Starting university: tips to manage the transition and be a successful student

Hanneke Kosterink, Counsellor and Supervisor at the Birkbeck Counselling Service offers advice for students managing the transition to university, and explains how visualising success can help you achieve it. 

The transition from school to university brings a range of new experiences and challenges.  During this transition period, it is essential to find the right balance between studying and everything else including:

  • getting to know the university
  • settling into your course
  • learning what is expected of you as a student
  • discovering activities and social opportunities
  • making new friends

Academic Challenges
Many students enjoy the intellectual challenge of university study, opting for courses and subjects that match their interests. However, adapting to academic study and understanding what is expected of you as a university student can be an intimidating experience and will require taking responsibility for your own learning, managing your workload and completing assignments to strict deadlines. This requires self-motivation and dedication.

In addition to making good use of the support services and study resources your university provides it may be helpful to learn the technique of visualisation to reach your academic goals.

Writing over 2000 years ago Aristotle described the visualisation process this way:  “First, have a definite, clear, practical ideal; a goal, an objective.  Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends: wisdom, money, materials and methods.  Third, adjust all your means to that end.”

Unfortunately, many of us remain stuck at the goal stage.  We start out with good intentions and perhaps a plan, but then we can’t seem to make it happen.  A hectic social life, job, hobbies, anxiety leading to procrastination can get in the way of achieving your academic goals.

Seeing is believing
Before we can believe in a goal, we first must have an idea of what it looks like. To paraphrase the old adage: we must see it before we can believe it.  This is where visualisation comes in, which is simply a technique for creating a mental image of a future event.  When we visualise our desired outcome, we begin to ‘see’ the possibility of achieving it.  Through visualisation, we catch a glimpse of what is our preferred future.  When this happens we are motivated and prepared to pursue our goal.

In the world of sports, this has been developed into a well-researched method of performance improvement.

How do well known British sportsmen and women use visualisation?

Wayne Rooney
Footballer Wayne Rooney is a firm advocate of mental preparation and the visualisation technique. “I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game.” Rooney sees his approach as fundamental to his sporting success. “I don’t know if you’d call it visualising or dreaming, but I’ve always done it, my whole life.”

Jessica Ennis-Hill
Ennis-Hill revealed her mental training tactic prior to the 2012 London Olympic Games: “I use visualisation to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance.”

Andy Murray
In order to mentally acclimatise before a major event, Andy Murray visits the centre court when the area is deserted and imagines his future success. “I want to make sure I feel as good as possible so I have a good tournament.”

Applying it to your study
There are two types of visualisation which ideally should be used together.  The first method is outcome visualisation and involves envisioning yourself achieving your goal.  To do this, create a detailed mental image of the desired outcome using all of your senses.

Let’s start with the big goal: getting your degree and attending your graduation ceremony.  Visualise yourself on graduation day receiving your qualification with a good pass.  Hold that mental image as long as possible.  What does it feel like walking across the stage in your robe to collect your certificate from the Master?  Who will be there accompanying you in the audience to cheer you on when it is your turn?  Imagine the pride, relief, satisfaction and thrill as you hug your loved ones before heading for the marquee where the photographer is waiting to capture that special moment in your life.

Visualising how it might feel to graduate might help you to plan your studies and your time at university. 

The second type of visualisation is process visualisation.  It involves envisioning each of the actions necessary to achieve the outcome you want.  Focus on each of the steps you need to achieve your goal, but not the overall goal itself.   What are the demands and deadlines you will need to meet?  Create a vivid mental picture of yourself succeeding, envision what you must do during each step of the process and like Rooney, Ennis-Hill and Murray use positive mental imagery to stay focused and motivated when you experience obstacles or setbacks.

Visualisation does not guarantee success.  It also does not replace hard work and practice.  But when combined with diligent effort and a strong support network, it is a powerful way to achieve positive behavioural change and create the life you desire.

