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.

Further information:

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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.

Further information:

 

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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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Soldiers aren’t being harangued by lawyers – it’s a myth designed to discredit the Human Rights Act

This article was written by Dr Frederick Cowell from Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on Left Foot Foward

Theresa May’s government is pushing a narrow, meaningless conception of human rights

theresa-may-3

There has been some controversy over the government’s plans to use the emergency powers provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to exempt British forces from lawsuits.

Despite the bullish selling of the proposals it is worth noting they can’t exempt soldiers from being responsible for torture or allow them to use the death penalty. In these cases the Human Rights Act (HRA) could still be used to bring claims against British forces and they could still be subject to war crimes prosecutions under the International Criminal Court Act.

But it’s the tone of this announcement and the context in which it takes place which makes it worrying for the protection of human rights.

As Dr Marko Milanovic notes, there is little evidence of an ‘industry’ of ‘vexatious litigation’ against the armed forces, which is the stated rational for these proposals.

Yet, it seemed to provide the warm up to the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conservative Party conference where she promised to never again ‘allow left-wing human rights lawyers to harangue… our armed forces.’

Theresa May has been here before; in 2011 when she was Home Sectary she addressed the Conservative Party Conference claiming that there was an illegal migrant ‘who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.’

Except, she was making it up. Taken alongside the wider drip feed of negative stories about the HRA, many of which are based on misrepresentations of the law, this appears to be part of a process of ‘monstering’ the HRA, designed to create the political conditions for its repeal.

The repeal of the HRA and its replacement with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ has been Conservative Party Policy since 2006. In 2007 the then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron said that a British Bill of Rights could enhance the protection of rights by including rights not included in the ECHR, such as the right to a trial by jury.

Later this was quietly dropped with the emphasis on HRA repeal focusing on criminals using the right to family life to avoid deportation. In 2012 the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights concluded that the HRA shouldn’t be repealed but noted there were ‘perceived problems with the Human Rights Act… largely caused by a lack of public education’.

Ironically the escalation of anti-HRA rhetoric came precisely at the time when the UK Government achieved a major victory on reforming the European Court of Human Rights, with the 2012 Brighton Declaration, which led to a reduction in its backlog of cases. In 2014 the government were able to change immigration rules to make it much harder for criminals to use the right to a family life to resist deportation, again addressing a criticism often levelled at the HRA.

There is a split in the Conservative party between those who think a Bill of Rights should be framed narrowly, to amend the HRA, and those who think it should lead to UK withdraw from the ECHR, in a form of second Brexit. The current Justice Secretary has confirmed that it is still government policy to introduce a British Bill of Rights, although since winning the 2015 General Election this has been subject to a series of delays.

In her Conservative Party leadership campaign in July Theresa May stated that she would not campaign to leave the ECHR as there was no parliamentary majority for such a move. This leaves the door open to withdraw the ECHR at a later date which is considerably easier to do following withdrawal from the EU.

The contents of a British Bill of Rights is as of yet unknown however, the tone of announcements seem to indicate a strong focus on who shouldn’t have rights and where rights shouldn’t be applied.

The 2014 Conservative Party paper ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’ contain some indications, such as references to preventing human rights being used in ‘trivial’ cases, that there are moves to distinguish between undeserving and deserving rights holders in a future Bill of Rights.

Repeated criticism by many leading figures in the government of the HRA being used to challenge welfare policy or immigration decisions has been framed in language pointing to an undeserving rights holder. This is also accompanied by claims that certain groups needing to be protected from human rights law, or where human rights law is used by those charged or convicted of a crime that human rights law needs to focus on the victims of crime.

When the recent announcement on the liability of the armed forces is seen in this context, it reads like a trailer to a much narrower, and potentially more meaningless, conception of human rights being pushed by the current government.

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The Iraq War, Brexit and Imperial blowback

This post was contributed by Dr Nadine El-Enany, lecturer at Birkbeck’s School of Law. Here, Dr El-Enany shares her personal thoughts on the historical context of the EU referendum, and the British vote to leave. This post first appeared on Truthout on Wednesday 6 July 2016.

The Union Jack, the flag of the UK

Brexit is a disaster we can only understand in the context of Britain’s imperial exploits. A Bullingdon boy (Oxford frat boy) gamble has thrown Britain into the deepest political and economic crisis since the second world war and has made minority groups across the UK vulnerable to racist and xenophobic hatred and violence.

People of colour, in particular those in the global South, know all too well what it is to be at the receiving end of the British establishment’s divisive top-down interventions. Scapegoating migrants is a divisive tool favoured by successive governments, but the British establishment’s divide and rule tactic was honed much further afield in the course of its colonial exploits. Britain has a long history of invading, exploiting, enslaving and murdering vast numbers of people, crimes for which it has never been held accountable.

