Category Archives: Social Sciences History and Philosophy

A day in the life of a postgraduate student

MSc Politics of Population, Migration and Ecology student, Sorrel Knott, shares a day-in-the life account of her experience as a full-time postgraduate student at Birkbeck.  

You might be wondering what a day in the life of a postgraduate student looks like. To tell you the truth, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to that question. Birkbeck has an incredibly diverse student body, bringing together people from a variety of professional backgrounds with varying daily responsibilities. Alongside my studies, I work as a part-time marketing assistant and researcher, as well being a student ambassador for Birkbeck. My part-time professional role is completely remote; as a result, I have been able to cultivate a flexible routine, and evening study at Birkbeck has enabled this. So, here is a day in my life as a full-time postgraduate student. 

8am: *Insert irritating iPhone alarm sound effect* 

Typically, I wake up at 8am. I’ll stretch, make my bed, and get ready, before attempting my daily Wordle with breakfast. As my job is remote, I don’t commute to work unless I am working as a student ambassador at an event for Birkbeck. Therefore, I’m lucky that I can have a laid-back start to the day.

8.30am: let’s work 

I try to get started quickly. I try to get started early, helped along by the to-list that I make every Sunday, that sets out all my tasks for the week. My work includes posting on social media, academic research, compiling bibliographies and writing reports in order to build my company’s platform 

12pm: student commute 

At 12pm, I’ll have another coffee before packing my bag for university, being sure to include my laptop, chargers, headphones, notepad, pen, water bottle, reusable Tupperware and cutlery, mask, hand sanitiser and a trusty lip balm. I usually catch the bus to Euston Station and walk eight minutes past Gordon Square to reach Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus. If the weather permits, I ride my bike, as there are plenty of bike racks on campus. I tend to avoid the tube to save money, though there are convenient tube stations located at Russell Square and Goodge Street. 

1.30pm: arrive in time for some free food on campus 

If you arrive before 3pm, you can normally catch the Hare Krishna group handing out cooked food, bread, fruit and, if you are lucky, home-made cake! I will normally pick up lunch from them in my reusable Tupperware before heading to Russell Square or the green space on Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus. There are also other squares to choose from – sometimes I sit in Gordon Square by Birkbeck’s Arts building. I enjoy visiting Birkbeck’s surrounding squares as I think it’s important to visit green space when working on a laptop all day. Plus, I might get lucky and see a cute dog (or six)! 

2pm: become a bookworm in Birkbeck’s library 

After lunch, I head to the library located in Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus. Usually, I sit down in the group study area, but there are silent study areas too. I watch pre-recorded lectures, complete my pre-reading for my seminar and make notes. I’ll ensure that I understand the topic of the seminar, which might involve watching documentary clips, keeping up with the news and emailing professors with any questions. If I have an assignment, I’ll work on that after my seminar preparation, including my dissertation research. If a friend is on campus, we’ll go for a coffee at Terrace 5 on the fifth floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus. Sometimes, you can get a discounted hot drink through the Twelve app! 

6pm: it’s seminar time (normally) 

On the evenings where I don’t have a seminar, such as the summer term when postgraduates only work on their dissertations, there might be a Birkbeck event, which I can work at as a student ambassador. During term time, my seminars start at 6pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and last for around an hour and a half. 

In the Department of Politics seminars are very collaborative, involving group discussions surrounding the pre-seminar readings and materials. My intellectual progression has been enriched by the diversity present in the seminar groups, and I have enjoyed having my viewpoints constructively challenged by others. The seminar is also an opportunity to ask your professor to clarify the pre-seminar lecture or readings, as well as an opportunity to discuss a particular topic with a Birkbeck academic. 

7.30 – 9pm: let’s go home 

If it’s a Tuesday or Wednesday, I finish at 7.30pm. If it’s a Thursday, I finish at 9pm because I have two seminars back-to-back. When you choose your modules in the Politics department, you’ll be able to see the days of the week when a module is taught, as well as having the option to choose between a 6pm or 7.30pm start time for your seminar. This has given me the flexibility to avoid clashes between two modules that are provided on the same day. 

Regardless of time, I’ll either catch a bus or cycle home. Sometimes, other members of the class will head to a pub or bar for a post-seminar drink. I don’t drink alcohol, but it’s enjoyable to attend these casual post-seminar events in order to socialise. 