 

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Getting prospective students talking

Dave Lewis, from Birkbeck’s Widening Access team, talks about the College’s new mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. If you’re interested in taking part, contact gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.gettalking

Taking the plunge into higher education can be both exhilarating and daunting. Whether changing career, leaving school or coming back to education, students inevitably have questions about the years ahead. Navigating this transition with the support of a recent graduate can make all the difference, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a one-to-one mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. After an evening of training, our dedicated alumni draw on their own experiences to provide insight into both life at Birkbeck and higher education more broadly. In turn, students are given the opportunity to talk through any queries or concerns ahead of enrolment. Students are matched with their mentor based on what they hope to gain from the scheme and as such will often receive advice specific to their chosen field.

Meetings take place in a number of coffee shops close to campus, allowing participants to familiarise themselves with the Bloomsbury area and picture life as a student here.  Once students have enrolled at Birkbeck there is a wealth of continued support (including further mentoring opportunities) throughout their time at the college.

This type of pre-entry support is integral to ensuring university is accessible to all. Get Talking is one of many Birkbeck programmes that supports students from widening participation backgrounds. The scheme really is working too, with up to 75% of students who take part going on to enrol at Birkbeck. Deon, one student who took part in the scheme this year, said:

“The meeting with Dimitrios was very beneficial to me and l hope he feels the same. I am happy to say that these programs can only be an advantage to new and prospective students starting out as l feel no one knows better than those whom have experienced the task of completing an undergraduate whilst working. Dimitrios is a very helpful and understanding young man and l can only say l am honored that l was able to draw from his experience.”

This year Get Talking also began supporting applicants to the college’s Compass Project, a fund supporting forced migrants through scholarships to Birkbeck and information, advice and guidance on higher education in the UK. One of the applicants who took part this year said: “It was great to speak to someone who was as passionate about my subject as I was”.

Finally, Get Talking speaks of how closely connected Birkbeck’s alumni remain to the college. Our alumni mentors volunteer their time to support new entrants. Prospective students are supported in their decision making and begin networking before setting foot in the lecture theatre.

Would you like to get involved? If you’re thinking about studying with us or are a Birkbeck alum we’d love to hear from you at gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.

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Artificial wombs and the law

Claire Horn is in the first year of her PhD in Birkbeck’s School of Law. She is researching the legal and ethical implications of artificial wombs.

credit-partridge-et-al-nature-communications

Credit: Partridge et al. Nature Communications

A few weeks ago, a team of scientists published their research on “An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb” in the journal Nature Communications. Within a few days of being posted online, the study had received enthusiastic coverage from major international news outlets and popular think-piece platforms alike. In the media, the language around the research changed: the “extra-uterine system” was redubbed “the artificial womb.”

Currently fetal viability in humans (the time at which a foetus can survive outside the mother) happens around 28 weeks. As the original article states, recent developments have pushed this timeline back to 22-23 weeks, but not without continued complications for the baby. The Biobag, designed to mimic the womb, has allowed a lamb foetus inserted at the developmental equivalent of 23 human weeks to survive and grow to healthy viability.

While, as the scientists who conducted this research state plainly, this technology is still a long way from being trialed with humans, and while the Biobag is only a partial artificial womb (an artificial womb proper would entail the foetus growing outside the body for the duration of gestation), the popular presses which picked up this news focus on questions emerging from the presumption that an artificial womb is inevitable. Their queries range from what an artificial womb might mean for how we conceive of personhood, to discussions of the ethics of research on foetuses, to debates over what impact such technology might have on the infants who are born through it.

In one way, these are very old debates that have echoed throughout science—and science fiction—for centuries. But the artificial womb has never felt closer than it does today, and while it is the work of scientists to proceed with caution, scepticism, and the suspicion that what aids a lamb may not aid a human, it is the work of legal scholars and bioethicists to imagine the possibilities, dangers, and issues inherent if this technology does in fact arrive.