Brexit

While the British Empire may be a thing of the past, British imperialism is not. This month the Chilcot inquiry reported on the role of Tony Blair’s government in the 2003 invasion of Iraq which resulted in the death of nearly half a million Iraqis and the destabilization of the region, for which its inhabitants continue to pay the price. It is no coincidence that the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, amidst the Brexit chaos, launched a coup against their current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was set to call for Blair to be put on trial for warcrimes.

The referendum that resulted in a 52 percent vote in favour of Britain leaving the EU was initiated by the Conservative government. Shortly after the result was announced, it became clear that the leaders of the Brexit campaign had not wanted this result. Boris Johnson MP appeared ashen-faced at a press conference. He had neither expected nor wanted to win the referendum. He only wanted to be next in line for Number 10 Downing Street. David Cameron, who had led the Remain campaign, resigned as Prime Minister immediately. He had called the referendum in a bid to keep the Conservative Party together, without sparing a thought for the lives that would be destroyed if the bet did not pay off. His gamble backfired, as did Boris Johnson’s. Michael Gove MP, who had been Johnson’s right-hand man in the Leave campaign, betrayed him within days of the result, announcing he would be running for Prime Minister, thereby ending Johnson’s bid to lead the country.

This series of events has thrown the Conservative Party into disarray, the very outcome Cameron had wanted to avoid. Nigel Farage, who stoked up unprecendented levels of racist hate and deserves much of the credit for the Brexit win, resigned as leader of the UK Independence Party on Monday, saying he “wants his life back.”

As political leaders jump ship in the wake of the Brexit vote, reports have emerged of a Britain divided, of a traumatized population, grieving and suffering the onset of depression. There is talk of the need for reconciliation in a country where communities and families have been divided. Alongside this, there are expressions of anger and demands for the British establishment to be held accountable for the outcome of the referendum.

There is no doubt that the feelings of anger and loss in the wake of Brexit are real, but where is our collective sense of outrage in the face of the establishment’s divisive and destructive actions elsewhere? After all, the deregulatory reforms entailed in austerity policies imposed in EU countries with disastrous consequences, including cuts to vital welfare services, following the 2007 financial crisis, as Diamond Ashiagbor has argued, is “medicine first trialled on the global South since the 70s”. Ashiagbor notes “European states are experiencing this as a category error, in part because they have not been on the receiving end of such policies”, which are all too familiar in the global South.

Brexit is the fruit of empire

In the week following the announcement of the referendum results, two news items probably escaped most people’s attention. The UK Supreme Court delivered a ruling that further impedes the prospect of the Chagos Islanders returning to the home from which they were forcibly removed in 1971 by the colonial British government as part of a deal to allow the US to establish a military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

Also in the news last week were reports of 94-year-old Kenyan, Nelson Njao Munyaka, who testified in the High Court about killings he witnessed by British soldiers under 1950s British colonial rule. Munyaka is one of 40,000 Kenyans suing the British government over injuries and loss suffered in the course of its repression of the Mau Mau independence movement. Munyaka spoke of witnessing the shooting of his workmates, being made to carry their corpses and the flashbacks he suffers of the physical and verbal assaults he endured at the hands of British soldiers.

Brexit is not only nostalgia for empire — it is also the fruit of empire. Britain is reaping what it sowed. The legacies of British imperialism have never been addressed, including that of racism. British colonial rule saw the exploitation of peoples, their subjugation on the basis of race, a system that was maintained through the brutal and systematic violence of the colonial authorities.

The prevalence of structural and institutional racism in Britain today made it fertile ground for the effectiveness of the Brexit campaign’s racist and dehumanizing rhetoric of “taking back control” and reaching “breaking point.” This rhetoric is entirely divorced from an understanding of British colonial history, including the country’s recent imperial exploits, which have destabilized and exploited regions and set in motion the migration of today.

Islamophobia powered the Blair-Bush war machine, allowing the lie to be peddled that only the Arab world produces brutal despots, and that the lives of nearly half a million Iraqis are an acceptable price to pay for Britain to be the closest ally of the world’s superpower. Just as the political leaders who called the EU referendum along with those who led the Leave campaign did so with no plan in place for the aftermath, so did the Bush-Blair coalition embark on the 2003 invasion of Iraq with catastrophic consequences. Thirteen years on, Iraqis continue to feel viscerally the trauma of war and the pain of their divided society. Only this week, another suicide bombing in a busy market place took the lives of more than 200 people.

