockdown in 2020, I realised life is too short to just dream. Once on my course, I chose the work placement option, so that I could get some practical experience. I applied to the Swedenborg Society because I am a huge fan of the early feminist-activist Josephine Butler, who led the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s. In my interview, I gave an impassioned speech about her work and my interest in Swedenborg Society’s Josephine Butler collection. Little did I know then that the executive director, Mr Stephen McNeilly, would give me an opportunity of a lifetime.

After my initial three weeks’ training, I was handed a folder by Mr McNeilly. It was Swedenborg Society’s Josephine Butler collection: eight letters written by Josephine to James John Garth Wilkinson – homeopath and supporter of the repeal campaign. I was tasked with transcribing and researching the letters. There was such an incredible intimacy in holding those letters, feeling them between my fingers, looking at the fading ink on the yellowish paper – and then, deciphering cursive-Victorian handwriting. On my first day, I struggled, but as each day went by, I became more and more familiar with Josephine’s writing and began to spot dates and connect them with corresponding events in Josephine’s life. It was an incredible feeling, being given the privilege of working with the collection. I felt a closeness to Josephine Butler. I also felt extremely humbled and honoured to have the responsibility of transcribing Josephine’s impassioned words and extracts from her spiritual diary.

My work placement is hands-on and inspiring. Every day I learn so much about collections, archives and the history of Emanuel Swedenborg, his work and all the prominent figures in history that he has influenced and been linked with, such as William Blake, S.T Coleridge, JJG Wilkinson and many more. Working at the Swedenborg Society has inspired me to peel back more and more layers and I have immersed myself into the esoteric, enchanting world of Swedenborgians.

The Swedenborg Museum is currently showing Swedenborg in 27 Objects, curated by Executive Director Stephen McNeilly. It is open to the public every Wednesday from 11am to 5pm. It is a wonderfully eclectic exhibition – from The Josephine Butler collection, a letter written by disability activist Helen Keller, to illustrations by William Blake. For the ghoulish, there are even Swedenborg’s body parts on display. Come and visit. Enter through the bookshop and experience your very own Narnia.

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“I want to inspire young mothers who feel they cannot further their education”

Esther Dwemoh, aged 20, is studying BSc Criminology and Criminal Justice. She wants to share her story to encourage other young girls who get pregnant in their teenage years to not listen to the negative opinions of others.

Esther Dwemoh with her son, Caleb

My story is filled with people having no hope in me, because I was a teenage mum and people thought I didn’t have ambitions for my career.

I’ve lived in Croydon my whole life, and aspired to become a nurse during my school years. This was largely because I wanted to meet my parents’ expectations of me – I felt a lot of pressure to study a degree associated with the NHS. Growing up I had two brothers, and there was a big age gap between us, so I just saw them getting on with their lives.

I went on from school to study a BTEC in Health and Social Care to aid my career in nursing. I became pregnant in my first year of college, which really made me do some soul searching. I questioned if becoming a nurse was really something I wanted. One of my favourite things to do is watch crime documentaries, so when we had a careers fair in college, I decided to talk to people from a range of sectors, from police officers, to mental health counsellors, to youth workers. The youth worker I spoke to studied criminology and highly recommended it, so I decided to find out more.

People didn’t expect me to go to university, or even finish my studies at college. I found Birkbeck and felt it was the perfect place for me. I enrolled on the BSc Criminology and Criminal Justice course. My son, Caleb, was five months when I started at Birkbeck.

It hasn’t been easy balancing studies with raising a baby, but once you have a child you just learn how to multitask – it comes naturally. I’ve found it easy to make friends with other classmates, as early on we created a WhatsApp group. I think anyone of any age can consider studying at Birkbeck. That’s what makes it so special – the real mixture of ages and life experiences.

I want to encourage other young girls who get pregnant in their teenage years to not listen to the negativity of people who think you aren’t going to have a proper career. I think it’s important to not get discouraged once you’re pregnant, and to continue to follow your own personal dreams. My brother and I often speak about how we have both come such a long way, from initially following the expectations of our parents, to deciding to do what we wanted for our own happiness.

In the future, I hope to become a probation officer, because I want to give back to the community and I know helping others will be fulfilling. I want my son Caleb to see me as a role model and that’s what inspires me every day and motivates me to put 100% into everything I do.

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Top tips for staying motivated in your career

Anna Gordon, Birkbeck Careers Consultant, shares her top ten tips for keeping motivated through the pandemic.

We are all going through one of the most challenging experiences of our lives and you may be feeling more anxious and uncertain about your career. It is important that you do not benchmark your success today with what you were achieving pre-pandemic. It is like comparing apples to oranges. Take a breath, step back, and re-group.

