The story behind Birkbeck’s new web design

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Manager at Birkbeck explains the research and process behind our website’s new look. 

The Birkbeck website serves many vital functions simultaneously: it must be an authoritative, accurate source of information; a gateway to services; easy to navigate and search; aesthetically pleasing; accessible to all; and it must reflect and advance Birkbeck’s mission. The experience of using our website is often absolutely central to a person’s decision to come and study in the evening with us.

In our digital age, having a professional, beautifully designed and practical, easy to use website is absolutely essential for any university or organisation. Users need to get where they want to be quickly and easily, feeling confident that what they’re reading is accurate, while enjoying the tactile and visual experience of moving through our site.

The Birkbeck Digital project is a hugely ambitious, wide-ranging and on-going project to redesign, redevelop, restructure and re-present Birkbeck’s web presence based on research, evidence and over 50 user-testing sessions. Every longstanding website – and Birkbeck has been online for around twenty years – has a natural history of expansion and growth. The ambition of this project has allowed us to research and reconsider everything about our site – the design, the layout, the navigation and the content – and the opportunity to field staff and student feedback to ascertain how people use, and feel about, our website.

The project has been divided into stages, as the Birkbeck website extends to many thousands of pages. Stage 1, which is being delivering on schedule this month, includes the redesign of the Birkbeck homepage, of our ‘corporate’ site, which includes all of the key information for prospective students and covers many of our most important professional and student services departments, and, lastly, the online prospectus, which includes over 3000 pages of course and module information across all levels of study, from short courses to PhD research.

Our first task was to organise user feedback sessions, to help us map and improve the experience of visitors to the website. A series of workshops, one-to-one interviews and group sessions, were bisected by ‘type’ of user, from ‘young undergraduate’ and ‘mature postgraduate’ to international students, MPhil/PhD researchers and staff from across the College.  From this research we were able to compile a rich analysis of who is using the Birkbeck website, what they are looking for, and what delights and frustrates them. This invaluable feedback has informed every step of the design process, the reviewing and refreshing of content and the build of the new website.

The feedback was often interestingly divided according to the age of the student: in general, users above the age of 30 were positive, describing our website as ‘modern’, ‘clear’, ‘precise’, ‘professional’ and ‘mature’; while younger users were less positive, describing our website as ‘traditional’, ‘outdated’, ‘plain’, ‘dull’ and lacking colour and media content such as videos. Many users expressed frustration with the navigation on our site – the menus, signposts and links that you click on to move from one page or section of the website to another – and felt we don’t adequately convey what it is like to study at Birkbeck. Users also struggled to access vital information, including bursaries and financial support.

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

The task of converting all of this, sometimes conflicting, feedback into a new design fell to the design company, Pentagram, who created our new visual identity last year so had a head start in understanding Birkbeck’s unique mission and our diverse staff and student community. Over the course of many brainstorming sessions and meetings in the autumn of 2016, Birkbeck’s content (External Relations) and technical (IT Services) experts worked together with Pentagram to translate our new visual identity and user feedback into a stylish, clear and colourful new design.

The mammoth task of translating Pentagram’s beautiful designs into a functioning website fell to our hugely talented and hardworking CIS & Web Team in IT Services. This type of translation work – of turning a design into functioning code on a webpage – will always involve cutting your coat to match your cloth – i.e. working out what can be done given the challenges of schedule, staff capacity and budget. The developers were astute at breaking down each element of the design and explaining the best way of turning them into a digital reality. Extensive user-testing was carried out in the team as well as research to makes sure our site is sector-leading in terms of accessibility. This sort of cross-team working carries its own challenges, but IT Services and External Relations have worked strongly and successfully together.

The new pop-out menu

The new pop-out menu signposts visitors to important pages

This new design has adapted our visual identity for the Web, incorporating new typography and standards of layout. On the redesigned Homepage, we now have the images, clear, graphic signposts to important pages that users have asked for, brought together on a new, easy-to-use pop-out menu on the right-hand side of the page.

