The groundbreaking climate action of Sweden’s century-old industry

This blog was contributed by BSc Economics student Linus Kask and was originally written as an assignment for the module Quantitative Techniques for Applied Economics.

In Viking mythology, Thor, the god of lightning, wore iron gloves to manage his famous hammer Mjolnir. Known as the guardian of humankind, Thor used his hammer and gloves to protect the world from giants. Now a new saviour of the world as we know it is lighting up in the land of the Vikings.

For over a thousand years in the northern parts of Sweden, blast furnaces have burnt coal to create iron for steel production. This technique is still standard practice today, thus making the steel industry one of the world’s greatest emitters of carbon dioxide. In a world that lusts for steel to expand economies and an industry sticking to its business-as-usual approach, its emissions are only set to rise. However, a group of businesses from north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden have now formed a vanguard and are looking to turn the industry status quo on its head.

In 2016, the Swedish state-owned mining company LKAB, the state-owned power company Vattenfall and the privately owned steel producer SSAB joined forces to start HYBRIT, Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology, an initiative to create zero-emission steel. In 2026, the first emission-free steel will be on the market and a full-scale operation is expected to be running by 2035. The common goal of all three companies is to be fully carbon neutral by 2045.

Today, coal is burnt in blast furnaces in order to reduce oxygen from iron ores and extract iron for steel production. HYBRIT aim to replace coal with hydrogen in this process, as when hydrogen reacts with the released oxygen, the only residue product remaining is water instead of carbon dioxide. Hydrogen is the most common element on earth but it is seldom found in its pure form in nature because it is so reactive. This means that it must be extracted from a composition of elements. The most common way is to separate hydrogen from carbon in natural gas, but the residue product then is carbon dioxide. Instead, HYBRIT use water, separating it into oxygen and hydrogen through electrolysis. This is an extremely electricity intense technique and will, when HYBRIT’s technology has reached its full potential, require 10% of Sweden’s current energy consumption. Due to the immense amount of electricity needed in the production of hydrogen, it is paramount that the power is not produced using fossil fuels. This is quite easy to achieve in Sweden, as the country’s energy mix consists of only 1% fossil fuels. In comparison, the rest of the world’s energy mix includes a staggering 65% fossil fuels.

Bar chart showing fossil fuel consumption in Sweden vs the rest of the world.Because of the vast amount of electricity needed to make this groundbreaking shift in the steel industry, the world’s energy mix must contain a greater proportion of renewables. This huge infrastructure investment will be justified by the fact that the steel industry is accountable for 7% of the world’s emissions, releasing more carbon dioxide than India alone, or Africa and South America combined. The development of the technology is not a small investment either, estimated to cost 15 billion Swedish kronas, 1.8 billon US dollars, per annum for the next 20 years. This expenditure is validated because HYBRIT will play a crucial role in reaching the goals set in the Paris Agreement for the whole world. In Sweden, HYBRIT’s new technology will be fundamental in achieving the country’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2045. The steel industry in Sweden today accounts for 10% of its emissions.

Graph showing the CO2 emissions of the steel industry.Booting the coal in steel production has its economic advantages as well. Carbon prices are set to rise, and McKinsey & Company, a consultancy, estimate that unless they reduce their carbon emissions, steel companies will risk 14% of their value as a result of this increase. With steel demand on a steady rise driven by increasing urbanisation and world population, the industry has a lot to gain by switching to hydrogen.

Line graph showing rising global steel demand.Time is of the essence. If the steel industry does not find an alternative route to production without coal, it could account for 25% of carbon emissions by 2050, thus crushing any possibility of keeping the global temperature within the goal of 1.5 ˚C above pre-industrial levels.

For the first time since the Viking ages, Thor’s iron gloves could be made using sustainable production. HYBRIT’s technology is the best promise available for emission-free steel and if they succeed, a supreme shift has occurred in this ancient practice. North of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, a status quo is about to be turned on its head.

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Driving Investment: The Missing Piece to your Investment Portfolio?

This blog was contributed by BSc Financial Economics student Paul Talbot and was originally written as an assignment for the module Quantitative Techniques for Applied Economics.

Picture of a classic car

Classic cars, an alternative investment that is rarely discussed when investors are looking for a strategy to increase ROI in their portfolios. Some prestige classic cars have increased over 400% in the last decade[1], but what sets these assets apart from status quo investing?