Here are ten tips to help you stay motivated:

  1. It is time to shift your mindset and adjust your expectations. So you don’t beat yourself up, try and stay in a positive frame of mind. Self-care and self-compassion are also what are needed now.
  2. What you focus on you give energy to, so focus on the good things, your strengths, your accomplishments, and what you have control over.
  3. Spend time reflecting on what makes you you – your unique abilities, and achievements. Do not believe everything you see on social media about other people’s lives and successes – these are often illusory, one-dimensional and can lead you down a compare and despair spiral. Everyone has their own unique life journey. Focus your energy on yours.
  4. Have a routine and stay occupied.
  5. Reconnect mind, body and spirit and schedule difficult tasks when you know you feel most energised, not when you feel exhausted.
  6. How you handle rejection and failure makes the difference. Try and not take them personally but see them as learning curves. Look at them objectively – what can you take from them to help you grow?
  7. Practice mindfulness, it can help you live in the present moment as opposed to ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, so you are not reactive and overwhelmed by what is going on around you.
  8. Use this time to reconnect with people you have lost touch with and build or repair relationships that may have gone cold. Check in with them, how are they coping? Share your news and career updates. Let family and friends know how they can help and support you.
  9. This is a chance to re-connect with your authentic self as well, with your why. Build it into the narrative of who you are, what you do (or want to do), who you help and how you help them. Connect it to your purpose.
  10. If you feel negativity creeping in, notice it and counterbalance it with positive affirmations. There are many theories and a lot of neuroscience supporting their benefits both mental and physical.

Living through this pandemic will make us grow in our sense of personal strength and resilience. Most importantly, in terms of our career, although it may take away certain opportunities, this is temporary. It also opens us up to new possibilities.

Remember, you are awesome, and you are doing great. Just keep going, we are here to help you on the journey.

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We need to learn the lessons from Erasmus+ to make sure Turing is an improvement

Since the Brexit deal came into force at the beginning of the year, the UK is no longer part of the Erasmus+ programme. Instead, the government is setting up the Turing scheme to fund students to study abroad. Professor Kevin Ibeh, Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) and Professor of Marketing and International Business, examines the Turing scheme and areas the government needs to turn its attention to in this blog. 

Professor Kevin Ibeh

For the UK to remain a global player, we must be able to provide our citizens with an appreciation of the wider world and help the world to understand us. To an extent, the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme helped to facilitate this by offering thousands of students the chance to study in Europe and beyond, while giving Europeans the chance to study in Britain.

Since the Brexit deal came into force at the beginning of the year, the UK is no longer part of the Erasmus+ programme. Instead, the government is setting up the Turing scheme to fund students to study abroad.

If this is to succeed, it is important to learn the lessons from Erasmus+, both regarding what worked and what didn’t. To improve on the opportunities that the Erasmus+ programme provided for both outgoing and incoming students, the government must turn its attention to a number of issues.

First, the forthcoming spending review should increase the programme’s budget, which currently stands at £100 million for its first year. This is a creditable sum, given the adverse economic climate, but the government should be aiming to match the nearly £130 million that the UK received in Erasmus+ grants in 2019. More important still, the Turing scheme needs a multi-year funding settlement.

Second, while the Turing scheme has a welcome focus on increasing participation among students from disadvantaged backgrounds, this could be hindered by a lack of reciprocal fee waivers.

Under Erasmus+, students paid fees to their home institution but not their overseas university, and they received a grant for living expenses. The Turing scheme provides UK students studying overseas only with grants towards travel and living expenses; tuition fee waivers are not explicitly addressed.

This raises concerns as to how students from disadvantaged backgrounds will self-finance, as well as the impact on recruitment into modern language degrees. There is a need for reciprocal fee-waiver arrangements. The Turing scheme should also consider adopting measures used by Erasmus+ to target participants from disadvantaged backgrounds; such as providing an additional €120 per month for disadvantaged students studying abroad.

Under Erasmus+, approximately 30,000 European students visited the UK each year without having to pay UK universities’ tuition fees. The government should consider replicating this under the Turing scheme as a way of attracting overseas students to the UK. At present, the Turing scheme only applies to UK students; taking measures to boost two-way exchange would enhance its appeal.

Consideration should also be given to reducing the red tape for overseas students. Those coming to study for more than six months should be exempt from having to pay for a visa, the NHS surcharge and providing certified proof of English language ability, which they didn’t have to do under Erasmus+.

If these requirements are not removed, other Anglophone countries are likely to experience a surge in Erasmus+ students at the UKs expense. Such a reduced flow of inbound students would lessen the substantial social, cultural, economic and soft power benefits that international students bring to UK higher education institutions and wider society. In 2018, their economic contribution alone was put at £440m.

The government has declared that the Turing scheme will provide students with opportunities to study in a larger number of countries than Erasmus+ did. Even though Erasmus+ covers more than one hundred countries, including many outside the EU, it would clearly be positive if the Turing scheme could be more global still.

Achieving such an ambition will require greater investment, though. Striking out on its own and expanding the number of countries involved in its international higher education exchange programme is likely to bring the UK additional administrative costs.

Lastly, I hope that the Turing scheme will provide opportunities for university staff and other young people to teach, train, learn or volunteer abroad, as is the case with Erasmus+. Everyone connected with universities can benefit from travelling abroad to develop professional practice and build relationships with international peers.

The UK government’s commitment to and continuing investment in an international mobility programme for students is highly welcome. The Turing scheme arguably has the potential to match the Erasmus+ scheme, but appropriate refinements are needed to make this promise a reality. I’d strongly encourage the government to work with universities to achieve this end.

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