Birkbeck students launch Mammalo – the new “Uber” for on-demand services.

Former Birkbeck students teamed up to start Mammalo – a startup that connects London’s population to hundreds of verified industry professionals.  

Maxime van den Berg, former MSc Management with Business Strategy and the Environment student, and Andrea Armanni were just as eager as many students here at Birkbeck to start their own company. During their studies, they found the time to plan and implement a brand new idea known today as Mammalo.

As a quick introduction, Mammalo is an online marketplace to quickly search and book any professional services. Conversely, if you have any skills that you want to make money out of, you can create a personal profile and list your skill in order to get exposure to people looking for your service.

According to Andrea, “Mammalo is truly a revolutionary platform that we would like to scale globally someday. Until then we are focusing on the expansion here in London and the rest of the UK.”

Starting a business is tough, and Maxime and Andrea recognise the importance of having others to support them on their start-up journey. They are getting involved with Birkbeck’s Enterprise Pathways to give back to fellow Birkbeck students and encourage them to support each other as much as possible. As we learned from them, to be able to start a business you only really need three things:

  1. An idea
  2. A plan
  3. The knowhow

An idea is only 10% of the solution; the execution will determine your success. Carefully consider your business model and competition. Failing to plan is planning to fail, after all.

Lastly, knowhow encompasses what you have learned in university, in the workplace and in life. You need to have some basic knowledge to get a company physically started. If you don’t have this knowledge, be curious! There is always room to learn to do what you cannot today.

Maxime mentioned “The thrill of not knowing what will happen but putting in as much effort as possible to make the best come true is what got us started and keeps us going. Not only are we solving an issue for everyone in London but we also get to build the solution from the ground up.”

This is an example of a success story in which students have used the knowledge they have gained to pursue a dream of starting their own company.

So, if you have some time feel free to check out the platform on www.mammalo.com and signup today! They can use all the feedback they can get and would hugely appreciate your thoughts.

Maxime will be coming to Birkbeck to share his start-up story soon – look out for the event details when they go live here.

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Why even a soft Brexit gives the oil oligarchs what they want

Dr Frederick Guy, Senior Lecturer in Management, explains how Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will hamper efforts to combat climate change and bolster the power of Putin and other major fossil fuel exporters.

Putin – whose name I use here as shorthand for the entire oligarchy of not just Russia but all major fossil fuel exporters – wants to prevent the emergence of international institutions which would be able to bring climate change under control. That is because the control of climate change would require destroying the oil and gas business, and with it his wealth and power.

To this end, two of the central objectives of the oil oligarchs have been the installation of a US government which is hostile to international cooperation in general and cooperation on climate in particular; and the fragmentation of the European Union. Trump, and Brexit; more broadly, a science-denying Republican party, and resurgent nationalism in every European country and region.

Even soft Brexit will be enough for Putin
I will explain below why these two political objectives, in the US and in the EU, are necessary – and, unfortunately, probably sufficient – for Putin’s ends. But first let me just say that, for Putin’s purposes, any Brexit will do, Hard, No Deal … or the softest of soft, as long as Britain withdraws from the political institutions of the EU.

In Britain, where anti-Brexit arguments have focused on the damage to the UK economy and the threat to peace in Ireland, a very soft Brexit is alluring: some kind of Norway ++ which keeps the UK essentially in both the Single Market and the Customs Union, but removes it from the political institutions of the EU. In British politics such an outcome would of course be a sorry face-saving compromise, letting politicians claim to have left the EU while retaining the economic advantages of membership (at some considerable cost in the form of lost voice in making the economic rules). For Putin, though, it would be a great victory, because what threatens Putin is a coherent West- and Central European voice on climate policy. The more he can fragment the EU – through the withdrawal of a big actor like Britain, and the discord which follows – the better off he is.

We can’t know how large a factor Putin has been in the political successes of Trump and Brexit. Obviously, there’s a lot more behind the surge of nationalism around the world than such plutocratic manipulation. Yet propaganda does work – ask Goebbels, ask Maddison Avenue, ask any company or political party that invests in public relations or advertising. And just the fact that Putin has made such obvious efforts to influence domestic politics in so many countries, raises the question of why he would do so.

Geopolitics in the anthropocene
I am writing here about the power of the oligarchs of oil: about the politics of plutocracy, and also about geo-politics.

The oligarchs of oil are just one segment of the larger plutocracy which afflicts our age. The oil oligarchs present us with a different set of problems than other oligarchs, however; our diagnosis of these problems is hindered if we think of plutocracy, or of capitalism, as one undifferentiated thing.