“Stories. That to me is the answer. Every car has its own history, its own adventures, its own japes and probably plenty of scrapes. Tales to be told and shared with fellow enthusiasts. Few other asset classes, however valuable or beautiful, can match it”[2]

The majority of investors would not be able to afford a 1960 Ferrari 250 GT, but investment growth has been seen across the majority of the classic car market. A more affordable sector is British classic cars, iconic cars such as the Jaguar E-Type or the Triumph TR6 has yielded over 50% returns since 2007, outpacing the heavyweight UK asset classes.

Graph showing price indices of UK classic cars

The classic car market also benefits from a favourable tax status, investors do not pay capital gains tax on profits as they are classed as “Wasting Assets” by HRMC. Movable assets such as classic cars can be gifted to family members, if no benefit is retained or lent, or for a period each year, to a car museum to avoid paying inheritance tax on death. If you intend to enjoy your investment on the road, they are also exempt from road tax and a MOT.

Tax relief of 20% on investment gains already drives these assets ahead of other financial instruments and it is no surprise that this is attracting some attention. The classic car market added significant gains to the UK economy last year[3] and is expected to continue grow from £940 Million in 2019 to £1.65 Billion in 2023.

Graph showing projected UK classic car market

Investing in classic cars does not come without a few speed bumps, it is not a case of purchasing any car and hiding it away for many years. Paul Michaels of Hexagon Classics notes “The very best cars — meaning those with full histories in exceptional condition, either completely restored or lovingly maintained with some age-related patina — will always command the highest prices.”

It is always advisable to get an expert opinion and the history authenticated before purchasing your investment and continue to keep your new asset lovingly maintained and stored away from the elements. All the above will add an upfront and annual running cost to purchasing the investment, reducing overall yield, but in turn, the better the asset is maintained and stored, the higher possibility of future gains.

The average global investment portfolio last year contained only 4% of luxury investments, this includes fine wines, collectable coins, art, jewellery and classic cars to name a few[4]. With climate change at the forefront of government polices banning the sale of petrol/diesel cars by 2030 and the rise of autonomous vehicles, will only make these investment stars a rarer commodity.

Pie chart showing global average asset allocation.

With central banks flooding the markets with liquidity, artificially supporting equities and driving down bond yields, parking a little piece of history in your garage and diversifying your portfolio will not only provide the perfect inflation and market correction hedge, but you may have some fun along the way.

Next time you look at your annual investment report, the immortal words of Wilbur Shaw may spring to mind.

“Gentleman, start your engines”

Further Information

[1] https://www.hagerty.com/apps/valuationtools/market-trends/collector-indexes/Ferrari

[2] HRH Prince Michael of Kent interview with Knight Frank November 2020

[3] FBHVC National Historic Vehicle Survey – https://www.britishmotorvehicles.com/news/fbhvc-national-historic-vehicle-survey-reveals-significant-contribution-to-uk-economy

[4]The Attitudes Survey is based on responses from 600 private bankers and wealth advisers managing

over US$3 trillion of wealth for UHNWI clients. The survey was taken during October and November 2018

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“I’m finding my experience at Birkbeck studying MSc Sport Management to be precious and valuable”

Ryotaro Tsutsui, MSc Sport Management student and policy maker in the Japanese Government, describes his experiences at Birkbeck as an international student and his aspirations for the future.

Ryotaro Tsutsui with classmates after playing football at the pitch near Birkbeck

Why did you decide to study at Birkbeck? 

I work for the Government of Japan and I’ve been working as a policy maker since 2012. As an opportunity for developing language skills and knowledge which is related to my policy area, I was allowed to study in the UK to get two Master’s degrees. I chose to join sport management courses as I’m interested in sport policy. I knew that Birkbeck is famous for sport management and my supervisor at Loughborough University (I studied at Loughborough University for the first year of my stay in the UK) strongly recommended Birkbeck.

How are you finding your course?

My experience undertaking the MSc Sport Management degree is precious and valuable. I think it is difficult for Japanese people to catch up on the global trends and affairs in the sport community as many of the international sport federations are in Europe and compared to Japan, the economic scale of the sport industry is huge. One of the advantages of the MSc Sport Management degree at Birkbeck is the wider and well-balanced range of global trends and topics covered.