 

Finding a course is usually the number one task of a new visitor to our site, so we have incorporated a prominent keyword course search box at the top of the Homepage, to get students started on their journey as quickly and easily as possible. We’re also showcasing the best of what’s happening at Birkbeck – as a lot of user feedback articulated a sense that Birkbeck is ‘hiding its light under a bushel’ and not trumpeting its achievements and strengths. So we are featuring news, events, blog posts and podcasts on the Homepage and on landing pages, singing loudly and proudly about our world-class research.

research-tile

Birkbeck’s unique qualities are showcased with eye-catching statement tiles

Birkbeck’s unique mission makes us genuinely different to other universities and the new website is all about making this clear upfront, celebrating it and helping prospective students see the many ways in which studying with us could have a real impact on their lives. We are also making videos more prominent, as a way of telling our unique story and dusting away some of the fustiness that frustrated our younger users. Finally, the new website has been designed responsively, meaning that, whatever device you are using, the website will look great and be easy to use.

newwebsite6phone

The website is optimised for browsing on any device

On our online prospectus, we are presenting each course page as a gateway into Birkbeck, as many prospective students come to our website through our course pages after a Google search. Thus, we now include links to important information on fees and funding, making an application, entry requirements, accommodation, our research culture and other key areas of interest for prospective students, depending on the level of study. We have also reviewed the content on all of our course pages, stripping out duplication and generic content and simplifying, consolidating and improving.

Redesigning and restructuring the website gave us a golden opportunity to review, assess and edit our content. The pages on our ‘corporate’ website include absolutely crucial information on fees and funding, student services, careers and employability, and research, while our online prospectus is the most visited area of our website and absolutely central to attracting new students.

Like most organisations, Birkbeck has seen its website expand exponentially over the past decade and, as with any large, complex organisation, content on our website has not always been kept up-to-date or focused on the needs of users. Seizing this opportunity, we have reviewed and refreshed over 1500 items of content, which includes webpages, images and files, in line with the newly created House Style and tone of voice guidelines – the first time Birkbeck has ever had a comprehensive style guide.

Duplicate and obsolete material has been removed, written content has been reviewed, rewritten where necessary, and adjusted to meet our House Style. User testing and workshop sessions with content owners across the College mean that we have been able to reorder material based on user needs, giving prominence to the material that matters most to visitors and giving answers to their most pressing questions. Areas of the website that had been structured to reflect the internal organisation of Birkbeck have been reordered to bring users’ needs, questions and tasks to the forefront. Thirty new landing pages have been created, giving essential content areas a fresh, vibrant new look that also makes the website easier to navigate.

Throughout this process, when considering the design, layout, structure and content of the website, we have been guided by the following ideas and principles:

  1. To focus on and prioritise the needs of the website users, whether staff, students or visitors.
  2. To simplify, clarify and reduce, while avoiding duplication, obfuscation and verbiage. Our written content should be truthful, clear, concise and easy to understand.
  3. To ensure our site is accessible to all users and optimised to enable disabled, blind and visually impaired users to access the information they need.
  4. To increase the aesthetic appeal of the website, particularly through the greater use of images, videos and other media. To this end, nearly 600 new images have been uploaded to the site.
  5. To simplify the structure of our website, to enable ease of navigation and quick access to the information that users need.
  6. Apply our new House Style and deploy a more consistent, positive and appealing tone of voice.

And this is just the beginning. Going forward, we will be redesigning and relaunching other parts of our website, utilising new technologies, implementing new principles of digital governance, rolling out our new House Style and tone of voice guidelines, and working towards the shared goal of a website we can all feel justly proud of.

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User-testing Birkbeck’s new website design

Naomi Bain, Web Officer (Training and User Experience), at Birkbeck explains the way student feedback informed our new web design. 

webOver the course of the past few months, throughout the redevelopment of the Birkbeck website, I have carried out more than 50 user testing sessions. These have sought to ensure that the changes and improvements we are making to the website are firmly rooted in research and evidence about how the website is used in real life, rather than how we might imagine it is used.

After each round of testing I reported back to the web teams, both technical and content, about any issues that came out of the sessions. These reports led to some changes being made, helped with decision-making processes and provided reassurance.

There have been four rounds of testing with students, gathered with the help of Team Birkbeck. As well as this, I set up sessions with students with dyslexia and related conditions and students with visual impairment, who I contacted with the help of the Disability Office and External Relations. The students who have participated are studying all kinds of subjects and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Testing has included a number of older students, and students who do not speak English as a first language.

In the early stages of testing we just looked at PDFs of the new design. Students were asked for their response to the appearance of the site, and I did ‘first click’ tests to assess their understanding of the layout of the pages and how they would find something on a live version. We then moved on to testing some mock up stand-alone pages, concentrating in particular on testing the course finder and the menu.

For the final round, we had something approaching a complete test version of the new site, and focussed in particular on course information. In addition to this, students with disabilities assessed various accessibility tools, and also talked about how their disability could affect their use of websites.

All sessions took place at Birkbeck and were recorded using Panopto, the university’s video content system. All students used the site on a PC, and some also searched the site on their phone.

Feedback on the new site has been overwhelmingly positive. People described it as “clear”, “modern”, “colourful” and “engaging”. It compared favourably to both the existing Birkbeck site and to other university sites.