The other most prominent members of the plutocratic class have fortunes based on locking down parts of the digitized network economy (Amazon, Google, Microsoft,  privatized telephone networks, and so on), or on the extravagant protections now offered intellectual property (notable in pharma, biotechnology, and certain profitable corners of publishing). We might add to this list fortunes from the world of finance, but finance needs something to finance, and it is the monopoly sectors of the “real” economy – both in natural resources like oil and in information resources – which nourish finance. So let us speak simply of oil oligarchs and information oligarchs.

The two groups of oligarchs have a common interest in preventing the public from taking away their unearned hoards of wealth. The information oligarchs fear laws that would restore both our digital networks and our funds of accumulated knowledge to their proper state as a commons without monopolist tollgates – in short, that we will make their products free. The fossil fuel oligarchs fear that we will simply stop using their products. If justice ever comes for the information oligarchs it will be a piecemeal and prolonged set of battles, leaving the principals humbled but probably well heeled. The oil oligarchs, on the other hand, have their backs against the wall: they know that the health of the biosphere requires that their euthanasia – to borrow a technical economic term from Keynes – comes soon.

We can also think of what Putin and his ilk do in terms of state power – they act not merely as wealthy and influential individuals but as rulers – and thus of geo-politics. At first blush, we might think in terms of traditional Great Power or superpower rivalries. Putin’s politics, however, are about oil. And the geo-politics of oil is no longer primarily about control of the oil supply, but about the right to keep selling it. Any effective climate policy will sharply reduce demand for fossil fuels, which will mean, even if it is not all left in the ground, that both the quantity sold and the price will fall – shredding colossal oil fortunes.

If it seems far-fetched to reduce the policy objectives of a large state, once a superpower and still possessed of a huge nuclear arsenal, to permission to sell a single product, just look at the dependence of Russia on fuel (oil, gas, coal) exports. In 2017 – the latest year for which the World Bank provides these figures – Russia’s net exports of fuel amounted to 13% of GDP – an astonishing level for a country of that size. The only countries with higher levels of dependence on oil exports are states, like the Gulf monarchies, which produce little else (see Figure 1). Leaving the oil in the ground would not destroy Russia – if anything, it would free the country from the influence of oil, which entrenches corruption and despotism, and crowds out most other economic initiative – but it would destroy Russia’s oligarchy.

Figure 1

This is why the interests of the Russian state and the House of Saud, despite their quarrel over dominance in Syria and the Gulf, align at the global level: they need to block the emergence of institutions of international governance capable of dealing with the problem of climate change.

Governing climate change
The governance problem is well known: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions requires deep changes to our material way of life; attendant social changes; and vast investments in new clean technologies and clean infrastructure. Moreover, we have dallied so long that, in order to have any realistic hope of preventing very dangerous climate change, we need to decarbonize fast (Figure 2) – meaning that the process will be more expensive, more socially disruptive, and more politically difficult than it would have been had action been taken when the problem was first understood some decades ago.

Figure 2. Past delays mean that rapid decarbonization is necessary for climate stabilization. Graph from http://folk.uio.no/roberan

What nation will undertake such changes without the assurance that other nations will do so as well? Technically, this is what we call a “collective action problem”, a prisoner’s dilemma game with many players, blown up to the global level. Agreements are made – in Porto Alegre, Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris – but there is nobody to enforce them, and greenhouse gasses continue to accumulate.

Dealing with climate change of course requires action at every level, from the global down to individual and community choices about how to live and what to consume. But without an overall grip on the collective action problem between countries, there won’t be effective national policies in most countries. And without effective national policies, the efforts of individuals and local communities will be weakened by the knowledge that others are taking no action, and so will not add up to enough.

For the past quarter century we have had climate agreements which have no teeth. There is no prospect of having an actual global government to enforce the agreements. How, then, do collective action problems get solved at a global level? Some say it only happens in periods of history when single hegemonic power – notably, Britain from the defeat of Napoleon until the mid-1800s, and the USA in the decades after World War II – had the weight to enforce international rules of trade and finance (rules used, of course, to the hegemon’s advantage); the same might serve for rules about greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no single dominant world power to play that role today.

Our best hope – is it shocking that it has come to a point where this is something more to hope for than to fear? – is that a small number of very large powers would act in concert as leaders, and enforcers, of international agreements to cut greenhouse gasses. The method of enforcement could be a combination of threatened withdrawal of access to export markets, and conditions placed on foreign investment.

What countries could exercise such power? In Figure 3a I plot the GDP and the greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s 25 largest economies – again, treating the EU as one country. Note that I have used ratio (logarithmic) scales, so the differences between the larger and smaller countries are compressed on the graph, but even so three big ones stand out in both GDP and emissions: China, the USA, and the EU. Big as they are, if these three giant economies decarbonized, it would not be enough to stop global warming. But all other countries depend on access to these three big markets, and investment from them. Individually, none is globally hegemonic; together, they could fill that role.