Read Dr Nadine El-Enany's original blog post at Truthout

Read Dr Nadine El-Enany’s original blog post at Truthout

The British establishment does not care to learn lessons from the past. Recall its thoughtless and entirely self-interested military intervention in Libya in 2011, which has left the country in a war-torn state of violence and chaos, a hot-bed for ISIS. But we can learn lessons — lessons that might help the left build solidarity and resist repression in more productive ways. We can begin by understanding Brexit instability and our feelings of loss and fear in the context of longstanding and far-reaching oppression elsewhere. As for privileged Remainers with power and influence, they are disingenuous not to accept a large slice of responsibility for the outcome of the EU referendum. From New Labour’s redefining of the Left as “extreme centre,” to Labour’s “austerity lite,” to their support for imperial wars and the mainstream media’s marginalization of left voices and people of color, and their denial of racism, they oiled the wheels of the Brexit battle bus. It is no use for the powerful liberal mainstream to cry crocodile tears now. They would do better to recognize their role in creating the conditions for the sort of racism that propelled the Brexit campaign to victory.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

(Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission)

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Three French words to explain the European Revolution and one word to leave that dream: Brexit

This post was contributed by Daniele D’Alvia, MPhil Law student in Birkbeck’s School of Law. Here, Daniele shares his personal thoughts on the Leave result of the UK EU referendum.

Avignon - Place de l'Horloge - Hotel de Ville - Liberte Egalite Fraternite

I am European. I am Italian. The day after Brexit on the 24th of June 2016 I started to attend a law course in Paris at the Sorbonne School of Law as part of my Ph.D. research in London. As soon as I entered the main building three words attracted my attention. They are the words of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, and fraternité. They are the words that on the 23rd of June 2016 when the UK population decided to leave Europe I felt as forgotten in my soul and in my heart.

I teach seminars in European Union Law since I have started my Ph.D. at Birkbeck University of London and I have always been taught by my Italian law Professors that the principle of integration in Europe does not translate and never will constitute a conflict between sovereignties. The limitation and the sharing of competences between the EU sphere and the national sphere is not a limitation. By contrast, it is an opportunity for growth. Europe is not just an idea. It is not just a motivation to fight for ideals. Europe is a pure sentiment of cohesion of ideals and motivations.

I say this because I have lived the European integration in 2013 when I decided to leave my own country and I started to study an LL.M. in London. The UK was an extremely welcoming country and London made my mind vivid again. After only seven months I won a Ph.D. and I became a Ronnie Warrington Scholar. I started to teach European Union Law and I was appointed as the module convenor for Comparative Law at Birkbeck. I saw the opportunity for growth that was called Europe. I have lived that opportunity and it is beautiful.

The French Revolution: 3 words to explain the European Revolution  

Liberté, égalité, and fraternité these are the words that you can read on the front face of the building of the Sorbonne School of Law in Paris. In my view, these three simple words can clearly explain what Europe is about.

Firstly, liberté means freedom. During the French revolution freedom and the right to freedom was much more than a political idea of rebellion against the constituted power. Indeed, it was so important that it translates as the raison d’être of any other political and civil right that comes from a general conception of freedom. In the same fashion, the European Union has established four fundamental freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capitals and persons. These rights to freedom are the legal grounds for the establishment of any other civil or political rights within the Union (for instance, think to the right to non-discrimination not only as free movement of workers and security of the same job conditions, but specifically as free movement of goods in order to not discriminate against imported goods, or consumer protection).

Secondly, égalité means equality. It has a strong meaning, and it is the celebration of the humanity of law. In this light, the judge should be the bush de la loue, in other words he should speak for the law, not against the law. He has to interpret and apply the law for the ordinated coexistence of men. The law is above the judge. The European Union has always followed the same principle through the judicial review process of the European Court of Justice. Furthermore, think to the principle of supremacy of EU law over national legislation – can’t you see the glorification of law over domestic powers? It is a great harmonization of law for the first time, isn’t it? Again this is not a conflict between sovereignties. This is an opportunity for growth by virtue of the principle of integration.

Thirdly, fraternité is a motion to understand that all men are created equal. It is the French Déclaration Universelle des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (1789). In Europe it is the European Convention of Human Rights (1950) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2007). It means that the natural law is above positive law. In other words, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union has been approved in order to recognise the existence of a series of fundamental human rights that exist and are legitimised before the Law.

Three words

In the end, three words that derive from the French Revolution are capable of explaining the European idea of Union. This is the real Revolution. To think of Europe by virtue of three words is a Revolution itself that can explain much more to the reader than any complex view of European Union law as a pure technical exercise. It is for the first time a unique instance of a universal conception of law.

Law academic Daniele D'Alvia props his elbow on a mantlepiece

Daniele D’Alvia

For this, although I have seen Brexit in 2016, I am still in love for Europe. In particular, the challenge I would like to pose here – or better, provoke (I am Italian for this, we love to provoke) – is the following: if three words can explain Europe and, therefore, show that in front of the famous complexity and technocracy of Europe there is only a real opportunity for growth and unification, what does the word ‘Brexit’ alone mean? Can the significance of one word explain the significance of a decision to leave and reject all the universal meanings that only Europe is capable of conveying, and even before Europe the French Revolution?

I don’t think so. The dream of an “ever closer Union among the peoples of Europe” of the Treaty of Rome was not just a dream but is becoming and will soon become a reality despite Brexit.

Note: This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

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