Observing students carrying out searches on the site enables us to quickly see whether they understand how the design “works”. Several minor issues with the design have been brought to light as a result of these user testing sessions and changes have been made, or potential problems flagged up.

The intention is to do some follow up testing post-launch, as part of an ongoing iterative process of development and improvement, which will ensure that Birkbeck sites are attractive, usable and accessible to all our students.

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Getting our Act together

After 700 amendments and some heated debates, the Higher Education and Research Bill finally became law last week. Birkbeck’s Policy Communications Officer, Fiona MacLeod, has followed its parliamentary progress from First Reading to last week’s ‘ping-pong’ between the two Houses of Parliament, and outlines what changes it will bring to the Higher Education sector.parliament
The Higher Education and Research Bill ended its lengthy passage through Parliament last week and is now law. With both Houses agreeing on the exact wording of the Bill, it received Royal Assent on Thursday 27 May with a flourish of Norman French – a declaration that ‘La Reyne le veult’ – to become the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

The ‘ping-pong’ process between Commons and Lords to agree a final version of the Bill began the day before, when MPs rejected earlier amendments made in the Lords and agreed a raft of new Government amendments in lieu. These final amendments were designed to achieve compromises acceptable to Peers and get the Bill passed speedily before Parliament’s formal dissolution this week ahead of the 8 June General Election.

The 2017 Act has been hailed as ‘the most important legislation for the sector in 25 years’ but getting it to this point involved more than 700 amendments and some major concessions from the Government.   So what key changes to UK higher education does the 2017 Act bring?

The Act establishes a new regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS), to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and integrates the UK’s seven research councils into a new body called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Among its regulatory changes, the Act will make it easier for new higher education providers to gain degree awarding powers and university status, while the OfS will implement a new mechanism to recognise and reward high-quality teaching, already underway, known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The TEF will rate universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and results of the initial TEF trial will be published in June.  The TEF will be used to set university tuition fees, but any differentiation of fees based on its controversial Olympic medal-style ratings will not happen until 2020/21. Until then, future increases in fee limits – in line with inflation – for universities participating in the TEF will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

The Act also requires an independent review of the TEF in 2018 which will look at how ratings are decided and what they should be called; whether the metrics used are appropriate; the TEF’s impact on institutions and indeed whether the TEF is in the public interest. This goes further than the earlier ‘lessons learned’ exercise offered by the Government. The review’s conclusions will be considered before the 2020 timeframe for fee differentiation based on TEF ratings. The Act ensures the TEF can’t be used to limit international student recruitment figures and will require institutions to publish specific data deemed ‘helpful’ for international students.

For Birkbeck, a major problem with the early draft of the Bill was its failure to reference part-time study and its importance for the country’s future skills needs. It also failed to recognise the particular needs of mature or part-time learners when outlining the future role of the OfS.  Working with MPs and Peers, including College President Baroness Bakewell and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Garden, Birkbeck lobbied successfully to gain explicit recognition of part-time study in the Bill; the OfS will be required to promote choice in the way university courses are taught, including part-time study, distance learning and accelerated courses.

We’re also pleased that the Act will help make alternative methods of financing available to those unable to take out student loans, including for those who require ‘Sharia-compliant’ finance.

The OfS will be responsible for quality and standards in the HE sector and will absorb the work of the Office for Fair Access.  Universities will be required to publish information about the fairness of their admissions as well as information that might be ‘helpful to international students’.

The Act also confirms that International students will continue to be included in the net migration target. Media reports suggesting that the Prime Minister was softening her stance on this in order to get the Bill passed proved to be inaccurate, and Peers reluctantly accepted the status quo.

Among other hotly debated aspects of the Bill, the Act confirms that University title, even those granted by Royal Charter, can be removed by Government.  But the Secretary of State will have to consult representative bodies of higher education providers and students when giving guidance to the OfS about its power to grant university title, and the OfS must consider this guidance before allowing a provider to call itself a university. There will be a full review to look at the shared features of a university – such as excellent teaching, sustained scholarship, learning infrastructure, pastoral care and knowledge exchange.

Similarly, the Bill was strengthened to provide better oversight of OfS’s powers to grant, revoke or vary degree awarding powers (DAP): the OfS will have to notify the Secretary of State when granting DAP to institutions which have not previously had a validation agreement with another higher education provider or OfS, and degree-awarding powers will be automatically reviewed following a merger or change of ownership.

Peers welcomed the many changes made to the Bill during its parliamentary progress and there was much mutual congratulation last week on the Government’s willingness to listen and the degree of cross-party collaboration in the Lords.