How is the social life at Birkbeck?

Fortunately, I have made a lot of good friends at Birkbeck. I love the ethnic diversity of the students. There was no majority ethnic group in my course, which provided a good environment for students to form friendships. Also, a hidden advantage of life at Birkbeck – students can easily go for drink after evening lectures, which I really enjoyed!

Do you enjoy having lectures in the evening? What do you do with the time you have in the day? 

The evening based educational system suits students who want to explore new things in the day. For most of them, doing an internship in London would be the best choice. In fact, lecturers were willing to introduce various kinds of internship opportunities to students. I wanted to do an internship in the sport sector and I consulted with one of my lecturers; he kindly suggested a non-profit sport organization and I worked there for several months.

What is the best thing about studying in London? 

It was convenient to commute to Birkbeck as it is in the centre of London. There are much more opportunities in London to do internships than any other city.

What do you hope to achieve in the future? 

As a career path, I’m seeking the best way to be a competitive sport policy maker. After studying in the UK for the last two years, I realise how important it is to learn from the UK and other sporting countries about sport policy. In terms of sport policy including international and domestic policies, Japan is still behind the UK, however, this motivates me to develop sport policy in my country. I’m also motivated to keep human connections which I have made in the UK.

Any advice for international students considering studying at Birkbeck?

I’m really confident in recommending Birkbeck to international students. To make the most of studying at Birkbeck, it is important to plan what to do in the day. Mixing both studying in the evening and doing an internship or other social activities makes international students feel extremely productive!

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Educating the educators

What motivates a Maths teacher to return to life as a student? From reigniting a love of learning to getting their head around applied statistics, teachers Sebastian Bicen, Donato Schiavo and Leonard Pistol share their experience of going back to school.

Picture of Maths teacher Seb Bicen.

Graduate Diploma in Mathematics alumnus Sebastian Bicen teaches Maths and Further Maths in London.

The reputation for being one of the most difficult A-level subjects is something that Mathematics has found hard to shake. Yet with rising demand for STEM teachers, it’s increasingly common for educators to find themselves teaching Maths with no experience of further study in the subject.

That’s how Sebastian Bicen, a History graduate from Oxford University, found himself teaching Maths through the Teach First training programme in 2010. Indeed, it’s easy to assume that stress around subject knowledge was what prompted Sebastian’s return to further study.

“You might expect that I went back to university because someone told me I needed a Maths degree,” he explains, “but in reality, even people with Maths-related degrees often don’t want to teach A-Level or Further Maths. Instead, it was being back in the classroom and seeing my students’ passion for the subject that reignited my own love of Maths and my enthusiasm for learning.”

The buzz of the classroom is something fellow teacher Donato Schiavo, who completed his MSc Mathematics in 2013, can relate to: “I remember as a student I really enjoyed explaining concepts and helping my friends with their homework,” he explains, “that pleasure of helping others made me realise I could be a teacher myself.”

Looking for a study route that would complement his work, Sebastian enrolled onto Birkbeck’s Graduate Diploma in Mathematics on a part-time basis: “It’s quite rare for universities to offer something that bespoke, like a personal conversion course where I could jump in at my level and not repeat the concepts I already knew.” Sebastian managed to secure partial sponsorship from his employer and, as a union member, was eligible for a 10% fee discount from Birkbeck.

What’s the point?

While every Mathematics classroom has students who love the subject for its own sake, there are many more who need some convincing, as Maths and Further Maths teacher Leonard Pistol discovered: “A lot of my students were interested in studying Maths at university, but not in becoming Mathematicians. They wanted to know how Maths could be applied in other fields and I felt like I came a bit short in providing personal, real world experience.

“I thought MSc Mathematical Finance would be a really good application. When I was talking to my students about it, I was able to give them concrete applications of the use of statistics and probabilities. The more into the applications I got, the more interested I became and the easier it was to teach as a result.”

For Donato, who now teaches at an international school in Italy, deepening his understanding of Mathematical concepts was a way to engage students in the subject: “When I tell people that I’m a Maths teacher they always say ‘I was so bad at Maths’ – it’s rare to meet someone who enjoyed Maths as a student. I had some wonderful teachers who shaped my idea of what Mathematics can be – solving a problem and understanding the logic that underpins it.