My PhD research begins with these premises: that the artificial womb is on its way, that the law is rarely prepared to meet the challenges of new reproductive technologies, and that we should consider the different frameworks available to us ahead of the artificial womb’s arrival. Thinking about the ethics of the artificial womb allows us to consider new ways in which we might approach reproduction, familial relationships, and gender in the future. AAs the primary tool that structures the rules of engagement in our societies, legal frameworks can be introduced or renegotiated in ways that could make space for new social developments.

The artificial womb is an opportunity for legal scholars to consider important questions in this regard. With the artificial womb—which could constitute the growth of a foetus separately from the mother even at the earliest stage of development—might we be able to beneficially renegotiate abortion law to protect womens’ bodily autonomy? Could the artificial womb prompt us to reframe legal doctrines of parenthood in ways that offer greater protection to trans and queer parents, and greater equality in co-parenting? Could it render gender entirely irrelevant to parenting roles?

A central consideration in my work, and one that I have found absent in many media discussions of the artificial womb is the ways in which reproductive technologies have historically been used to benefit some communities while subjugating others. As Deborah Wilson Lowry writes, “new technologies, when not accompanied by equal access or distribution, can increase existing disparities related to race, class, and gender”. Such inequalities have been starkly demonstrated with regard to the introduction of the pill (which, prior to being marketed as the key to sexual liberation was tested on poor women and women of color, often without their consent), and with regard to surrogacy (only available to those with financial and social means, often outsourced to poor women in the global South), to name just a few examples.

Like these technologies before it, the artificial womb is unlikely to have either purely utopian or purely dystopian results, and it is necessary to be attentive to the dangers it might present for those who have been made vulnerable by these technologies in the past. Research by legal scholars and bioethicists which places marginalized people at the forefront, work which is lead by and consults with diverse groups of women, including women of color, trans women, and women with disabilities, is necessary in advance of the artificial womb’s introduction.

Scientists may be rightly skeptical of the speed at which humanities scholars have rushed from the growth of a premature lamb in a Biobag to heralding the growth of human babies outside the body. But proceeding with this future in mind, and carefully considering the ethical dilemmas that it presents, will allow us to interrogate its dangers and consider the best possible legal frameworks and policies to protect women when it arrives.

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The story behind Birkbeck’s new web design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new pop-out menu

The new pop-out menu signposts visitors to important pages

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

 

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

research-tile

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

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

newwebsite6phone

The website is optimised for browsing on any device

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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User-testing Birkbeck’s new website design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting our Act together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Take a virtual tour of our campuses

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

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

 

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Action on Home Education: impact challenges

Daniel Monk, a Reader in the School of Law looks at the background to a short debate about home education that took place last week in the House of Lords

home-educationThe right of a child to an education is widely accepted as being a ‘good thing’. It is what some people describe as an ‘apple pie’ issue: something that is so obviously nice, and comforting, that no one could possibly object. But what the right to education means in practice is complicated and contested and inherently political. And nowhere are the underlying tensions as acute as in debates about home education.

This is because ‘education’ is often equated with ‘schooling’, and the latter exposes the child not only to other children but also to the ‘professional’ gaze of teachers, inspectors and social welfare agencies. Consequently, home education challenges popular assumptions about child development and ‘socialisation’ and at the same time raises questions about the state’s role in both enforcing the right to education and in defining the content of education. These latter questions go to the heart of debates about the nature of democracy and this is evident from comparative perspectives. In Germany home education is unlawful, whereas in the USA it is constitutionally protected and practiced on a large scale. This country adopts a characteristically mid-Atlantic position. It is well established in law that parents can comply with their legal duty to educate their children by means of home education. But while this is unquestioned by policy makers, what is disputed is the extent to which home education should be monitored.

Concerns about raising educational standards, the number of children ‘missing education’, increased inspection of independent schools, and an emphasis on ‘safeguarding’ agendas in inter-agency cooperation, have all highlighted the anomalous position of home-educated children. And at the same time the number of home educated children has and continues to increase and is sometimes referred to as a ‘quiet revolution’. There has been a 65% increase in children recorded as home educated over the last seven years, and estimates vary from 36,000 to far higher. However, no one knows precisely how many children are currently home-educated. This is because unless a child is being removed from a school, parents are not obliged to tell anyone.