Lord Stevenson, Labour’s spokesman on higher education in the Lords, said the amended Bill would ‘improve collaboration within the sector… help reverse the decline in part-time students…assist mature students who wish to come back, and … pave the way for more work to be done on credit transfer and flexible courses’.  Let’s hope he’s right.

See the Parliamentary process of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 here and Read debates on all stages of the Act 2017 here

 

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Overcoming mathematical anxiety with customised support

evaszatmariDo you have a fear of mathematics?  Have you always avoided percentages? Do you want to run away when you see algebraic expressions?  If you think it is time to conquer your maths demons, then Eva Szatmari can help.  Eva works for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, and enables you to customise your learning and go at your speed through her one-to-one sessions. She tells us how she can help you solve your maths and stats knowledge and support you in your studies.

Eva, what do you do?
I help students learn mathematics and statistics, working one-to-one. When he/she comes into my office, I always start by asking what would they like to work on. In this way, I am tailoring the session to the individual student need.

I also run workshops in which I try to make sure that everyone in the class is able to follow the teaching, so no one is left behind.  I make sure I create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions that they think might be too simplistic in their usual lectures. Birkbeck students have very busy lives so I have made video tutorials available online including instruction on Boolean logic, the binary number system and various scientific calculator tutorials so students can access my help wherever they are. More details of this can be found here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and the kind of support you offer?
Students who have maths anxiety often have previous life experiences that discourage them from ever wanting to learn maths again.  Suddenly on some degree courses, they are forced to come back to maths to ensure they complete their course.  I would like to prove to them that maths is enjoyable, rewarding, and accessible to anyone.  Therefore my challenge is forensic – to detect the right mode and language for communicating to each student.  I make sure I create an encouraging environment where students can ask even the most basic maths or statistics questions.

Why is it important to offer a customised approach to learning?
The School of BEI recognises that customised approach to learning is important and it adds to the experience a student can have at Birkbeck.  We want to give every student the necessary support to excel in their studies. This ties into Birkbeck’s central mission to offer flexible education to meet the widely varying needs of our students and to help them fulfill their potential and their ambitions.

Have you seen this approach make a practical difference?
Definitely yes!  I would like to give you two examples of students I helped.  One of them had severe maths anxiety and approached me for some extra tutorials not believing he would understand it.  He had no maths experience because of disruptive schooling.  We started with the basics, and gradually he got really to like maths and he enjoys the course he was on more because he no longer feared the relevant sessions.  He went on to pass his maths exam which was part of his course.

I am not here only for the weakest students, but to help anyone at whatever level.  In another example, a student came to see me needing a 1st Class Honours degree to get on her chosen Masters and I am happy and proud that she got accepted for Oxbridge to do what she wanted.

It has repeatedly been shown that there is a correlation between better numeracy skills, and better life chances – the higher your mathematical abilities, the higher your job prospects and your earning potential.

Why is this customised learning approach unique?
There are many initiatives out there which provide support for literacy skills, but considerably fewer that develop numeracy skills. This is particularly true at university level. This customised learning approach makes a real difference to improving the confidence and mathematical skills of students. This means they may achieve more in their courses than they would otherwise and often they surprise themselves at what they can do.

Birkbeck is in itself unique when compared to most other universities for two particular reasons. A significant proportion of students are already in full-time employment, or they are hoping to use the skills they learn at Birkbeck to change their existing careers. There is a particular need for additional numeracy support in the School of BEI, where mathematics may feature significantly in a course or module, but where many students join from a different academic discipline, or from a professional environment where they have not used formal mathematics in the same way.

Finally, how can BEI students at Birkbeck get in touch with you if they want to work with you?
They can email me on e.szatmari@bbk.ac.uk to book a one-on-one session. These normally last about an hour. They can also see the BEI Workshop Timetable on my staff web page for module specific workshops.

The sessions I run are completely confidential, and it’s important that students know there’s no need to be embarrassed about asking for assistance – it’s what I’m here for. It’s worth any student who is unsure about a particular aspect of mathematics coming, especially with exams on the horizon!

 

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How to get a job interview in digital technology

This blog was written by Frederic Kalinke, an ex-Googler who is now Managing Director of agile marketing technology company AmigodigitaljobsoriginalOne of the most common questions I get asked following my workshops with the UpScale programme is: how can I land an interview in a digital technology company? Tech firms like Google and Facebook revel in the aura that has been created around their application process. Movies like The Intern and The Social Network and books like Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? add to the mystique. In this post, I want to outline a few tips on how to create a powerful application that will give you the best chance of landing an interview in digital technology. In short, it’s about creating an application so good that they can’t ignore you.