“A lot of my students can’t see the point of studying Maths, so I try to bring in examples that are tangible, like developing passwords or working out the dimensions of a room. The course helped me bring fresh examples to the classroom and teach at a higher level.”

Back to school

So, how did it feel being on the other side of the desk?

“As teachers, we forget what it’s like to be a student,” Sebastian admits, “It was really humbling being in the same boat as my students and having to take my own advice on revising! I experienced first-hand what worked and which things I was telling my students to do that even I wasn’t doing in practice.”

Re-living the university experience also enabled Sebastian to prepare sixth form students for higher education: “I want to treat my year 12 and 13 students as maturely as possible, knowing that they will be going to university. Having access to online lectures and notes from Birkbeck was really reassuring and helped me stay organised, so now I do that for my students as well. I give them lecture notes just like I had to help them experience what university teaching is like. Recording my lessons has been the biggest transformation to my teaching and the response from students has been amazing.”

Leonard, too, found that heading back to university supported his role as a Year 13 tutor: “I had fresh experience of the academic environment, so could give my students up to date advice on lectures and what life would be like. Being able to advise students on what modules to take for their specific goals was really valuable. I was reminded of the expectations lecturers have of you: asking for help, making sure you see your lecturers often, and that’s linked very much to what it’s like to be a teacher.”

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Reflections on online learning in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

As the autumn term draws to a close, students and staff reflect on their experience of online delivery and how they have adapted to a new way of teaching and learning.

Earlier this year, we made the decision to move our teaching online for the autumn term and for as long as is needed to protect the health and wellbeing of our staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With staff having to rapidly get up to speed with online teaching and students coming to terms with a less than traditional university experience, it hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve pulled together as a community and managed to find some unexpected highlights along the way.

For students, one of the main challenges was knowing what exactly they had signed up to, but they soon found their stride:

“I was a bit apprehensive when I started regarding if I had made the right choice signing up, but Birkbeck have been really great. The virtual teaching has worked for me (and was the tipping point to make me apply), it provides a lot more flexibility. Also, having the pre-videos before the lecture I think really is so beneficial. They take me a while to go through but I can go through them at my own pace, and then because I have taken the time to understand the content, it helps me follow during the lectures.” – Student in the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics

And it seems the hard work of lecturers in planning engaging online learning material is paying off:

“The slides were very well organised and in order, the concepts were explained clearly, the seminar questions were very interesting and engaging.” – Student in the Department of Organizational Psychology

“The quality of the materials has been high, they are available weeks in advance, and the organisation, clarity and administration of the lecturer is first class.” – Student in the Department of Organizational Psychology

It certainly seems that online learning has given academics cause to think more deeply about the learner experience, as Dr Federica Rossi, Reader in Innovation Policy and Management explains:

“I found delivering the module online a very interesting experience. Since it was not possible to rely on direct interaction in order to clarify specific points or to communicate expectations, I had to think in much greater detail about all aspects of the students’ learning process and how to support them.

“The module was taught in Spring 2020, during the first lockdown period, and I can imagine that it was particularly hard for our students to stay focused and motivated – many of them would have had to manage working from home, looking after children, and studying at the same time. Therefore it was particularly rewarding to see that the students did well and their marks were in line with those of students who, in previous years, attended the module in class.”

And how are staff finding online teaching? Does it compare on any level with classes or lectures? Brian Gannon, Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, found unexpected benefits to taking his teaching online:

“I’ve been surprised at how effective the online delivery model has turned out to be. It actually helps to increase the level of engagement: students who would normally be too shy to ask questions or get involved seem to be quite happy to interact remotely. This has helped recreate some of the intimacy of the classroom and has been very valuable to everyone.”

Dr Muthu De Silva, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, also found new ways to get students talking through online platforms:

“I have thoroughly enjoyed online teaching…It does require a lot of preparation but once this investment is made, it becomes a very positive experience for both the staff and students. I found that break-out groups with clearly laid out group tasks increase student engagement. Additionally, inviting guest speakers, who could discuss the application of theories has also enriched student experience.”

This is seconded by student feedback from the module:

“I have really enjoyed the guest speakers and their insights/advice for being an entrepreneur. I also enjoyed the group discussion where we get split off into different groups as I feel it makes people feel more comfortable to speak virtually.” – Student in the Department of Management.

While we’re missing Bloomsbury and seeing our community face to face, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way since March.