The reasons for this increase are complex and varied. Home educators include those who object to conventional schooling, sometimes on the basis that it is too permissive and liberal and, conversely, sometimes for being too traditional and overly prescriptive. But they also include parents who have felt that have no other option as a result of failures to address bullying in schools or through the much-criticised practice of ‘unofficial’ or ‘illegal’ exclusions.

Even when a local authority knows about children in their area that are home-educated there is confusion about what their current monitoring duties and powers are, and this is compounded by the fact that the current guidance produced by the Department of Education in 2007 is both out of date, unclear and provides advice based on questionable interpretations of the existing law that restricts a more pro-active investigatory role.

Attempts to address the issue were made by the last Labour government. It commissioned a review of the law, The Badman Review, which recommended the introduction of a compulsory national registration scheme. This was included in – but subsequently dropped from – the Children, School and Families Bill 2009. At the same time a report by the House of Commons Select Committee for Children Schools and Families (2009) concluded that it was ‘unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, are being home educated or are otherwise not at school’. The Committee heard from Sue Berelowitz, The Deputy Children’s Commissioner, who argued that it was ‘not acceptable that the state should not be able to vouch for the education of so many of its citizens’. In its final report the Committee also quoted extensively from an article of mine. This confirmed what others have found: that in an age of political sound bites, Select Committees are institutions that can often be refreshingly receptive to academic research. More recently, in May 2016, the Wood review of local safeguarding children boards, commissioned by the Department for Education, concluded that in relation to home education, that a ‘local authority is not able to assess either the quality of education being received by the child or whether there are any safeguarding issues that require attention’ and that ‘this needs to be addressed urgently’.

Despite these widespread concerns, to date both the Coalition and the current Conservative governments have refused to act. One possible reason for this is the highly effective lobbying by home education activists. While apolitical, the lobby’s arguments against enhancing monitoring cohere with predominantly Conservative parliamentarians’ concerns about expanding the role of local authorities (in particular in the context of education), the necessary additional expenditure, and perceptions of the ‘nanny’ state. However, the contingency and indeed inherent contradictions underlying these concerns came to the fore in 2015 when the government initiated a consultation about the law regarding unregistered schools. This was motivated by wide-ranging safeguarding and welfare concerns raised by OFSTED, but also by distinct concerns about ‘radicalisation’ and the perceived existence in some places of ‘a narrow Islamic-focused curriculum’. While wishing to address these issues, the government at the same time made explicitly clear that it had no desire to address issues relating to home education. In responding to the consultation I argued that not only did this further exacerbate the anomalous position of home education, but that it also failed to acknowledge that home education could be exploited by anyone wishing to avoid the proposed enhanced monitoring of other out-of-school settings.

Tying to motivate the government to act over home education is hard. But concerns about unregistered schools have, albeit unintentionally, opened the door to calls to act more widely, and for those not uncritical about the ‘radicalisation’ agenda this linkage highlights the messy complexity of political strategizing. Another way of keeping the issue of home education on the agenda, indeed any issue a government would like to shelve, is by drawing an issue to the attention of sympathetic parliamentarians who are receptive to engaging with work by academics. I adopted this approach here, and last week the cross-bench peer Baroness Deech asked an oral question in the House of Lords about the government’s failure to respond to the recommendations of the Wood review. These questions provide approximately seven minutes for a mini-debate. Condensing detailed academic arguments into a briefing note to effectively assist peers in this debate was challenging and brought to mind the quip: ‘I’m sorry this is such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one’. In response to Baroness Deech’s questions and to those of the six other peers who spoke, Lord Nash, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, offered no clear answers. But the questions and the short debate send a message of support to local authority professionals who struggle in difficult circumstances to do their best to support and protect home-educated children and reminds the government that their inaction is not unnoticed.