The rest of the evening: time to relax 

When I arrive home, I’ll make dinner with my partner, take a shower and relax. I think it’s important to dedicate time towards your family, friends and loved ones, as well as taking time to reflect after your day. My partner and I talk about our day, watch a TV series or play video games. I’ll also complete any daily chores, like the washing up.  

 This is the time to rest and recuperate before another day, as well as checking in with yourself to see if your body is bringing anything to your attention, both physically and mentally. Sometimes, I realise that my body needs more sleep, so I allow myself an extra hour of sleep. Sometimes, I realise that my body needs some alone time, so I might read a book for an hour. I’m lucky that the combined flexibility of my professional role and evening study at Birkbeck enables me to pay attention to my own needs. 

So, there you have it! 

This is what a typical day in my life looks like; it may not be representative of every student’s time at Birkbeck, but it really works for me. It’s a stable routine that enables me to balance my professional and academic work. Other student’s days might include attending a university-related event, such as a cinema showing in Birkbeck’s Arts building or a guest lecture. Those after even more of a social student life can join a society and attend their meetings and events outside of seminars and work hours. Some students might even visit one of the galleries, museums and exhibits which the Bloomsbury area is famous for. It’s the additional experiences that are available at the university and in the surrounding area that bring a little extra joy to your life! 

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From shades of Gray to a confidence vote: three things we know about Boris Johnson

Yesterday saw UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson narrowly surviving a vote of confidence by Conservative MPs. Senior Lecturer in Politics, Dr Ben Worthy analyses the findings of the Sue Gray Report and gives his predictions for the future of Boris Johnson in Downing Street.  

There were parties  

The Gray report finally confirms that regular parties were held in Downing Street. This is simple but important. They weren’t accidental, or ‘cake ambushes’ taking the poor PM by surprise. Police investigated a total of twelve parties, with a further four left uninvestigated. The parties were organised, premeditated, and put together in advance, while the rest of the UK was in severe lockdown so stringent that funerals couldn’t be held, and relatives couldn’t visit loved ones in hospital. As the report put it bluntly: ‘It is important to remember the stringency of the public health regulations in force in England over the relevant periods and that criminal sanctions were applied to many found to be in breach of them’. What was fine for Downing Street, resulted in a fine for others.   

It shouldn’t need saying, of course. But the truth is important. Most Prime Ministers, and most politicians, are ‘economical with the truth’. But more than most, Prime Minister Johnson’s career has been built on what Nixon called ‘things that later turned out to be untrue’, from the £350 million promises written on a bus to the denial of lockdown parties. The first question on his recent Mumsnet interview was “Why should we believe anything you say when it’s been proven you’re a habitual liar?” A website has collated more examples of lies from Boris Johnson. Even his biography of Churchill was littered with ‘misunderstandings’, including that the Germans captured Stalingrad 

Amid the fog of untruth and evasions, the report sets out what happened, when and where, with photos and evidence.  Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly depending on how cynical you are, allegations of more parties have emerged since the report. As Marina Hyde, Guardian columnist, always points out, with Boris Johnson there’s always more.   

They knew they were wrong  

One of the more astonishing parts of the report is how much of the wrongdoing was recorded. What was written showed that many participating knew it was wrong. Again, there were no accidental parties but instead, instructions to ‘bring your own booze’. The report shows that someone close to the Prime Minister, warned fellow party goers:  

‘Just to flag that the press conference will probably be finishing around that time, so it would be helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine etc.’  

The individual went on to write: ‘Best of luck with a complete nonstory but better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with).’  

Perhaps the hardest parts of the report are the details of the treatment received by those who pointed out what they were doing was wrong. In the report, Gray writes: ‘I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff. This was unacceptable.’ Though there are no details, The Sun has reported how one security guard was mocked for pointing it out and cleaners were laughed at as they cleared up the mess. One image that stands out, is of staff, the days after the many nights before, scrubbing post-party wine stains after travelling across lockdown London.   

Conservative MPs are not happy  

If Conservative MPs were surprised by the Gray report, many were silent for some time after. In the 24 hours after its release, many thought that no news was good news, and a sign that Johnson was out of trouble. But we now know the quiet was more ominous, with MPs weighing up options. In the following days there was a steady uptick in letters to the 1922 committee which triggered a vote of confidence.  

Some Conservative MPs were genuinely outraged. Paul Holmes, who resigned from the government, spoke of his ‘distress’ at a ‘toxic culture’ in Downing Street. Others, depending on your view, may be more cunning or realistic; even before Partygate, Johnson had slowly become an electoral liability. He is now a vote loser not a vote winner.    