I believe that too many graduates struggle with finding jobs because they don’t put enough thought into understanding what they want to do and then do not try hard enough in their application. The default behaviour upon graduation is to create a generic CV (A4; one-sided; Arial font) and hand over the reins to a recruiter who will find you a suitable position (read: fire your CV in a scattergun to hundreds of employees and see what sticks). This is not a good approach as it reflects a lack of thoughtfulness and tenacity on behalf of the applicant, which are two qualities that every employer treasures.

Created View, not Curriculum Vitae

Instead I suggest graduates should be highly targeted in their approach. They should think carefully about the sectors that interest them and then do more thinking to create an argument as to why companies in this sector should hire them. It’s all about taking a position; more power behind fewer arrows. If one wants to apply for a marketing role at a fintech company that is trying to create a new form of bank, one should do some competitor analysis on their positioning, pricing, marketing strategy and visualise it in a colourful presentation. If one is after a software development job in an organic food business, evaluate their technology systems and website, and offer a technical SWOT analysis. A CV should stand for ‘Created View’, not Curriculum Vitae. So how do you create a view?!

The first step is to analyse relevant data. Google Trends is a fantastic resource that provides search query volumes for any word or phrase. This is a goldmine as it enables you to understand brand affinity by the amount of times people are searching for a set of firms. You can easily plug in the names of the firms you are applying to and their top five competitors. If you look hard enough, there are several other data sets or reports available to provide the ingredients you need to construct your argument.

The second step is to construct an argument. One of the first warm-up exercises I do in my UpScale workshop (see this Birkbeck blog post for more information), is to get participants to imagine they are an alien marketer who wants to convince decision-makers back on Planet Zog to adopt the internet, as an alternative to billboards. I ask them to list the six key attributes of digital marketing that make it so powerful versus traditional advertising? If I was applying for a role at a traditional billboard advertiser (such as Clear Channel or JCDecaux), my argument would be that their strategy should be to make their product comply with the attributes that make digital advertising so powerful.

The third step is to present your argument in an engaging way. Don’t put all your eggs in the A4, one-page CV basket, but supplement it with a colourful presentation, a website, a video, an audio file. Anything to mark yourself out as thoughtful and tenacious.

Contact the CEO

The last step is to send your application (your ‘Created View’) to the CEO. Their email address can be easily found by combining tools like LinkedIn, hunter.io and ceoemail.com. Contacting the CEO is a fantastic tactic as he or she will not receive direct applications, especially ones with well researched arguments. The worst outcome is that he or she will not reply directly but send your application to the HR department who will then be compelled to reply.

I’ve suggested this approach to so many people with great results. One of my friends wanted to get a marketing job with an eponymous fashion brand. I suggested he created a view by evaluating the brand’s use of social media and then displaying his report on a website. He built a WordPress site (www.why[brandname]needsme.com), and emailed it to the CEO. Within a day, he had a call from the Chief Commercial Officer who offered him a paid summer internship!

In short, getting a job in digital technology is not easy. But you will stand the best chance of landing an interview by being thoughtful and tenacious. Target a small set of firms by sending the CEO a well informed argument that will help his/her business. Remember: don’t create a Curriculum Vitae, Create a View.

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Take a virtual tour of our campuses

Explore our beautiful Bloomsbury campus in the heart of London and state-of-the-art Stratford campus in east London.

Both campuses offer all the facilities you need, which all Birkbeck students are entitled to use. They are also well-served by public transport, making it easy to get to and from the College.

 

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Do we still need public research funding?

This article was written by Dr Federica Rossi from Birkbeck’s Department of Management and Professor Aldo Geuna from the University of Torino

r-and-dThe last few decades have witnessed the increasing privatisation of the public sphere – even in the realms of education and research, which, until recently, almost exclusively pertained to the public sector. Evidence from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries shows that the slow but steady increase in private sector Research & Development (R&D) expenditure as share of GDP has been accompanied by a parallel drop in public R&D expenditure since the 1980s. A mere handful of economies buck the trend, such as that of South Korea. This has recently been referred to by Birkbeck’s Professor Daniele Archibugi and Dr Andrea Filippetti in their new paper as the “retreat of public research”. In the most advanced economies this retreat might seem, at face value, to support the claim that public intervention in research is unnecessary, if not completely counterproductive to sustain technological progress.

Most economists agree that public research funding is crucial for economic growth…

The mainstream view that public funding of basic research is necessary for technological progress to occur, relies on two, intertwined arguments that were first put forward in the 1940s and 1950s, and have been reiterated in various forms ever since. The first is the argument, which is embraced by scientists but originated in management schools, that innovation is a linear process whereby basic research discoveries pave the way for subsequent applied research and technological development. The second is the argument put forward by economists that basic research is characterised by large externalities and extreme uncertainty in the timing and nature of its outcomes, which make the computation of returns extremely difficult and discourages private companies from investing. Basic research outcomes tend to be very abstract and codifiable; this vulnerability to copying further discourages private investment in their production.