Dr Geoff Walters, Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, says: “As the autumn term draws near to an end, I want to take this opportunity to thank all colleagues that have worked hard to make this term’s teaching happen. I also want to thank all students that have engaged with their studies this year and have embraced online delivery, attending lectures and working on material pre- and postlive sessions. In the (almost) 200-year history of Birkbeck, there has never been a start to the term like this. I do hope that the Christmas period, whatever this may look like, will be as festive and restful as possible for everyone.”

Further Information:

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Around the world in an MBA

Marketing Manager and MBA student Lorena Ramirez shares her journey on the MBA, across three continents and what she has learned along the way.

Picture of Lorena Ramirez

The first time I heard about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was while living in Peru. I’d been working in the fashion industry for the last ten years and was ready to expand into different creative areas. I was looking for a Masters degree that focused not only on fashion, but on creativity and innovation.

There are lots of really good MBAs in London, but the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was different. There is nothing else in the market that mixes art, design, business and social innovation in that way.

I fell in love with the course immediately, but attending face-to-face sessions in London wasn’t an option for me, so I was forced to put my plans on hold.

Moving to London

It just so happened that, months after discovering the MBA, my husband was offered a job in the UK. We moved to London without any hesitation: I arrived, found a job, got pregnant and applied for the MBA! I had my interview with Dr Pamela Yeow, the Course Leader, about a week before I gave birth.

I had my reservations about starting a Masters with a newborn baby, but when I won a scholarship for the course I felt like it was a sign to just do it. I started the programme and absolutely loved it. On a course like this, it’s so important that your peers are with you on this journey. For a lot of MBAs, the average age is around 24 or 25. I’m 37, and while the youngest person in our cohort was 25, the oldest was 60. Through the MBA, I met people in media, television, different organisations and entrepreneurs. The diversity of ages and interests in my cohort was what I enjoyed most about the experience.

Then my maternity leave finished, the pandemic hit and I found myself working full-time with a baby under highly pressured circumstances. Sadly, I couldn’t continue the MBA with my cohort, but Birkbeck and Central Saint Martins were very understanding and supportive. It was not an easy decision, but looking back, I think it was the right one. I wouldn’t have had the time to properly enjoy the reading and the learning process if I had continued then.

Picture of Lorena with her son

Recognise this scenario? Lorena trying to work and study, featuring her son Noah.

A new challenge in Ceuta

Despite having to put my studies on hold, this has been a whirlwind year: I was promoted to Marketing Manager for Spain for my organisation and relocated to Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in Morocco. Ceuta is a small, quiet city, so it’s a big change from London!

In my new role, I am already applying the learning from the first module of the MBA, which is all about how to solve complex problems. Right now, in Spain, the gambling industry is facing new marketing regulations which drastically change the way it has worked for the past twelve years. This has a huge impact on our work, meaning we have to really think outside the box when it comes to promotion.

Changing the way an entire company works is very difficult, especially when you lead teams. For me, the MBA was the perfect preparation to face this challenge. On the course, we completed a project with the London Ambulance Service – what we are learning is not theoretical, it’s real life, day by day. In my work now, we essentially have to reinvent all the departments and how we’re working. For this to be a success, you have to change the way of thinking not of the directors but of the users and your team, and that is the most difficult thing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to study to have a preparation to understand this better.

Where next?

From March 2021, I’ll be travelling to London once a month to re-join the MBA programme – I can’t wait to get started again!

In the long term, I would like to go back to sustainable fashion, for which my current experience in online marketing will be really valuable. I’d like to work with artisans, especially Peruvian artisans, linking them with brands across the globe. Most artisans around the world don’t speak Spanish or English, so it can be difficult to reach them, but I hope to do this through a foundation or social enterprise – I think the MBA will lead me to the right way to do this.

Further Information

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Keeping busy in Tier 2: Tiptop icing recipe

Birkbeck student Pav returns with more lockdown baking recipes to get the tastebuds tingling.

Picture of Pav

 

Hello guys, it’s me, your Pav. I hope that you are all well and keeping warm and safe. As Londoners look for ways to keep busy during the Tier 2 lockdown, please see a new addition to your baking adventures.

This time, I’m sharing my tiptop icing recipe, which you can pair with the perfect muffin recipe I promised in my last blog.

