Let’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached. Or championed the diversity of House overall, with rising numbers of BME, LGBT, and disabled MPs.But we’ve put the champagne on ice.

Yes, Westminster’s new intake has some notable ‘firsts’. Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP, winning Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour. Marsha De Cordova, a disability rights campaigner and Labour councillor registered as blind, overturned a large Tory majority in Battersea. Layla Moran’s win in Oxford West and Abingdon makes her the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, and the first female Lib Dem MP from a minority background.

But be under no illusion, the House of Commons is still unrepresentative. Relative to their presence in the population, the numbers of BME MPs needed to have doubled in 2017. It rose from 41 to 52 (8% of the House). Five disabled MPs have been elected (an increase of three from 2015), but this amounts to less than 1% of the House’s membership – compared to 1 in 5 of the population that self-identify as disabled.

In terms of women’s representation, we saw a small increase of 12 more female MPs. When the final seat was counted – for Emma Dent Coad in Kensington – the total number of women in the House of Commons was 208 (up from 196 immediately before the election). But these women constitute 32 per cent of all MPs – a mere 2% increase. Still less than one third female, the UK would now rank 39th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global league table, lagging behind many of our European comparators.

To portray – as many UK newspapers and websites did – the ‘unprecedented’ number of women MPs as some sort of ’smashing’ of the glass ceiling is simply incorrect – a few more scratches at best. Forget the ‘200 women’ mark, the real threshold to cross is 325.  And that seems as long a way off as ever.

No doubt we’ll be accused of being ‘feminist killjoys’ but there are very real risks in not contesting the plethora of upbeat media accounts. It, wrongly, suggests that: (1) the job is done: the ‘problem’ of women’s representation has been solved; or (2) gender equality is on its way (#justbepatientladies).

If only we could be that optimistic.

The outcome of the 2017 GE raises classic issues for women’s representation:

  • Stagnation and Fallback. A 2% increase is, of course, an increase, but gains on women’s representation have been too slight and are taking too long. Neither has progress been straightforward. In Scotland the proportion of female MPs decreased in this election from 34% to 29%. This is largely due to Conservative gains – only 1 of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected is a woman. The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was also defeated in Ochil and South Perthshire, leaving Scotland without any BME MPs. Talk of parity in the House of Commons being achieved in 45 years incorrectly assumes that the direction of travel will always be upwards – which is why gender and politics academics rarely engage in forecasting the ‘number of years’ it will take to achieve equality projections.
  • Party Asymmetry. The overall percentage of women MPs also masks significant differences amongst the parties. There was some speculation in the run-up to the election that the Conservatives would see a ‘breakthrough moment’ on women’s representation in 2017, potentially catching up to Labour for the first time. This didn’t materialise – in fact, the gap widened slightly. Women now constitute 45% of all Labour MPs (119 of 262), up from 44% before the election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw a decrease in the number of female MPs, dropping from 70 to 67, with the percentage of women’s representation in the party unchanged at 21% (in the context of an overall loss of seats). The Liberal Democrats, which were a men-only party in 2015, now have four women MPs (33%, albeit still on low numbers overall), including the return of Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. Meanwhile, women are 12 of the reduced SNP group at Westminster (34%), a loss of six women from the previous Parliament. Only 1 of the 10 DUP MPs – now potential ‘queen-makers’ – is a woman.
  • Quotas worked, yet again. As in all elections from 2005, Labour successfully employed gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS). This quota is the reason why it has been the ‘best’ party for women’s descriptive representation at Westminster. It is a shame that Labour’s quotas haven’t been more contagious – without commitments from all of the parties, progress will continue to be glacial.

Classifying the 2017 GE as ‘record-breaking’ for women is lazy journalism that belies the reality, and breeds complacency. It gives some parties a congratulatory pat-on-the-back for minimal progress, if not decline. Moreover, it side-steps the question of interventions: will the government now commence section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 – so that parties publish their candidate diversity data? Will the Government respond to recommendations advocating legal quotas, which, all the global evidence shows, are the most effective way to ensure significant increases in women’s representation? (Check out The Speaker’s Conference report 2010, The Good Parliament Report 2016, and the WEC report 2017).

The next election might be a few months away or it might be in five years time – but it is clear that the issue of equal representation is too important to leave up to the discretion of political parties. Warm words are not enough – with over 100 women MPs still missing from Parliament, it is time for legislative quotas to embed equality in our political institutions. Without them, the search party will not be called off anytime soon.