Figure 3

Figure 3b plots the same information, but with the EU split up. This leaves the US, China, and then a large mass of mid-sized emitters: six of the 25 biggest CO2 emitters are members of the EU. It is within in the mass of mid-size CO2 emitters that the collective action problem becomes overwhelming, each saying “after you”, each proposing actions that will shift costs to others. It is a recipe for non-action, for fatal delay, and that is why Putin needs to make the EU ineffective as a political unit. If you add to that the effective side-lining of the USA – its de facto alliance with Putin and the House of Saud – this configuration leaves no plausible leader, no plausible enforcer, for climate policy.

It may seem a faint hope any of that those three powers – China, the EU, and the USA – will actually choose to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it is, but other hopes are fainter still. And, if it were really such a far-fetched possibility, I do not think that the petro-powers, together with fossil fuel interests in the industrial countries themselves, would be doing so much to prevent it. Their support for both Trump and Brexit – any Brexit – is a central part of that effort to prevent the US and EU from taking decisive action on climate change.

What this should say to you if you are looking forward to any sort of Brexit, whether it be the ice bath of No Deal or the warm shower of Norway++, is that Putin will thank you for it, and that your great grandchildren, if they are among humanity’s survivors, will curse you.

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Life in London as an international student

Yvette Shumbusho, an MSc Marketing Communication student from Rwanda, talks about arriving in London as an international student and what had made her feel so at home.

I arrived at Gatwick Airport on 15 September 2018, two weeks before the start of my MSc Marketing Communication at Birkbeck. The weather was chilly, serving as a reminder that I was no longer home in Kigali, Rwanda or even close by. The drive to my accommodation for the next year was longer than I had expected, I reached late in the evening, evidently postponing the sightseeing for the next day.

The following morning, I was awakened by the rays of sunlight from my window complementing my excitement of being in a new city. I got ready to explore as much of London as I could, starting off by shopping. No matter where you are from, shopping is a universal activity. There are a number of brands from the UK that I was especially excited to visit and purchase from. That same day I was taught how to use public transport and there were many similarities to the system back home. For instance, an Oyster card is comparable to that of Rwandan Tap and Go cards. Just as I was about to purchase one, I was informed about the Student Oyster card, reducing my monthly expenses!

The major cities of the world – New York, Milan, Rome, Paris – are known to be expensive and London is no exception. I was advised to look for sales and only shop then and, given that summer was coming to an end, there were quite a few around. For the next two weeks, I purchased all the necessities for my home and warm clothing for the upcoming winter period. The most thrilling part of this experience was visiting Oxford Street. It can be overwhelming for a newcomer but it was also exciting. I went to the cinema, shopped some more, ate oriental cuisines that were quite affordable compared to those back home. I felt right at home by the time I began classes – I adjusted so easily and most of the credit goes to London’s element of diversity.

There are a number of nationalities residing in London, and with each there is a piece of culture that has been embedded in that of the British. I was so accustomed to eating particular foods back home that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it here. That is until I visited a market in Dalston, which consists of the spices and dishes from many countries in Africa – I have been grocery shopping there ever since. Honestly, London is a city that almost everyone can get used to, it’s a wonderful place!

There are many things I am yet to do, such as visit Hyde Park (for Winter Wonderland!), catch shows (The Lion King) and explore the museums. Given the continued advancements in technology, I’m kept up to date with events and fun activities to enjoy via an app called Visit London. In addition, the International Community as Birkbeck organises events that add on to the beauty of London and give you a sense of it all at a student-friendly price.

Further information:

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Birkbeck Library website redesign; or, my adventures in a digital transformation project

Elizabeth E. Charles, Assistant Director of Library Services, discusses the redesign of the library website. 

Today, we have launched a brand-new Birkbeck Library website, with completely revamped content, navigation and design.

The Library website has been redesigned on two previous occasions: we changed the landing page, but the content remained the same, which is like repainting your front door and landscaping the front garden, but doing nothing to the interior of the house! I hasten to add that this occurred because, every time the opportunity arose, we just didn’t have the time and it was too close to the start of another academic year.

This time, we asked Naomi Bain, the College’s user experience (UX) expert, to undertake some UX testing with Library website users. This told us some things that we already suspected or knew – there was too much text on the Library website, and it was difficult to find information – but, we also learned that the layout was confusing, alongside a number of other issues.

We knew that the main Birkbeck site had been redesigned and restructured and we liked some of the features, as did our users; so, I contacted Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager in External Relations, with a list of the things we would like changed on the Library website. As the Library site is the second most popular section of the entire Birkbeck website (after the online prospectus), Jane suggested that, rather than simply update our existing site, it would be worth integrating it into the new design. She asked us whether we would be prepared to undertake this as a collaborative effort. The Library web editors agreed that this would be a good opportunity to refresh our website, so we said yes!