What you need:

  • 225g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 450 grams (1pound) icing sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons double cream or semi-skimmed milk
  • Pinch of salt

How to do it:

1. Mix the butter for 10-15 minutes. Don’t worry about overdoing it – the more you mix it, the better it gets.

2. Add sifted 225 grams of icing sugar (cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel to prevent icing going everywhere) – mix for approximately 5 minutes. The key is to ensure that you sift the icing sugar before mixing it to avoid big lumps of sugar and to make sure that all the icing sugar incorporates nicely with the butter.

3. Include 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and mix for another minute. During mixing, add one tablespoon at a time of double cream or milk up to 2 tablespoons. Don’t forget to leave the last tablespoon for the second part of the icing.

Top tip – the higher quality of vanilla extract you use, the better the icing will taste.

4. Once the icing is coming nicely together, add the second half of sifted icing sugar and a pinch of salt and mix for 2-3 minutes. After 3 minutes, add the last tablespoon of milk and mix for another 5 -6 minutes.

Should I use milk or double cream for the icing?

The difference is in consistency – double cream is creamier, where milk is better for basic icing on fairy cupcakes. However, it does depend on preference and season. I tend to use double cream in winter and milk in summer.

How do I know when the icing is ready?

Try it and if you feel sugar bits, continue mixing. If the icing is too watery, add a bit of sifted icing sugar at a time to change the consistency. If your frosting is too dry, add a tablespoon of milk. The key is in proportion and mixing it all well together.

How to decorate with your icing

Before decorating, be mindful of the current season – in summer ingredients get wet very quickly. That is why in summer, I tend to put the icing in the fridge for 10 minutes to reach a thick consistency for the best decoration. However, not too thick – the best icing is the one which creates strong shapes once squeezed through the icing bag.

In terms of piping and decoration, the world is your oyster – so enjoy your baking and do not forget to let me see your creation on Instagram adding #lifeofpav♈️.

Your Pav.

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Making a difference in the local community: learning from the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

With over thirty years’ experience working in his local authority, Eubert Malcolm brought a wealth of knowledge to the classroom. Having just been promoted to Assistant Director for Stronger and Safer Communities, he reflects on how the MBA has supported him to make a positive difference.

Picture of Eubert Malcolm

As local authority leaders go, Eubert Malcolm must be among the most personally invested in his community.

“Somebody said to me the other day that I’ve been in Haringey from boy to man,” he laughs, but with over thirty years’ experience in various roles in the local authority, this isn’t far from the truth. Eubert joined Haringey Council as an environmental health officer apprentice in 1988. From there, his role expanded into different fields as his skillset developed, encompassing housing, food safety and pollution.

“I made my way up the local authority and picked up Diplomas in Environmental Health and Management Studies along the way,” explains Eubert, “but I always felt that not having a first degree would hinder me at some point.”

The value of life experience

It was during the hunt for an undergraduate degree that Eubert stumbled across the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. The idea of studying part-time at the weekends was a particular draw, but was it really possible to do a Masters level programme without an undergraduate degree?

“I went along to the open evening without much hope,” says Eubert, “but I really liked the course leaders and they encouraged me to apply. I think I was the least qualified but most experienced of that first cohort, and the idea of a co-production and developing new types of leaders seemed perfect for my role. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing things differently

The collaboration between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics offers an innovative perspective on businesses and the problems they face. This, combined with the diverse international cohort on the MBA, gives students an opportunity to look at situations from a fresh angle. For Eubert, this proved invaluable when looking for ways to connect with the local community:

“When I first started the MBA, there was lots of gang activity and a spate of deaths in the community. I wanted to learn more about how violence was affecting young people in Haringey, so I commissioned a community group to speak to them and to people in prisons to figure out the drivers of criminality. Until you actually sit down with young people and hear from them, their teachers and their parents, you don’t really understand the challenges that they are facing. We need to engage with them and ensure that they are part of the solution.”

Eubert’s MBA dissertation was Haringey’s public health approach to tackling serious youth violence, a combination of academic research and an in-depth evidence base that came from his experience in the local authority, which informed the young people at risk strategy.

“At Haringey, we want to co-produce strategies with the community,” he explains. “Now, we’re incorporating business principles into our local authority point of view and using action learning techniques to think issues through from beginning to end, predicting the challenges we might need to address along the way. It’s an approach the managers I work with are now also starting to adopt.”