Already nervous Conservative MPs know that, because of the Gray report, every leaflet from a Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green opponent will feature a photo of Boris Johnson drinking, which they will have to defend or distance themselves from. This is at a time when a full 59% of the public believe he should resign (though not many think he will). One analyst has worked out that ten recent letter submitters are in vulnerable seats at greatest risk to the Lib Dems. Over in Wakefield, where there is a by-election this month, Labour are twenty points ahead, with the main reason for voters switching, according to one pollster, is ‘Boris Johnson tried to cover up partygate, and lied to the public’.  

Boris Johnson still isn’t safe  

On Monday 6 June, Johnson finally faced a confidence vote which he won but, it must be said, won badly, with 40% of his own MPs voting to remove him. More Conservative MPs voted against him than voted against Theresa May in 2018, and she lasted only a few more months in power afterwards. This leaves his leadership in the worst possible position, still in post but with almost half of his own party against him.   

Boris Johnson is now in very serious trouble, and his time in Downing Street can probably be measured in months, if not weeks. His MPs, his party and the public are deeply unhappy. The details and images from the report may mark the end of Johnson’s time in Downing Street. Whatever happens next, the Sue Gray report will be a defining document of Johnson’s premiership, and a symbol of what went wrong.     

Ben Worthy is the Director of the MSc in Government, Policy and Politics at Birkbeck. 

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It’s only a matter of time before Boris Johnson resigns

Dr Ben Worthy, Senior Lecturer in Politics, analyses the fate of Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, following the allegations of illegal parties taking place in 10 Downing Street during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Boris Johnson is in trouble. Quite how much trouble is a matter of dispute. Amid the ever-unfolding ‘Partygate’ scandal are two questions which are central to his future: a moral question of if he should go, and the more political one of whether he will. 

In terms of whether he should go, the answer from the public is a clear yes. A recent YouGov poll found that 63% of Britons think the Prime Minister should resign. Conservative party members are themselves deeply divided 

The Gray report itself, the report that isn’t a report but an ‘update’, pointed that way too. It was a masterpiece of saying a lot with a little. Even the title ‘Investigation into alleged gatherings on government premises during Covid restrictions: Update’ sounded ominous. It was very brief, but damning in what it did say, with a rather brilliant tone of measured moral disappointment:  

 “At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.” 

It went on to speak of multiple failures:  

“There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times. Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.” 

Perhaps it’s my reading of it, but if I wanted to say ‘the Prime Minister should resign’ without saying it, that’s what I would write.  

And what about the rules? The Ministerial Code, with an enthusiastic preface by Boris Johnson, states in section 1.3 C that:  

‘It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.’ 

Johnson stated on the 8th December 2021 in the House of Commons that “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”. This sits rather uneasily with claims he was present at an Abba-themed party in his flat.  Everything hinges on the words ‘knowingly’ and then whether Johnson would do as ‘expected’. In a system reliant on ‘good chaps’ rather than rigid rules, much depends on if Johnson would be one. I leave it to you.  

This takes us to the question of whether he will leave. There’s a great deal we don’t know, and the politics seem to swing almost daily. At the time of writing only 11 Conservative MPs have called for Johnson to go but, less reassuringly, many more have criticised him. As for how many letters are now with the Conservative Private Members’ Committee, only Sir Graham Brady knows. David Bowie once said that “tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”. The problem for Conservative MPs is that they can hear one future with Boris Johnson and one without. 

Those MPs who support him claim that he will bounce back by changing himself or his policies. It is possible but unlikely. In personality terms, the behaviour took him to Downing Street, so it is very unlikely he is willing, or even able, to change. In policy terms, the much-waited for Wikipedia inspired ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper, which some thought could help re-launch him, seems to offer a spectacular front cover, many mayors but no money. The front cover of the ‘Benefits of Brexit’ paper seemed to say ‘that ship has sailed’ 

For Conservative MPs who are less convinced, the major unknown is the Alice in Wonderland question: how deep does the hole they are falling down go? The number of parties keeps on growing. The Metropolitan Police have 300 photos and 500 documents containing who knows what. Here the Gray report was again, a perfect trap and a perfect example of the Streisand effect, where you draw attention to something by trying to hide it. Gray’s brief report simply flagged up how much more there was to know.   