Together, these arguments suggest that, in order to sustain a rate of technological progress that is sufficient to drive continuous growth, the economy needs to produce a continuous amount of basic research outcomes, which would not occur in the absence of public funding.

…but some think that public research funding is unnecessary…

Those calling for a reduction in government funding of science have, in turn, put forth several arguments to oppose the mainstream view. The first is that the linear model of innovation is not only too simplistic, but wrongly organised: throughout history, technological developments have more often than not originated from efforts to solve practical problems without prior scientific basis. Rather than underpinning technological development, basic research has a habit of following promising technological developments. As Matt Ridley interprets in a recent article on the Wall Street Journal: “The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine.” The second is that basic research effectively crowds out private funding. In the absence of public funding, private companies would still invest in basic research to further consolidate their knowledge of how previously invented technologies actually work, which assists further innovation, and would want to do so in-house, rather than free ride on competitors’ basic research outcomes, to generate tacit knowledge which would give them a competitive advantage over rivals. Indeed, free from the crowding-out effect of public funding, private companies might have invested in basic research, which may have yielded more productive outcomes than the basic research funded by government.

…The middle ground: public research funding for the knowledge economy

As  is the case for most complex social phenomena, the nature of technological progress is probably best understood by combining different theoretical perspectives. Suggesting that all technological developments would have occurred in the absence of prior scientific knowledge is just as simplistic as the opposing argument – that basic research is always the first step of a linear innovation process. While the rich history of technology can be mined for examples of each of these extremes, most innovations tell a complex story of coevolution between basic research and technological development, where both private and public research funding play a role. For example, Dosi and Nelson (2010) have suggested that, while the development of the steam engine in the early 18th century preceded scientific developments in thermodynamics and the theory of heat, this technology was indeed built on the foundations of earlier scientific developments (the understanding of the properties of atmospheric pressure investigated by Torricelli, Boyle and Hooke in the 17th and 18th century). This coevolution between science and technology would explain why the steam engine was not invented in China, where all its components (pistons, cylinders, etc,) were known and employed.

Basic science and technological development coevolve, and the problem begins to look like the chicken and egg situation. Nonetheless, there are several compelling reasons for continued public funding of basic research. On the one hand, private companies in the main cannot commit to continued funding of a research programme in the long or even medium term; not only because they tend to respond to short term investor concerns, but also because their very survival is not guaranteed. Even if some companies committed to keep their lines of inquiry open in the absence of early promising research outcomes (something which few companies appear willing to do) there is no guarantee that that programme would not be destroyed by business failure – an increasingly frequent and rapid occurrence even in larger corporations. Public funding provides a buffer to research exploration, which opens up to society a range of research avenues that simply would not occur in its absence, and whose results may be reaped many decades later, benefitting the economy in unexpected ways. Sometimes, basic research is so distant in time and origins from the innovations it contributes to, that such contribution goes unnoticed; current developments in text mining and even speech recognition technology owe a huge debt to many decades of obscure publicly funded research carried out in linguistics departments but this contribution is hardly something that springs to mind when thinking of Siri or Alexa bots. On the other hand, as Archibugi and Filippetti point out, private companies and governments have different incentives in the dissemination of research outcomes: private companies as a rule will give away as little as possible or will only give away knowledge under certain conditions, which again limits the range of research avenues that can be explored starting from existing research.

What the knowledge economy needs is a functioning ecosystem where both public and private research contribute to the creation of new knowledge, its dissemination and commercial exploitation, and create the conditions for further knowledge production. The better interconnected the two spheres, the better the system can promote an efficient division of labour between privately funded and publicly funded research, and the better it can discourage the duplication of research effort. Moreover, the better it can ensure that knowledge can be freely disseminated as much as possible without hurting commercial interests. The economic impact of the “retreat of public research” might not be negative if it has been accompanied by the growth of a more interconnected research system in which public research has become a more efficient complement to private research. However, this is a rather unexplored hypothesis at the macro level – and even if this were the case, it would still not imply that the latter can replace the former. Public research continues to play a vital role in the knowledge economy.

Professor Aldo Geuna and Dr Federica Rossi are the authors of The University and the Economy Pathways to Growth and Economic Development Cheltenham: Edward Elgar (2015). Now available in paperback.

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Trailblazing in mathematics

To mark International Women’s Day, this post was contributed by Professor Sarah Hart, Head of the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck.