Leading in the pandemic

The rapid unfolding of events in the COVID-19 pandemic has made an agile approach essential:

“If you look at how much COVID-19 has cost local authorities,” says Eubert, “I don’t think we’re going to be fully recompensed for that. It has made us look at what opportunities could come out of it instead.

“For example, we couldn’t deliver a lot of our face to face services during the pandemic and many of them went online. We found that the young people we work with instantly took to that approach, which we hadn’t really considered before.”

Now Eubert, his team and the wider council are working on campaigns to bring the local community together to reduce the spread of COVID-19: “The approach we’re taking, trying to get right to the hearts and minds of people in the borough, is something I don’t think we would have attempted before. It just goes to show that with the right support and network in the workplace, you can be successful even through challenging times. I know that anything I set my mind to I will be able to achieve.”

Further Information

 

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Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck: the early years

This post by Gerry Randell, Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour, University of Bradford, was originally published in 2009.

Birkbeck Occupational Psychology: staff and students in October 1958

The first master’s students in Occupational Psychology in Britain graduated from Birkbeck 50 years ago this October: I was one of them.

A postgraduate diploma in industrial and commercial psychology had been on the statutes of the University of London since the 1920s, mainly at the instigation of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology and taught by and tailored to the Institute’s staff. Alec Rodger had been on the staff of the NIIP in the 30s and had risen to be Head of Vocational Guidance. In the early years of the war, most of the NIIP staff were drafted into the services, mainly to work on personnel selection. Alec became the Senior Psychologist for the Admiralty. After the war he was appointed Reader in Occupational Psychology (a term he invented) at Birkbeck and set about resuscitating the old diploma course. He published an article in Occupational Psychology in 1952 describing and explaining the curriculum for the new ‘Postgraduate Diploma in Occupational Psychology’ that he had just established. It was probable that the first students on this course were young NIIP staff and Alec’s friends. One of them was Peter Cavanagh whom Alec had spotted as someone who had scored particularly well on the Navy’s selection tests and had somehow arranged for him to be allocated to the Senior Psychologist’s Department. Subsequently Peter joined Alec at Birkbeck as his first Lecturer in Occupational Psychology.

A diploma, not being an attractive qualification for budding occupational psychologists, was not pulling in the students in the early 50s, so Alec then set about manoeuvring for it to become a masters and recruiting students on the strength of that. He happened to be the UG External Examiner for psychology at Nottingham at that time and persuaded two of the students he examined to sign up for the 2 year part-time MSc/MA to be course, Peter Henderson and I. When we turned up at Birkbeck in October 1956 there was a third student on the course, Russell Wicks from UCL. There was also a ‘visitor’ – Mrs Hussein from India – who would be ‘sitting in’; over the years Alec was very welcoming to ‘visitors’ from all over the world. We assembled in room 408 on the top floor of the college from 6 to 9, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

During the year, the Diploma was turned into a Master’s degree, so the three of us had to re-register and look forward to an extra year of attendance! In 1957 eight new students enrolled and joined in the lectures/ discussions with us, in 1958 a further nine enrolled. After submitting our dissertations in September, eight of us graduated in October 1959, Professor Leslie Hearnshaw of Liverpool being the External Examiner. Of the three of us in cohort 1, Russell went on to teach at Surrey, Peter to Queens Belfast and I stayed on at Birkbeck as Alec’s first Assistant Lecturer.

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Twenty years of network learning

Malcolm Ballantyne reflects on how this unique model of blended learning developed at Birkbeck.Picture of Organizational Psychology students in 1958 and 2008.

As far as we know, the MScs in Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour were the first degree courses in the UK to require students to interact online. So why did it happen at Birkbeck? As is often the case there was no single reason, there were three contributing factors.

First, in the mid-1980s, the whole of Birkbeck faced a financial crisis. There was a change in the funding formula for part-time students that assumed that a university’s core funding should be based on full-time student numbers and that part-time students were a marginal additional cost. It didn’t work for Birkbeck and for a while it looked as if the whole College might close. The matter was resolved, but only for undergraduate students. Postgraduate departments had, in effect, to double the number of students. In Occupational Psychology (as it then was) we quickly realised this meant extending our catchment area beyond London.