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Criminal justice reform in the US: ‘So much to be done… but moving in the right direction’

Catherine Heard, Director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, discusses Barack Obama’s recent article in the Harvard Law Review.

CopyRight : F. van den Bergh

CopyRight : F. van den Bergh

In an article published in the closing weeks of his second term, President Barack Obama has published detailed reflections on his criminal justice reform achievements and the challenges still to be met. To highlight America’s shockingly high prisoner numbers, Obama uses World Prison Brief data published and compiled by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck (ICPR). His article also refers to a recent report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, which contained several references to ICPR’s World Prison Population List 2016.

In ‘The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform’ (Commentary, Harvard Law Review, 5 January 2017: 130 Harv L Rev 811), Barack Obama charts a lifetime commitment to criminal justice reform, from his early work as a community organizer through to promoting legislative reform to some of the sentencing laws underpinning America’s failed experiment with mass incarceration. Pointing to the capacity of criminal justice to exacerbate inequality and social divisions, Obama argues that by asking criminal justice to solve problems it cannot solve, we risk undermining public trust in law and jeopardising public safety.

The scale of the problem

The first sitting president to set foot inside a federal prison, Obama visited El Reno, Oklahoma in 2015, speaking with inmates about their personal journeys to incarceration. He describes being struck by the way the justice system traps young people in an endless cycle of marginalisation and punishment – including some who had ‘made mistakes no worse than my own’. Though proud to be the first president in decades to leave a federal prison population smaller than it was when he entered office, Obama stresses the scale of the problem still to be tackled. 2.2 million of America’s citizens are imprisoned today – compared to less than half a million in 1980. US citizens now bear the burden of a prison system costing US$ 80 billion a year. With crime now close to historic lows, Obama sees this as a vital opportunity to press on with reform.

Obama’s key milestones

Legislation to reduce overlong sentences was signed in 2010 (Fair Sentencing Act). This aimed at ending disparity in sentences for drug crime, which was disproportionately affecting African Americans. The ‘Smart on Crime’ initiative led to changes in federal charging policy and practice, designed to stop prosecutors having to bring charges that would result in the longest possible custodial terms.

Up to 100,000 of America’s prison inmates are held in solitary confinement, around a quarter of them on a long-term basis. Obama directed a reduction in the use of solitary confinement, introducing guiding principles for its use in federal prisons, which could also serve as a model for change in state and local institutions. The Department of Justice recently directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to phase out the use of private for-profit prisons. These have been shown to produce worse conditions for inmates, while creating no meaningful cost savings.

Prison reforms have placed a new emphasis on education and rehabilitation, recognising the importance of investing properly in preparing people to return to society and get their lives back on track. Around three hundred companies have signed a pledge to ‘ban the box’, to ensure people with criminal records – a staggering one in three Americans – have a fair chance at employment.

Although thwarted by conservative Republicans in many other areas of reform, Obama succeeded in building a strong political consensus for much of his justice reform agenda. Even traditionally ‘red states’ like Texas managed to make lasting changes, reducing prison sentence lengths as part of ‘justice reinvestment’ schemes to plough savings made from shorter custodial terms back into substance abuse and family support programmes.

The road ahead

There was a limit, however, to the extent of Republican support that Obama’s administration could secure for sentencing reform; and more recent reform initiatives have been blocked or shelved. These proposals would have seen mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent drug offences cut (Smarter Sentencing Act 2014 and subsequent more limited versions of it). In calling on the next administration not to shirk the task of further reform, Obama highlights the degree to which punitive drug sentencing policies have disproportionately impacted poorer communities and those struggling with racial inequality and drug dependency.

Calling for America’s ‘tragic opioid epidemic’ to be re-characterised as a public health problem rather than one requiring a criminal justice response, the President notes that four out of every five first-time heroin users in the USA transitioned from misuse of prescription drugs. Another key challenge Obama identifies is to confront the racial bias in the policies of harsher law enforcement and longer prison sentences still seen in America today. For example, while levels of drug use do not vary significantly by race or ethnicity, African American arrest and conviction rates for drug crimes are significantly higher.