This article was originally published on the UK PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group blog

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General Election results: Birkbeck comments

The shock of a hung parliament following what only a few weeks ago looked certain to be a landslide victory for the Conservative Party has made this election one of the most unpredictable in recent generations.

The election also saw a number of Birkbeck alumni elected or re-elected as Members of Parliament: congratulations to: Kemi Badenoch (Con, Saffron Walden), Kwasi Kwarteng (Con, Spelthorne), Gloria Di Piero (Lab, Ashfield), Lisa Nandy (Lab, Wigan), Lucia Berger (Lab, Liverpool Wavertree), John McDonnell (Lab, Hayes & Harlington), Tulip Siddiq (Lab, Hampstead and Kilburn) and Sir Ed Davey (Lib Dem, Kingston).

Since the election was announced six weeks ago, Birkbeck academics have been using their expertise to offer insightful analysis of the unfolding political developments.


The Queen’s Speech

“While there is no specific Higher Education legislation the Government are still committed to an Industrial Strategy of which skills and training are a component and they are further committed to creating Institutes for Technology at locations throughout England. Whether these will embrace FE and HE qualifications or delivery we don’t yet know. The Conservative manifesto had also committed to a review of Tertiary education funding. While this is unlikely to happen more due to parliamentary arithmetic legislation would not be required should it choose to undertake this review. Finally, the Queen’s Speech is not the only opportunity for a Government to bring forward new policy. It is almost certain there will have to be a Budget and many positive measures for Birkbeck eg: PG Loans have come about that way. Let’s watch this space!”

– Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Advisor, Birkbeck


sarah-childsLet’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

With a record high number of women elected to Parliament, was the 2017 general election something to celebrate? Professor Sarah Childs (who will join Birkbeck’s Department of Politics from 1 September – pictured left), Meryl Kenny (University of Edinburgh) and Jessica Smith (Birkbeck PhD student) re-assess the recent result and consider what it means for women’s political representation.


almuth-mcdowallWhat can organizational psychology tells us about the calibre of our political leaders?

Organizational psychology provides substantial evidence about the characteristics of a successful leader, yet, as Dr Almuth McDowall explains, this knowledge is not consistently used when considering the suitability and capability of our political leaders in the UK.

 


ben-worthyWe need to talk about Jeremy: why I was wrong about the 2017 General Election

Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, examines why so many people underestimated the effectiveness of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign prior to the election.

Hung parliament

As it becomes clear that the most likely scenario following last week’s election is a minority Conservative government, with the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party, Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, discusses what a hung parliament is – and how long it is likely to last.


Results day reaction

jason-edwardsDr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics :

“The election result reflects important and ongoing changes in British politics and society. First and foremost, it shows how far  the old ways of doing politics have declined. The vitriol against Labour and Corbyn expressed in the traditional right-wing press seem to have had little impact. Social media now seems to be of much greater importance in motivating people to vote, and in shaping who they vote for.

“One effect of this is that the electorate is much more informed and policy-focussed than usually thought. This can be seen in attitudes towards Brexit. The lazy belief that most people either want to remain in the EU on current terms or have a ‘hard’ Brexit has been exposed. There is no clear divide between remainers and Brexiteers and people’s attitudes are much more nuanced.

“Above all, and some might say encouragingly, the election shows the clear limits of populism. The Conservatives played the populist card fully in this election and paid the price for it. UKIP were demolished. Labour, despite some calls to transform itself into a leftist populist movement, and while undoubtedly playing on some populist tropes (‘for the many, not the few’), set out a relatively clear and detailed programme that, despite widespread doubts about Corbyn’s leadership, attracted large numbers of people.

“Some will despair at the messy outcome of the election, but it marks significant shifts in society that offer great opportunities for – as well as threats to – democratic renewal.”

ben-worthyDr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics:

“Theresa May’s premiership looks over almost before it has begun. So how did it happen? And how do Premierships unravel? Here are three rules that, if broken, can get a Prime Minister in severe trouble:

  1. Don’t take too many risks

Leaders need to take risks but they should be calculated. Eventually a leader will simply run out of luck. Though she styled herself as the careful and thoughtful Vicar’s daughter she was actually a terrible risk taker. May gambled on being able to negotiate Brexit in secret (and failed), gambled on article 50 not going through Parliament (ended up in the Courts and failed) and then decided on an election. In the election she then gambled on a UKIP vote, her own leadership abilities and a set of untested policies (all of which failed). The old adage is that successive Prime Ministers are successively vicars and bookies. Theresa May posed as vicar but punted like a (rather reckless) bookie.