Here, she explains why there is more to do to ensure representation of women in mathematics – and how that can be achieved

Today is International Women’s Day – a day which as well as celebrating the achievements of women also serves as reminder we still have work to do to achieve gender parity. In my field of mathematics, the last century has seen a series of women pioneers who have blazed a trail for future generations. An example was highlighted in the recent film “Hidden Figures”, which tells the story of the female African-American mathematicians and engineers working at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. Those women overcame many obstacles, including having to go to court to gain the right to attend graduate classes in engineering. We have come a long way in the last 50 years, but not as far as you may think. For example, in mathematics it is still the case that fewer than 10% of the professors are women.

Could it be the case that women just aren’t as good at maths on average? No. Girls do just as well in maths at school – what happens is that the proportion who choose to pursue maths as a career is lower. This question isn’t even asked in most other areas where women are under-represented – are women “not as good as men” at being MPs? Or judges? The issue is certainly wider than mathematics. As Head of the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck, I’m very aware that women are underrepresented in the UK in all three of these disciplines. This matters because these fields are missing out on the contributions of those women who aren’t there but could be.

So what can we do? Research has shown that role models are very important. With that in mind, this month the department is involved with organising two events around women in maths and economics. Today, Birkbeck’s student-run Economics and Finance Society is putting on a Women in Economics Event with two eminent economists – Vicky Pryce and Oriana Bandiera – discussing barriers and opportunities, leadership and recognition, quotas and pay gaps. All are welcome to attend.

At the end of March we will be holding an event in collaboration with global investment management firm Winton, aimed at encouraging girls and young women to consider pursuing a career in mathematics. The Winton Women Trailblazers in Mathematics conference will be a two-day event. The first day is for girls in years 11-13 at school, where they can meet women working in mathematics and statistics and get an idea of what it’s like to take the subjects further. The second day, which is also supported by the London Mathematical Society, is a Women in Mathematics day, bringing together postgraduate and postdoctoral students to meet fellow mathematicians and hear from established women mathematicians from academia and industry about their work and careers.

Why are these activities important? Because it is our collective responsibility as a society to do what we can to further gender parity. “But things are changing”, you say. “Professors are old and there are more women doing maths and economics now, they’ll become professors eventually”. The World Economic Forum has calculated that yes, things are indeed changing, but that gender parity will not be achieved until 2186. I’m not prepared to wait that long. Are you?

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FIFPro global report on players conditions of employment

This post was written by Dr Andy Harvey – a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre and an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.footballI am writing this as the January transfer window heads towards its final few frenetic hours, with breathless TV pundits reporting any last minute deals that clubs may make. The headlines during January have, as usual, focussed on the big money multi-million pound transfers, with Oscar’s move to Shanghai for a reputed £60m the stand out piece of business.

While the media will be concentrating on the Premier League and big name moves that helps to establish football in the minds of many as a game saturated in unimaginable amounts of money, a report from November 2016 tells a different story altogether.

On Tuesday 29 November, FIFPro, the global professional footballers’ union, released their long anticipated report on employment conditions of the world’s professional footballers. For those who are brought up on a daily media diet of staggering transfer fees and salaries of elite players at the top of the European leagues, the report will make sobering reading.

In a survey of over 14,000 players, out of a global membership of 65,000, and covering every region of the world, the report reveals that 45% of players earned less than $1000US per month, while just 2% could be classified as the super-rich elite with earnings of over $720,000 per month.

However, to observers of the global labour market such figures would not come as a huge surprise. Disparities of wealth between the lucky few at the top and the unfortunate masses below have been a growing trend to the point that in developed and developing countries, the bottom half often controls less than 10% of the wealth. Such disparities in income between rich and poor have been growing since 1980 and the adoption by countries across the globe of the neo-liberal economic model promoted by the IMF and the World Bank. It is not surprising that football, a highly competitive business, should also see similar disparities of wealth between its players.

As the FIFPro report notes, income disparity between players is a function to a large extent of the differences between wage levels in individual countries.  It should be remembered that $1000.00 a month in many parts of the world is a huge salary compared to the meagre wages that many people earn. The World Bank estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, there are 389 million people living on less than $1.90 per day. So while there may be inequality within football, for the lucky few with the skills, talent and determination, football still seems to offer a better way to make a living than most. It is not surprising that young people in every part of the world still dream of making it in the big time.

However, earning a reasonable salary only means something if it is actually paid up and paid on time. One of the more startling results of the survey is that for professional footballers this is by no means certain with 41% of players reporting a delay in their salary during the previous two seasons. Some delays in salary payments lasted for over a year. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that professional footballers, unlike employees in other sectors, cannot simply take their skills elsewhere – they are subject to football’s transfer system that regulates how and when players can move to another club. At present a player can only break his contract of employment for just cause if he has not been paid for 90 days. If he tries to leave before that time he is liable to pay compensation to the club that holds his registration. This is a situation that is unique to football, and although there are good reasons for regulating the labour market to ensure stability for clubs and fair competition, it can also lead to the abuses that the FIFPro survey has revealed.