The redesigned library website

Getting ready

Jane supplied us with a content audit and looked at traffic to the Library website in the past year. This showed us that a large proportion of the Library site was not being used, and it also told us which content was most popular with our web visitors. Jane presented us with a collaborative spreadsheet, listing all the content areas, and her advice on what to do in relation to each area. After the initial emotional reaction, we reviewed the comments and suggestions and either agreed with them or explained why we disagreed with her assessment.

The next step was to come up with a new structure for the Library website. We were invited to a Library web workshop and, using post-it notes and sharpies, we wrote down the most common queries that we get from our users (one query per post-it note). Then we stuck them on the wall, and grouped and sorted them. We then filled in the gaps and took pictures of the grouped post-it notes for future reference. This then became the basis of the Library redesign, alongside the initial, annotated content audit.

Jane then set up a project on Trello – a collaborative project tool – with a list of tasks, organised into columns like ‘To do’, ‘Doing’, ‘To review’ and ‘Done’.

The project

Given the importance of this project to our web visitors, Jane wanted to complete the improvements as quickly as possible and asked if a member of Library staff could be seconded to the project. I volunteered, as I felt I was best placed to answer queries. So, for one day a week, starting in early April, I was scheduled to work on the website.  As homework, I had to familiarise myself with Birkbeck’s Style Guide and tone of voice guidelines, as well as other support materials provided in the digital standards section of the website. I also attended a bespoke training session, run by the External Relations web content team, then prepared to set to work.

Using the Trello project board, I chose the content areas I wanted to work on (everyone works from the same board, which means that there is no duplication of work), and my job was – for each content area – to answer the queries that came out of the Library web meeting, find all of the pages on the live Library site that related to them, then review the content and rewrite it, to meet the digital standards and to reduce the amount of text.

My first task: getting membership under control

I decided to start with our membership information. My challenge was to convert 55 separate pages to one page. Working with Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor in External Relations, who gave me one-to-one training and advice, I rewrote and changed the formatting to match the house style, then experimented with how the information is presented.

Jane then reviewed the new page and wrote a detailed report on the format, the tone of voice, grammar and house style – I felt I had received a C+, ‘Could do better’ mark! I worked through Jane’s detailed report, addressing each point raised and making changes as necessary. This was helpful because it meant I could then review other pages to ensure the same issues didn’t crop up.

The new membership page was then moved to Ben’s list on Trello, to check that it met the requirements for the Birkbeck tone of voice and the use of plain English and active voice. He cut the text even further while ensuring that the content flowed. Then, the page was given back to me, to check that nothing crucial was missing, giving me another chance to suggest other edits.

This process meant that I received a crash course in writing for the web from a team of experienced content editors, working collaboratively, using live content. It is all well and good to read guidance notes, but quite another thing to implement them and keep to the task!

Improvements

Rewriting content wasn’t the only improvement we made to the Library site. We also improved navigation and findability of content:

  • We didn’t duplicate information that already existed elsewhere – we linked to it.
  • Forms to suggest new books for the Library and for staff to request teaching materials were converted into Apex forms and located either in My Birkbeck for Staff or in My Birkbeck for Students. So, Library users do not have to retype personal information that we already hold about them.
  • We also made huge improvements to navigation in two key areas of content:
    • Angela Ashby, Digital Editor in External Relations, reorganised the navigation for past exam papers, which had included a separate web page for each department for each year of exams – amounting to more than 200 pages. Angela cut the navigation down to 26 pages – one for each department.
    • I compressed 232 web pages listings our for databases and online resources into just one page. This was made easier by deciding to move extensive help guide information for each database into a document, which will eventually become a support manual for Library staff on the helpdesk.

Keeping Library staff updated

This has been the first opportunity I have had to fully examine the content of the existing Library website and to undertake a root-and-branch review. I focused on thinking always of what our users want/will be looking for and trying to ensure that they can visit a web page, scan it, easily find what they need, and move on. Helping users to find the resources they need without adding additional layers of unnecessary content was very important. When in doubt, I would look at the website traffic figures, the feedback from the UX testing, and the post-it notes.

After all that work had been done, the slimmed-down website was shown to Library staff and to students who attended a Student-Library Partnership meeting. The response was very positive: obviously, we were on the right track.

Creating the wayfinding page

The wayfinding, or landing, page was the last component of the project. We had more post-it-note sessions with groups of Library staff to consult with them. This enabled us to come up with an initial layout, based on a top-task analysis, to inform the order in which signpost tiles appear.