  1. Don’t underestimate your opponents

May clearly believed she could beat her rival and capitalise on his unpopularity. She thought wrong. Corbyn has energised young voters and, unbelievably, also appears to have won over the over-65s, gaining a remarkable 40% of the vote. Corbyn’s campaign has somehow united Remainers and Leavers and young and old. It may be, as some have argued, that the non-stop Conservative and right-wing media barrage at Corbyn boomeranged straight back at them. After two years claiming the Marxist extremist Corbyn would have us all ‘wearing overalls and breaking wind in the Palaces of the mighty’ the public just saw a reasonable, positive man promising more money for public services.

  1. Don’t overestimate yourself

Hubris is always lurking. May clearly somehow came to believe that she could carry an election based on herself, a kind of cult of personality built around her ‘strong and stable leadership’. The campaign ruthlessly exposed May’s many weaknesses and Michael Crick memorably said how ‘strong and stable’ had become  ‘weak and wobbly’. In the space of six brief weeks, as Paul Waugh put it ‘the cautious pragmatist allowed herself to be portrayed both as a Leave-loving zealot and a flip-flopper’.

So now Theresa May’s premiership is unravelling before our eyes. Whatever deal is done with the DUP May is in her end game. Any Prime Minister that has to announce they won’t resign is already in deep, deep trouble. She has few allies and has fallen out with her Chancellor and isolated herself from her party. Even if May survives and limps on, she is damaged, captured and will be portrayed as being controlled by others: hanging on by her constitutional responsibility rather than her authority. Theresa May broke the three rules and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

woodheadConsequences for Higher Education
Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Advisor at Birkbeck:

“As the dust settles on what has been an extraordinary General Election campaign and result we ought to take time to see what this means for Education and Universities in particular. The ink hadn’t even dried on the Higher Education Act when the election was called and that Bill was as a result of a number of changes committed to in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. It shows how long the political process can take.

At the start of the election campaign and the subsequent manifesto launches it was quite clear that Education along with Brexit and Social Care would become one of the key issues. Labour’s commitment to scrapping tuition fees and introducing grants was a bold policy (costed around £10bn) but was clearly designed to appeal to the under-25s. This is a demographic that rarely voted and felt, particularly after the EU Referendum that they were not being heard. Many seats where universities had residential accommodation saw surges in the electoral roll. Curiously when the Lib Dems tried the same policy in 2010 which secured them a record 57 seats but when in Coalition and compromises had to be made it was abandoned and support from students ebbed away. On top of scrapping fees Labour also offered a review into lifelong learning which would have been relevant to Birkbeck but little detail was given.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto went into some detail about research funding and restoring student grants again to appeal to its university heartlands of Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam and Bath however they were only successful in the latter of these seats. While the Lib Dems wanted to put Brexit at the heart of the election campaign it seems that the electorate didn’t have the same priorities.

Turning to the Conservative manifesto there is mention of a Tertiary Funding review, the creation of Institutes for Technology and the Industrial Strategy Green paper – all with a focus on Education and Skills. There is also a looming question as to whether there will be further restrictions on international students coming to the UK. Depending on the stability of the Government it will remain to be seen how many of these manifesto pledges can be implemented or whether we will in fact be in election mode so soon after this one…”


How people decide who to vote for

rosie-cPolitics Professor Rosie Campbell reported on how people actually decide how to vote for the BBC, noting that ‘more of us are changing our minds,’ citing the framing of campaigns by the media, as well as major national or international events (such as recent terror attacks), and emotional influence as likely to change the course of a vote.

 


Iconography in politics

Sue Wiseman, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature at Birkbeck discussed the iconography of hair of different politicians, and how it affects perceptions of the politician.


Theresa May – leaking leadership capital?

Shortly before the election, Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister commented on the diminishing leadership capital of the Prime Minister, and how leadership can be measured.

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Theresa May: leaking leadership capital?

Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, and Mark Bennister explore Theresa May’s leadership capital. They conclude that although she may gain capital after an election win, her strained relations with her Cabinet and the ongoing crises of Brexit, Scotland, and Northern Ireland may eventually diminish her reputation.theresamay

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it. High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?

leadershipTheresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election. May arrived after a vicious and very public internal party war, to become the unifier for both the Conservative party and the country in the grip of uncertainty and division.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party after the civil war over Brexit. Her experience as Home Secretary was seen to demonstrate both firmness and a mastery of details.

In policy terms, May blended a wider policy agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals with only Boris Johnson in the ‘gilded cage’ of the Foreign Office where he could do no harm. May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives. This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent.

But there have been signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, once her tendency towards secretive and closed group decision-making became evident, and after some less than certain public performances. The Brexit process has seen White Papers and speeches that appeared less than detailed, while electioneering slogans have glossed over a lack of depth of policy planning. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted to them by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party rather unhappy and less convinced by her competence. As Janan Ganesh argued:

“Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea…Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.”

The social care climb down has not been an isolated incident. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’ and Paxman, with a phrase that could haunt May, suggested she was a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.

May appears set for a convincing win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

She may gain capital on the back of an election win, but expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s leadership capital could well diminish swiftly after her election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

Worthy and Bennister are co-authors, with Paul ‘t Hart, of The Leadership Capital Index, available from Oxford University Press.

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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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Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia

This article was written by Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics

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George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a lowly member of the ruling party, rebelling against the totalitarian rule of Big Brother and The Party in Airstrip One (formerly England), part of the vast empire of Oceania. George Orwell’s novel shows with a terrifying clarity what a totalitarian regime looks like from the inside, with its propaganda, controlled hatred and perpetual war. The book was considered so realistic that when copies were sneaked illegally into the USSR, illicit readers presumed it was written by someone close to Stalin.

As others have pointed out, what makes it so powerful are the details that we all recognise. The dictatorship is all powerful yet the in the England of ‘Airstrip One’ sinks are still blocked, greasy canteens serve sloppy food and tower blocks smell of cabbage. When Winston Smith sleeps and dreams of freedom he wakes up with the name ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. Unlike the brilliant abstract novel We that inspired Orwell, this dystopia, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, feels very close by (see Orwell’s review of We here).

The world in which Smith moves also feels scarily relevant. The leaders in Oceania control their people through targeted hatred and predict what they do before they do it. There are uncomfortable echoes of the dark side of a surveillance society and big data: they can even monitor you through your television. The book is also full of ‘political language’ that ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. Double-think dominates a world where those in power can believe contradictory things simultaneously and bend reality at will. Opening up Orwell’s book today, Oceania’s propaganda slogan ‘ignorance is strength’ rings far too familiar for comfort.

Alongside the torture in Room 101 and the mind reading Thought Police, the truly terrifying feature of Winston’s world is the lack of objective truth. In Oceania it is impossible to establish something as a fact: what the Party says is true is the only truth. Winston Smith works in a Ministry constantly amending previous editions of newspapers, altering the past to control the future. Orwell’s fictional Oceania does what the truly horrific regimes of the Twentieth century tried to do: create their own ‘moral universe’ insulated from reality. Primo Levi wrote of how those in the camps in Nazi Germany were taunted by the guards with the constant gloating that ‘no one will ever believe this happened’.

Orwell’s original title for the book was ‘The Last Man in Europe’. Smith’s struggle to love and live in Oceania is a struggle to preserve his humanity. Despite its reputation as a vision of an alternative future, the dystopia of Oceania is as much a warning as a prophesy. Orwell’s book, written in beautiful clear prose, offers us a frightening glimpse of what life was like for many people (and still is like in many places). Is it completely bleak? Read the mysterious appendix on Newspeak that Orwell eccentrically insisted on keeping in, even for Reader’s Digest. It’s written in the past tense.

Listen to Jean Seaton, Ben Worthy and Caroline Edwards discuss 1984 at Birkbeck Arts Week event ‘Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia’ on 17/5/2017 at 6pm. For tickets click here.

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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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Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

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Charitable giving in times of uncertainty and distrust

This article was written by Dr Bruna Seu from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies. Dr Seu participated in a Cultural Capital debate  entitled ‘The trust virus: the future of giving’ on 9 February 2017

money-256319_1920In a climate of economic uncertainty and rampant resentment, what hope is there for giving? Is there a future for altruism in an age of isolation? Are charities the answer or do government and corporations have to take responsibility? These were some of the questions asked at ‘The Trust virus: the future of giving’, a Cultural Capital debate organised by the Y&R London on 9 February 2017. These debates are terribly important for both academics and NGOs as they engage with the complexities and moral dilemmas involved in giving as an act of helping and social responsibility in today’s divided society and conflicted world.