Late payment of wages is also a critical factor that threatens the integrity of football as it makes players vulnerable to the attentions of match-fixers. As I discovered in my own research into match-fixing in Europe, personal financial difficulties are a major contributing factor to corruption in sport. Large income disparities and late payment of wages, combined with the inability of players to move quickly to another club, is a perfect storm for corruption,and it is no surprise that the latest FIFPro research reveals that 1 in 11 players have been approached by a match-fixer. That is not to say that they have succumbed to temptation, but while late payment of wages persists in the game it will always be vulnerable to match-fixing.

The FIFPro survey shines a welcome light into the recesses of the world’s favourite sport that is so often insular and hard to penetrate. It shows that football is not immune from the global economic processes that have seen dramatic rises in precarious employment and temporary contracts even for professional employees. To this extent, those of us who work on the edges of the British academic system might say welcome to the modern world of short-term work and fixed-term contracts. But the FIFPro survey also highlights how the football sector has its unique systems of pressure that are exerted on its players, especially the journeymen who make up the vast bulk of the global playing staff. It is a highly competitive environment with a career-threatening injury never more than a moment away and where the pressures to perform and succeed are intense. Perhaps, most of all this report should make us all realise that a professional footballer is just another worker trying to make a living – just like the rest of us.

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Birkbeck’s Commitment to Occupational and Organizational Psychology – a new doctoral route at National Level?

This article is by Dr Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology (a.mcdowall@bbk.ac.uk)

businesswoman-1901130_1920Birkbeck has a long and proud history of pioneering activities applying the science of psychology to the world of work. Birkbeck’s MSc programme was the first of its kind in the UK, and in fact coined the term ‘occupational psychology’. We remain the only dedicated work psychology department in the UK. Other countries use ‘organizational psychology’ (reflected in the current name for our department), ‘industrial and organizational psychology’, or simply ‘work psychology’. But regardless of the exact words, we all have a common aim, which is to apply our expertise to work activities.

The profession of psychology has seen several changes in the UK, not least that several titles have been protected by law for some years, including educational, counselling, clinical, sports and also,of course, occupational psychology. The intention is to provide assurance to the public, so that people know that a qualified psychologist bearing such titles has undergone rigorous and robust training, and is regulated by the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC).

While the other strands of applied psychology have long recognised the need to train to doctoral level through education delivered by universities, occupational psychology has been slightly different in that there has been only one qualification, delivered by the British Psychological Society (BPS), which leads to eligibility for ‘Chartership’, the gold standard for the profession.

But are there changes afoot about how and by whom the qualification is delivered in the future?

Together with a committed group of academics and practitioners, I have been working over the last four years towards the agreement of new standards at a doctoral level for occupational psychology, which were approved by the BPS in late autumn 2016. We briefed members of the society at the Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference in January 2017.

The objective of these standards is to (wording adapted near verbatim from the standards) enable practitioners to:

  • Engage in effective, ethical and reflective practice;
  • Be adept at formulating psychological activities across all five content areas of occupational psychology;
  • Apply evidence-based psychological skills and knowledge to maximise individual and organisational effectiveness;
  • Demonstrate competence to apply the consultancy cycle having provided evidence relating to all stages across this framework;
  • Acquire a breadth of areas of knowledge underpinned by the appropriate professional skills;
  • Be prepared for lifelong learning and development as commensurate for an independent applied psychology practitioner.

The underlying philosophy for the new standards is that they are flexible and broad, and will enable potential education providers to offer relevant doctoral level qualifications which take a unique and considered approach. But the common elements have to be that individuals practice ethically and with reflection, can make sense of how complex organisations are, and work through projects from the initial identification of what needs to be done through to eventual evaluation, drawing on best evidence at all times.

The profession of occupational psychology has seen many changes, as large departments have been down sized and/ or abandoned, and practitioners are now likely to be working in independent practice. This has meant that our work is perhaps less visible to those who don’t know or understand what we do. But the reality is that businesses need people, as in our knowledge economy it’s what we have in our heads, rather than infrastructure or technology, which equates competitive advantage.

This is the focus for our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes here at Birkbeck. We are now considering a new doctoral, route, too. Do get in touch by email or in the comments below if this would be of interest to you, as we are keen to engage with potential students during our scoping phase.

Further information:

This blog forms part of the ‘School of BEI’s OP week’. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to learn more about studying in the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck!

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