Then, I built the wayfinding page. We decided to use new photos taken last year, focusing on images of our students using the Library.

Redirects

Before we could go live with the new website, we had to create a comprehensive list of redirects, to ensure visitors following old links ended up on new content. This was a huge task, which ended with 1700 redirects (and, wouldn’t you know, I also got to help with that, too).

Looking forward

We have already requested UX testing to ensure that we have not overlooked anything, to pick up on any issues, and to provide evidence to make informed decisions on any further changes/tweaks to the Library website before the beginning of the 2018–19 academic year.

Conclusion

It has been a challenging and stimulating experience. But, I have learnt a great deal from the External Relations web content team and I can honestly say, I now understand what is required to write for the web in a consistent and engaging fashion. I’ve also learned the importance of optimisation for search and paying consideration to where our users would expect to find the information they are looking for. I also know the whole of the Library website intimately, and I will continue to learn and retain my newly acquired skills, through continuous practice and actively reviewing the content on our website.

My thanks to Jane, Ben, Angela, Emlyn, Steve, Naomi, John and Outi and the Library Web Group and the Library staff for their support and for providing feedback at the drop of a hat.

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Spotlight on: Bio-business

Current and former students of Birkbeck’s MSc Bio-business discuss how the course, which focuses on entrepreneurship and business in the bioscience industry, has impacted their lives and careers.

Sophie DeFries, Bio-business alumna: I obtained my BSc from St Andrews in Cell/Molecular Biology then went on to receive an MSc from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Medical Microbiology. My post-university work experience has been in market research and consulting in the healthcare industry. I began at a market research agency in the oncology business unit solving pharmaceutical client brand strategy needs. Currently, I work for a marketing and sales management consultancy where client projects have a wide scope of therapy areas, drugs, and business objectives.

I was drawn to Bio-business because it’s meant I’ve been able to transition between laboratory-based sciences to commercial/business world of science and healthcare. It’s been useful for figuring out what specifically in the bio-business industry is appealing to me. The number one benefit, I would say, is that the course connected a great group of like-minded, smart, and driven classmates, and London is a perfect city to study in – international and diverse, lots of jobs and networks, and a fun atmosphere.

Developing my business skills has been very useful for working in consulting and understanding business jargon. The fact that the course has a connection between business and science has allowed me to analyse the biotech and pharma market independently and with confidence.

Alba Ruzafa Martín, Bio-business student: I studied Biology back home in Madrid and after working in a lab for one year I decided that “lab-life” wasn’t for me. Then I decided that industry would be an interesting path to follow, so I started to look for a master’s and I found Bio-business at Birkbeck. For me, it was the perfect option. Not only because of the modules on offer but also because I needed (and still do need) to work full time.

For the first year and a half of the master’s I was a sales assistant, but the experience and knowledge I gained through the course has enabled me to get an internship in Imperial Innovations at Imperial College London, where I have been working for the last almost five months.

The best thing about studying in London for me is the number of different people you get to know. You learn something new every day, you can go to a new place every time you go out. I am not going to lie to you, the city is freaking expensive and sometimes it gets a bit hard. But for me, it has been totally worth it.

Igor Smyriov, Bio-business alumnus: I had been looking for a master’s degree in business with a focus on biotech and life science for more than two years before I found the MSc Bio-business at Birkbeck. It had everything I was looking for: the option to study part-time in the evening, the central London location, and a huge variety of modules to study.

I was surprised to find so many highly regarded industry professionals, as well as Birkbeck academics, involved in delivering the modules and have opportunities to network with them.

The opportunity to learn entrepreneurial business skills in the life sciences sector was essential to my choice to study Bio-business. My degree has made me much more confident in understanding the business area of the subject. I was offered a few opportunities to join start-ups as a business advisor, and now have secured a role as a manager, so I have left my lab role.

London is a hub for all-around development and all industries. All world leading companies have offices in London or around it. You have the opportunity to meet and establish good relationships with international professionals coming to London for conferences or meetings.  And because Birkbeck students study in the evenings, you can be involved in daily London life.

Romina Durigon, Bio-business student: I was drawn to Bio-business by the desire to gain a deeper knowledge of the biotech and pharma sectors while networking and connecting with some of the most important companies and not-for-profit organisations in the UK.

I also wanted to understand how innovation shapes science and technology or vice-versa, as well as to study entrepreneurship finance, entrepreneurship innovation and management. This program is enabling me to write a business plan, to learn more about venture capitalist firms, investments, and other major factors impacting the growth or the failure of a business.

Studying both life sciences and business skills has enabled me to explore with more awareness of the various market opportunities and thus thinking more carefully about my next job. Dr Renos Savva, the Director of MSc Bio-Business knows and understands entrepreneurship very well and very often advises us about entrepreneurial skills and attitude. His knowledge together with his previous entrepreneurial biotech experience and advice are among the most important assets of this master’s. I would highly recommend the master’s if you are entrepreneurial or want to be an entrepreneur.