Taking a step back, I would argue that, beyond the daily speculation of letters and white papers, Johnson will go. He will go because his fundamentals are bad and worsening. Johnson is now a vote loser, even if he was never actually a real vote winner. His polling numbers are worse where it matters, and focus groups indicate his magic voter coalition is falling apart. The Conservative Party’s fate is now tied to him, and he is descending rapidly.   

Yet, amid all the noise and unhappiness, the same day that four staff walked out the door of Downing Street, we missed the most important resignation in British politics 

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“If you’re considering a career change, I would say go for it – shifting your focus can reignite motivation”

Simon Hayes, Birkbeck Politics PhD student, recently successfully defended his PhD thesis and has since been offered his dream job. In this blog, Simon reveals how undergoing a career change in his early thirties, from being an audio engineer in London to completing a PhD in Politics at Birkbeck, was the best decision he could have made.

Simon Hayes

What was your path to Birkbeck? Why did you undergo a career change from being an audio engineer to studying global politics?

My path to Birkbeck began after a move to London from Canada in 2002 – the initial purpose for this relocation was the aspiration to work as an audio engineer in the music industry. Eventually, I managed to land a job at Mayfair Recording Studios near Camden Town where I stayed for six years. This was an incredible experience: not only was the studio host to the rising talent of that time, but many of the bands and artists I had grown up with would also frequent. By 2009, falling music industry budgets saw Mayfair (and other studios like it) close for good. After a stint of freelance work and a string of unpleasant temporary employments, I decided to focus my energy onto another pursuit.

The idea of studying did not cross my mind: I was 32, I had not been to university, and I was uncertain about whether I could perform in an academic environment. However, whilst travelling to work one day, I saw a tube advertisement for Birkbeck. I went to an open day and decided to study global politics and international relations; shortly after, I met with the programme convener who helped shed light not only on life at Birkbeck, but also the possible educational pathways I could pursue.

I was relieved to find out that Birkbeck offered Certificate of Higher Education programmes and that I did not need to commit to a whole degree; in fact, I did not even need to complete the certificate because the option of taking individual modules was also available. This is exactly what I did: my first module was ‘The Study of Politics’ – an introductory course which, in addition to covering basic concepts such as ‘the state’; ‘sovereignty’ and ‘the international’, also taught us key skills including efficient note taking, essay structure and writing a bibliography. While this served as a necessary first step that would facilitate my future learning, the experience felt revelatory: it wasn’t just that I was learning new things, but it was changing how I thought and viewed the world.

From thereon in I was hooked, I enrolled on further modules in order to complete the certificate and after doing so, went on to complete the full degree graduating with a first-class honours three years later. After spending twelve months completing a Master’s in global politics at the London School of Economics, I returned to Birkbeck in 2017 where I have recently successfully defended my PhD thesis.

What are your main hobbies and passions in life? Where does your interest in global politics and human rights come from?

Although my main hobby and passion in life has been music, the events that took place in the first decade of the 2000s (e.g. September 11 attacks, the war on terror, the Iraq War and the financial crash of 2008) really began to spark my interest in global politics. Throughout my studies, these interests intensified not only because I was engaged with theories and concepts that helped explain these global dynamics; but also because I was sharing this experience with a diverse group of Birkbeck students, some of whom were able to offer first-hand accounts of the issues and places being discussed; for example, Rohingya refugees, individuals from Kosovo who had fled in the 1990s, and former members of the Peshmerga.

As time went on, my research interests became more concentrated, primarily as a result of a module I took on European integration. Here, I developed an enthusiasm for the study of regional and global institutions (e.g. the EU and the UN); I would later fuse this with my passion for workers’ rights to form the basis of my PhD thesis which assessed the impact of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

What are your aspirations for the future? What would you say to people thinking about a career change?

I am interested in research positions within organisations that have a social welfare focus – primarily governmental or public institutions either at the local, national or international levels. I have recently been offered employment with a local authority as an analyst looking at the socio-economic factors driving health outcomes. This will, I imagine, be a challenging role with the potential to make some positive difference and as such, is an exciting opportunity and one that I owe in part to the Talent team at Birkbeck Futures – a service which assists students in their career development.

When contemplating life changing decisions like a career change, especially when it is later in life, it is normal to feel apprehensive and to worry about all of the reasons why it might be too much of a risk. But if you are feeling as though things are stagnating and thinking of such a move, I would say go for it – shifting focus can reignite motivation, especially if it is something you feel passionate towards. This in-turn helps produce the outcomes you are aiming for whether they are career oriented or for reasons of self-development.