Understanding and reducing the resort to imprisonment

ICPR is engaged in a new international research project looking at trends and patterns of imprisonment in the USA and nine other contrasting jurisdictions across all five continents. The project asks what transferable lessons for reducing resort to imprisonment can be learnt from the ten jurisdictions’ differing approaches to, and experiences of, criminal justice. America’s recent history surely offers lessons too important to ignore.

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Behind Birkbeck’s new visual identity

pocket-guides-etc-croppedIt’s an unusual position for an organisation to find itself in: on the brink of its third century and still no signature style. Imagine Apple without its elegant designs and simple use of space; or Google minus its primary-colours and clean white canvas.

So, just a few years shy of our 200th birthday, we thought it was time such a unique and vibrant university had the coherent and contemporary look it deserved.

What we wanted was a clear, well-considered look and feel that stands for Birkbeck, which is fortunate to possess two rare things: a real Unique Selling Point (as the UK’s only evening university) and a heritage to die for (a core mission which has remained unchanged for 200 years, of educating working Londoners).

So, where to start? We had a 20 year-old ‘lockup’ – a logotype and crest, always seen together on a burgundy panel; and a blue theme inherited from a decade-old advertising campaign. We didn’t want to change the lockup (the burgundy has been darkened and the crest reversed to give greater contrast). But the older and newer looks didn’t always sit together favourably and the visual identity void led to a variety of styles that were not always recognisably ‘Birkbeck’.

new-pop-up-exampleThe challenge, then, was to create an identity – typefaces, colour palette, ways of presenting information – that would live happily alongside the lockup and work across digital and printed channels and products for years to come.

Importantly, the identity needed to be easy for people across the university to put in to practice. We have a small central design team, but many others across the organisation have some responsibility for design, stationery or leaflets, for instance.

We hired Pentagram, the world’s largest independent design consultancy, after a competitive process during which we were wowed by their careful understanding of Birkbeck, creative problem-solving and knowledge of the Higher Education sector having worked with the University of the Arts and the University of Sussex.

A cross-university steering group of academics and professional staff were convened to discuss Birkbeck’s personality and how it might be portrayed visually. This group became essential arbiters throughout the process, helping to define and refine ideas and schemes.

And together we came up with a visual identity that is both beautiful and practical that reflects Birkbeck’s ‘attitude not age’ approach to higher education for all – inclusive, vibrant and world-class.

Domenic Lippa, partner at Pentagram, said: “We wanted to create a visual identity that used the heritage of the existing logo.  To do this, we anchored all information off of the logo, thus creating a strong hierarchy. Once we established this, the ‘heart’ of the identity, we started to introduce new typefaces, colours and imagery to support and counter-point that heritage.”

social-mock-up-croppedThere is enough flexibility to give people across the university room to ‘play’ with the identity, for instance by an unrestricted colourful palette and playful new ways of using our crest’s iconic owl – signifying our evening study. But brief, user-friendly guidelines gently help people stay within a ‘safe space’, ensuring Birkbeck always looks the part.

Needless to say the list of products queuing up for an identity make-over is long – from signage and stationery to websites – so the process of switching our look will take some time. We’ll take it gradually. We wanted to share the design with staff and students first, of course and there will be face-to-face briefings for people who work with design and on-going support from the central design team.

Externally, the new look will be debuted by our new marketing campaign which launches after Christmas with advertisements across the London underground and buses. Our annual magazine BBK will be sent to our alumni and friends shortly afterwards, sporting the new identity. And thereafter, as we proceed throughout 2017, e-newsletters, stationery, Open Evening livery, the 2018-19 prospectus, a new website design and many other products will follow on.

Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said: “I am delighted that Birkbeck is getting its first ever visual identity. As we move towards our third century this colourful, modern look helps communicate with the vitality, passion and professionalism of our world-class university.”

–  Julia Day, Head of Communications at Birkbeck

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