Quite coincidentally, the Psychological Services Division of the Manpower Services Commission approached the Department, asking if we could develop a distance learning version of the MSc for their psychologists who were based throughout the country. If so, they could support the necessary curriculum development.

Lastly, I had been experimenting with on-line tutorials on my second-year module ‘People and Advanced Technology’. The technological support for this was very crude but I had actually done it as early as 1981. Looking back, I think I was the person who needed persuading the most but we brought these three factors together and the result was Network Learning.

A story which hasn’t been told is how, as an occupational psychologist, I was running on-line tutorials in the early 1980s. I came to psychology relatively late in my career, I didn’t get my BSc until I was 30. For the first ten years of my working life, I worked as a television technician for the BBC. I quickly discovered that a technical career was not for me, but the work was interesting, and I became absorbed by the experience of technological change. Between 1960 and 1970, the original 405-line television system was replaced by the 625-line system, colour television was introduced and, less obviously but more profoundly, valves were replaced first by transistors and then by the first generation of silicon chips. The work I and my colleagues did was transformed dramatically.

Having got my degree, I then worked as a psychologist for British Steel and saw even more dramatic effects of technological change on heavy industry with essentially heavy manual jobs becoming mechanised and computer-controlled.

And so, in 1974, to Birkbeck, as one of the two last lecturers to be taken on by Alec Rodger – Leonie Sugarman and I were interviewed on the same day. I covered ergonomics and work design and, when we redesigned the course in 1976, I started my second year module on the effects of changing technology on people’s working lives.

In the summer of that year, the College very generously supported me in attending a NATO ‘Advanced Study Institute’ – two weeks in Greece working with some of the world’s top human-computer interaction specialists and it was here that I first became familiar with the work which was being done on the organizational impact of IT. This also led, three years later, to being invited to join a British Library funded project in which we aimed to replicate the production of an academic journal on-line. The software we used was an early computer conferencing system called Notepad which, incidentally, gave me access to e-mail for the first time. In 1979, there weren’t many people to send messages to.

In 1978, a very influential book on computer mediated communication was published, Hiltz & Turoff’s ‘The Network Nation’. This described how computer conferencing systems had first been created and, significantly from my point of view, raised the possibility of interactive learning systems. I had to try it and persuaded Brian Shackel, the director of the BL project, to allow me to register my 1981 students on Notepad. It was immensely difficult. The computer was at the University of Birmingham and there weren’t that many dial-up terminals at Birkbeck. The telephone system was quite unreliable in those days but we actually managed to make contact and run some on-line discussions.

Following this experience, I applied for funding for more reliable technology. The feedback I received for these unsuccessful bids suggested that what I was proposing wasn’t really understood. So, with the arrival of the first Birkbeck VAX computer, I wrote a system myself – OPECCS, the Occupational Psychology Experimental Computer Conferencing System. It was very simple – and by this time we had e-mail in the form of VAXmail – but it worked quite well and I think it must have been around this time that my colleagues became aware of what I was doing.

So, why has Network Learning been so successful? It’s difficult to be certain but my own feeling is that it was because we had a clear philosophy from the start. We started with the assumption that what made the Birkbeck approach distinctive was the opportunity for students to meet face-to-face and discuss things informally – allowing for what John Dewey called ‘collateral learning’, learning which is neither planned nor intended but which nevertheless happens and is significant. In taking on students from a wider geographical spread, the face-to-face element would have to be less frequent but should remain an essential part of the process. The purpose of the technology was to be that of maintaining continuity of discussion between these face-to-face meetings. This was quite unlike the Open University’s approach where the process was seen as a distance learning experience where the technology was an additional, and optional, means of support.

More recent ideas, particularly from knowledge management, would support the Birkbeck approach. The debate on ‘stickiness’ and ‘leakiness’ of knowledge in organisations (why is it so difficult to get ‘best practice’ transferred across an organization while the company’s best guarded secrets disappear out of the back door to one’s competitors?) recognises the importance of face-to-face contact in the transfer of tacit knowledge. Even Microsoft, determined to operate its R&D function in Washington State, eventually had to relocate to Silicon Valley. I’ve never been able to understand those who maintain that for ‘true distance learning’ there must be no face-to-face contact.

I left the Department at the time that Network Learning was starting in earnest. We had one year of a pilot with Manpower Services Commission psychologists as students – it was shaky but it worked. Today, it’s wonderful to see the success that has followed.

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