Bio-business students have the opportunities to know about the latest innovative technologies used in academia, biotech and pharma sectors. They have the chance to apply for internships in various companies and thus learn new skills while studying for their master.  More importantly, students will have the opportunity to liaise with the speakers invited to give a seminar and attend career track events where they can connect directly with employers and entrepreneurs.

The master’s has helped me to create a larger network and build new relationships with people that otherwise I would not be able to be in contact with or meet. By liaising with them I have the opportunity to discuss jobs’ opportunities, ask for advice or connect with someone else working in the sector that I most interested in.

Find out more and apply to study MSc Bio-business at Birkbeck. 

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Birkbeck teams up with Refugees at Home

Naureen Abubacker, coordinator of the Compass Project at Birkbeck, writes about the College’s partnership with charity Refugees at Home, which matches people with spare rooms with refugees and asylum seekers in need of a place to stay.

The Compass Project at Birkbeck launched in the autumn of 2017, providing 20 fully funded places on a university level qualification for 20 asylum seekers. This offers an opportunity to students to study for and gain a UK qualification, who would otherwise face a unique barrier to accessing higher education.

With few opportunities like this elsewhere in the UK for mature asylum seekers, The Compass Project has welcomed students living outside of London, including Wales, York and Birmingham – which would mean several hours of travelling in and out of London in order to attend class. As classes at Birkbeck take place in the evening, it has been important to find ways to support these students, ensuring that they have a secure place to stay and they aren’t travelling home late into the night. For others, their precarious status has meant that overnight they have found themselves homeless.

Through the wonderful work of Refugees at Home, a charity that brings together those with a spare room with asylum seekers or refugees who need a place to stay, it has been possible to support our students who live outside London, through temporary accommodation with local host families in and around London. The accommodation provided by Refugees at Home is invaluable and offers them a safe and welcoming home environment whilst they focus their attention on their studies.

Michael, a Compass Project student who is studying for the Certificate of Higher Education in Counselling and Counselling Skills, has been living with Refugees at Home hosts Hannah and Charlie since the Spring term Michael said:

“I had the pleasure of being hosted by Charlie and Hannah and it’s been such an awesome experience. Being here allowed me to enter the year 2018 in a loving home full of love and warmth; I am not exactly sure where I would be now if Charlie and Hannah had not come to my rescue. I have been able to continue with my course.

I first heard about Refugees at Home through Naureen, the Compass Project coordinator at Birkbeck, who made several enquiries and a request on my behalf to find secure accommodation, following a challenging time. That very same night when I thought everything was against me, Refugees at Home came to my rescue and sent me to a host’s house in London whilst they sorted out a more long-term place for me with Charlie and Hannah.

The help I have received has really been overwhelming. I have been supported, shown love and affection not just by Charlie and Hannah, but their respective families, Spergen, the dog, and friends. I am treated like a member of the family by those within this lovely community.

I am by far probably the worst guest in a long time as my mood has been going up and down like a yo-yo but through it all these guys have been amazing giving me space when I needed it and always being there to talk to and help me with any difficulty I might be facing.

For those being hosted by the wonderful people through Refugees at Home, here is my tip on being a good guest: learn as much as you can from your host and for you to share any knowledge or tips about anything with your host as this allows you to better understand and be understood. Above all open mind and love in your heart, you will never go wrong.”

Hannah talks about her experience of how she became involved with Refugees at Home and what it’s been like having Michael as a guest through the scheme:

“My husband and I have spare rooms in our house and had been wanting to host for some time. I came across Refugees at Home on Facebook and got in touch. A few forms, references and a house visit later and we were contacted about a couple from Eritrea who spoke no English and had been the country a very short while. Fortunately for them, they found more permanent accommodation before they came to us. Then we were contacted about Michael. It is fair to say Michael is not the type of person we were expecting to host as a refugee – which just goes to show all stereotypes should be blown out of the water when it comes to those seeking asylum. Michael has been in the UK for over 20 years and through a series of unfortunate events and system failures has slipped through the net and is still awaiting leave to remain.

Having Michael with us has been more like having a friend to stay. He’s easy going, full of interesting facts and stories and a fantastic cook. He has been a huge support and help to another refugee we host who does not know English or the UK system well- Michael has been able to work with us to guide him through.

We’ve found hosting to be a real joy and have learnt the support of our community through it- we’ve been given bikes for everyone to get around, invites for our two guests to meals, birthday parties and cups of tea. A group from our church even wanted to give our guests Christmas presents and made up Christmas hampers for them.