The findings from the four-year research project discussed in the forthcoming book Caring in Crisis, which I co-authored with Shani Orgad (LSE), address some of these questions.

Charity starts at home

All the focus group participants in the study believed that charity does start at home. Yet, to think of this as simply parochialism, in antithesis to universalism, is unhelpful and an over-simplification. Looking at how people perceived the boundaries of their care and social responsibility, we identified nine circles of care from the most inward-looking (some expressed this in terms of ‘me and mine’) to the most universalist (‘the world is my family’ or ‘I’m a citizen of the world’). Worryingly, the majority of participants did not extend their sense of responsibility beyond their local community. This speaks to the power of the ‘inward looking’ attitude at the heart of parochialism. Yet, it is in the daily practices of care that people use in their community that people find a model for taking responsibility for others, near but also afar. Members of the public expressed a wish to care for distant others built on these practice of care they are familiar with, as if the ‘world were a small village’. These practices of care can be a vital resource for NGOs to build on.

On the other hand, Brexit, based on isolation over integration, is feeding on and in turn fuelling processes of ‘othering’ of distant sufferers. Many have commented on how anxiety, verging on paranoia, is at the heart of xenophobic Brexit. This anxiety, fomented for political ends, can have very damaging effects on the capacity and willingness to open empathetically to others. For example, the portrayal of refugee seekers as scroungers, parasites and vermin circulating in the media, blocks empathy and exasperate pre-existing and outdated portrayals of those affected by humanitarian crises. Focus group participants spoke of ‘the Africa thing’, whereby Africa becomes the stereotypical symbol of what is quintessentially wrong with humanitarian causes –– intractable, corrupt, hopeless.

The defensive and oppositional stance of ‘us and them’, at the heart of Brexit, disconnects rather than connects people to others. This is very detrimental to the future of giving to distant sufferers.

This distrust is not limited to refugees

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer identified a worrying decline of trust towards NGOs and charities. We also found evidence of a deep crisis of trust between NGOs and their public. In particular, people distrust NGOs when they were perceived to operate as businesses, in competition with each other, and manipulating people to make them donate. Many felt that ‘all they want is my money’. This distrust runs deep. Most people, even those committed to humanitarianism, talked of NGOs constantly ‘hitting on the same note’ which causes saturation and a hardening of attitudes towards giving and NGOs in general.

People are angered by this approach and likened most NGOs to marketers (self-serving and manipulative), in contrast with their wished-for model of NGOs as Good Samaritans (altruistic and good people).

Money is not the future

Although monetary donations are essential in enabling NGOs to operate, they are often a form of fleeting participation in that they give people permission to disengage. We found strong evidence of the negative ‘collateral damage’ from this transactional model of engaging the public, which we call the ‘hit and run’ model of humanitarian communication. This form of communication presents the viewer with an emergency scenario, through emotionally-charged images and contents, asking the viewer to donate money so that NGOs can respond to the emergency on their behalf. Put crudely, members of the public feel ‘hit’ emotionally and then disregarded, while NGOs deliver the help. In the short term the ‘hit and run’ model ‘“works” in so far as it is a successful fundraising tool. For this reason, it is understandable that cash-deprived NGOs resort to it so frequently. But it is counterproductive in terms of long-term public engagement. Participants commented that the ‘hit and run’ model enables people to disengage with a good conscience and doesn’t require commitment.

This is where we can learn a lesson from care in the community. When people talk about their model of caring for others, we found that it is relational rather than transactional, and based on commitment. People feel that the ‘hit and run’ transactional approach is dehumanising for themselves (‘all they want is my money’) and for the beneficiaries.

The future for giving then is not money but connectedness. People feel they want to connect to distant suffering in more meaningful ways, which they model on their everyday ways of caring. These ethics of care are deeply rooted in people’s ways of life. One participant talked of wanting to ‘give blood and tears’, not money. That would make his giving meaningful. If we listen to the symbolic, rather than concrete meaning of this, we learn that the British public are looking for symbolic, cognitive and emotional meaningfulness in their giving. On these, meaningful connectedness to humanitarian issues and deeper public participation over time can be built.

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