It takes a while to settle into hosting if you’ve not done it before. Learning each other’s daily routines, figuring out how to do the shop (we have a list app), finding the balance between wanting guests to be at home and be autonomous in how they live, while being able to live your own life as well. But our every growing, slightly unconventional family has enjoyed working out these ways of living with others.

We have learnt the importance of time, patience and listening and have had our eyes opened to a whole world of navigating systems and of backstories of other people’s lives that we might have touched the surface of previously but never fully understood.

If you have a spare room in your accommodation I would highly recommend you consider hosting, even if for a short time!”

The success of the students on the Compass Project who have found accommodation through Refugees at Home would not have been possible without the support of this incredible organisation. To find out more about Refugees at Home and to become a host, please visit: www.refugeesathome.org

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BBK Chat: our experience of student mentoring

BBK Chat is a mentoring scheme which pairs students who are in their first term at Birkbeck with students further on in their studies. Mentors and mentees meet at a coffee shop near campus to chat about all things Birkbeck. The scheme runs through the autumn term and has now come to an end for the academic year. We asked Christine, a mentee, and Les, a mentor, about their experience on the scheme this year.

Christine was a BBK Chat mentee in 2018

“When I first decided to study law at Birkbeck, I was so excited. Once I received my letter of confirmation and a start date I knew I would require support to build my confidence.

Within two weeks of starting university, I received a call from the mentoring team reminding me of my request and I gladly accepted their offer of support and was told that in due course a member from the team would contact me to arrange a suitable date/time.

When I received a call from Les, he introduced himself and we agreed to meet and because it would be our first meeting we provided each other with a brief description of ourselves and what we would wear on the day to make it easy to recognise each other.

On meeting Les he gave me a guided tour of the building which I found really helpful and to date I make full use of each domain, including the calm atmosphere of the student bar; this advice I have shared and meet regularly with my fellow students.

In the following meetings with Les, he has shared so much about study skills with me that I have gained so much more confidence in myself and have put into practice much of his advice. This has made me understand my course so much better and I am even considering studying other areas in the future.

Having a mentor has made a real difference in how I see the introduction to studying as a mature student and would definitely recommend BBK Chat to other students.”

Les was Christine’s BBK Chat mentor in 2018

“My experience mentoring over the past two years has been very rewarding and enjoyable.  As a mentor, I am there to support a new student through the first stage, after the initial worries students discover how enjoyable studying at Birkbeck is. At later meetings, the discussion is about the interesting things we are studying, and the location moved to the bar (they sell tea there as well). Occasionally results after the first term are a big concern, and it is easy to feel disheartened afterwards. As a mentor I have been able to help put it into context, it’s not a disaster, learn from the feedback and apply it next time – and speak to your tutor as they are always very supportive.

For those considering mentoring, do it! It only takes up a couple of hours and changes the experience of a new student for the better. Your experience can help calm the worries we all have when arriving for our first term. Being there to offer advice if a student does struggle is vital, just being there to reply to a text message after a difficult first essay meant a student went and spoke to their tutor, got the advice they needed and didn’t drop out. On top of that, you will make new student friends from other departments. I still keep in contact with those who want to, and meet up to keep up with what’s going on.”

If you are either a current student interested in supporting a new student or a prospective student interested in having a mentor when you start at Birkbeck this autumn, please get in touch with the Widening Access team at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk.

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Enhancing content on the Birkbeck website

Birkbeck’s Digital Editor Angela Ashby discusses how the web team are working to improve the quality of the College’s website.

Photo credit: Paul Cochrane

The digital content team in External Relations (ER) had a quandary: with a large and growing website, multiple contributors, and not enough resources to keep eyes on every page, how could we possibly monitor and maintain the quality of the website? We expected there to be broken links, which are inevitable over time, and we had created and published a style guide to keep our content consistent, but we needed both a big-picture view of the site and a way to focus our attention in order to make best use of our time.

Sitemorse

With the help of our technical colleagues in Corporate Information and Web Systems (CIWS), we explored various solutions and agreed that an online governance tool called Sitemorse would meet our needs best.

Sitemorse sends us monthly reports that pinpoint various aspects of pages that need attention and score us on issues falling into themes such as accessibility, function/links, search engine optimisation (SEO) and metadata (descriptive page tags). Sitemorse has also allowed us to build in rules that tell us when our pages don’t follow our own style guide and shows us where and how the content can be improved. These rules include decisions on abbreviations, email and phone format, italics, ampersands and link text.

Each new Sitemorse report shows our scores and ranking clearly improving for the pages that we’ve worked on. For instance, the Student Services area went from 5.7 out of 10 in December 2017 to 6.4 in January 2018. It’s a slow process, as each error needs to be individually corrected, but in the last four months, we’ve already fixed over 1000 broken links. It is still early days, but we will watch with interest to see whether errors approach zero over the long term. Our goal is to bring each section to at least a score of 7.0 out of 10.

Web maintainers meetings and Yammer

If you are the only person in your department working as a web maintainer, it’s possible to feel isolated. You are definitely not alone, though – there are at least 30 web maintainers working within Birkbeck, and we saw a need to create a community so that web maintainers feel part of a wider team, with common goals.

Our first step was to invite all web maintainers from around the College (including our Moodle colleagues) to meet every two months as a group. At meetings, the central web team shares details of projects and progress and encourages all web maintainers to raise any issues or queries, and to share their own best practice.

This inclusive approach is continued via an enterprise networking tool called Yammer. All web maintainers are encouraged to join the ‘Web support’ group, and any posted queries and requests for edits are dealt with by the relevant members of the central digital team in a way that benefits the whole community.

Another way that the central digital team extends its support to web maintainers is to invite anyone working on particular web projects to come and ‘hotdesk’ in ER, where we can offer more personalised support and collaboration.

Contact Jane Van de Ban if you’re a web maintainer and you’d like to join the group.

Fix-it Friday

The ER digital content team receives dozens of requests each week from around the College to update content on various web pages. Since our May 2017 go-live for the central pages, we’ve completed more than 200 separate pieces of work. This is in addition to the intensive improvement work we carried out on programme and module pages last year.

In order to fit this ‘quick-fix’ work in with our longer-term ongoing projects, we have initiated ‘Fix-it Friday’, where we schedule in requests that have come to us during the week. We can almost always complete small pieces of work on the next available Friday. If a request involves a larger project, such as a new set of pages, then we can discuss with the project owner how to prioritise the work over a longer period.

We prefer to receive work requests via Yammer, as it’s possible for emails to be overlooked during staff absences. To join Yammer, log in to Office 365, find the Yammer app and select to open it. Search for the ‘Web support’ group and click join. We’ll approve your request.

Training in 2018

So far, the newly designed central web pages have been maintained by the digital content team in ER. This is because we are planning briefings and a comprehensive training programme to ensure that web maintainers have the tools and the confidence to update pages in the new template. Once staff members have completed the training, they will be able to edit and maintain pages, with ongoing support from the content team.

Current and future projects

We are currently working with schools and departments, via a new Web Working Group, to scope and plan requirements for the improvement of department pages, in particular, the very important staff profile pages. We are also planning the improvement and migration of professional service pages to the new web design, beginning with Estates and Facilities, IT services and the library, with HR and the Registry Office to follow.

Like all the improvements made so far, these projects are focusing on users, the questions they need answers to and the journeys they want to make at Birkbeck. We continue to base our work and decisions on evidence and user-testing, adjusting our approach as necessary.

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Have your say in Birkbeck’s 2018 Students’ Union elections

Sean Fitzpatrick from the Birkbeck Students’ Union explains why you should vote in the upcoming SU elections, and how to do it.

The Student Officer elections will be open from 19-23 February. This year’s election is set to be the most highly contested in many years: your vote could make all the difference in ensuring your favoured candidate is elected to lead and shape the Students’ Union’s activities for the coming year.

The Students’ Union is run both by and for students. It’s your way of making sure that the University is acting in the best interests of you and your peers. To make sure that you get the chance to influence how the union is running, we hold elections once (or, occasionally, twice) a year. Students who want to be either one of the Union’s two Student Leaders or a Liberation Officer for the LGBTQ/Women’s/Black Member’s/Disabilities campaigns should submit manifestoes detailing what they hope to do to make Birkbeck a better place for its students.

Once this is done – it’s down to you to pick those that you think would be best for the role! We use the Alternative Transferable Voting system, which allows you to select multiple candidates and list them in order of preference. Once everyone has voted, we do the count, and then announce the brand new officer team.

The Students’ Union then supports these officers to work on the projects they planned on the manifesto they were elected on. If you’re interested in learning a little more about the roles and responsibilities of Officers, you can read our articles here on Facebook on both Student Leaders and Liberation Officers.

You can also vote for students standing to act as Birkbeck’s voice on the national stage. NUS Delegates attend the National Union of Students’ General Conference to represent you within the wider student movement across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These students will bring issues of particular relevance to the attention of NUS, and attempt to gather cross-union support for campaigns intended to improve the student experience nationwide.

In short, your vote has a wide-reaching impact: from the small grassroots campaigns set up by individual students to far-reaching issues at the top of the agenda for millions of students across the country. Your vote matters, make sure you use it.

Log in to our website and head to birkbeckunion.org/vote from the 9:00 am on the 19 February to get started.

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