I feel Birkbeck is an incredibly important institution that can facilitate this process for individuals in varied and even challenging circumstances. I am grateful to have had the Birkbeck experience and thankful that such an institution exists, I hope to stay connected to it for years to come.

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flatmates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you if they can.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves, they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend Orientation and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre in September. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a WhatsApp group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.

  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, indie bookshops and cultural facilities close to our campus.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.

  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and WIFI access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?

 

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The missed opportunity of the National Food Strategy

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in the Department of Politics, shares his opinion on the National Food Strategy, a report released last week. It’s the first independent review of England’s entire food system for 75 years, and it makes recommendations for the government, which has promised to respond formally within six months.

The publication of the much-heralded independent review of the National Food Strategy – the so-called ‘Dimbleby Report’, named after its author, the food entrepreneur and writer Henry Dimbleby – marks an important moment for food policy and politics.

The report is divided into a consideration of the effects of the food system on health and the environment. The health question is centred on the problem of what Dimbleby calls the ‘Junk Food Cycle’. He sees it as a central failure of the food system, promoting a poor diet with disastrous consequences for public health, in particular the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The cycle begins with our appetites for highly calorific food being preyed upon by the junk food industry, which churns out ultra-processed foods containing very high levels of sugar, salt, and fat. Market competition means that any reduction in the levels of these (unconsciously) desired ingredients in food products would lead to loss, and so food production companies have become involved in an arms race resulting in the proliferation of junk food. The more this junk food becomes embedded in the culture, the more it has increased appetites for it, both physiologically and psychologically.

Dimbleby’s solution is to break the cycle by imposing a wholesale tax of £3 per kilo on sugar and £6 per kilo on salt. The report headlines this proposal, and it has been the main focus of the media coverage. But the immediate response of the government to the idea of a sugar and salt tax has been, at best, lukewarm. That seems like an anticipation of the picking apart of the report’s proposals by corporate lobbyists that will inevitably come.

Dimbleby is probably right that the imposition of these taxes would have the desirable effect of reducing the consumption of foods harmful to human health. But the issue is with the whole approach of the report and how likely it is to secure the kind of policy changes required to deal with the deep-seated problems that Dimbleby rightly attributes to systemic features of food production and consumption. These problems cannot be resolved without raising questions about power, ownership, and control in the food system, yet Dimbleby skirts over these.

Dimbleby rejects the belief in de-regulated food markets that occupies the Conservative backbenches and some of the chairs at Cabinet. Nonetheless, he does not escape from the market’s view of food as at base a commodity designed to satisfy the biological appetites of the consumer. Here it is clear that Dimbleby has fallen under the spell of the Behavioural Insights team, popularly known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, established in the Cabinet Office in 2010 to apply behavioural science to public policy. What they are reasonably good at is predicting behaviour where a simple and clear instrumental choice is on offer. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, when it comes to patterns of activity that involve complex, strategic choices with unclear outcomes, they are at sea. Diet is such a pattern of activity, not a set of discrete instrumental choices. It does not boil down to the selections we make at the snacks shelf in the supermarket or the counter at Leon.

Dimbleby is right to argue that we should be wary of solutions to food inequality and poor diet that shift the responsibility to the individual, emphasising personal food knowledge, cooking skills, or commitment to exercise (which has little impact on weight loss anyway). This leaves the door open to those who all-too eagerly and loudly blame the poor for their poverty. But raising questions about how people could and would act under very different conditions of choice is neither to individualise responsibility nor to renounce the necessarily systemic setting of our food choices. The failure to pose these questions is the principal disappointment of the report. To be fair, it does make a number of recommendations about changing the circumstances in which we make our food choices, such as the Eat and Learn initiative for schools that encourages food education from early years. But more generally there is silence in the report on questions of citizen involvement in the food system. At a time when local councils are selling off allotment sites to fund ‘essential’ local services, there isn’t a single mention of the availability of land for small horticulture, funding for cooperative local food-growing schemes, or the provision of public spaces for common cooking and eating. In short, on these crucial questions of food citizenship, Dimbleby simply has nothing to say. The report needed to question the very foundations of the food system: far from doing this, it merely asks for a reformulation of its parts.

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Pioneer 1.0 Programme 2021: Meet The Finalists

Meet the entrepreneurs who will be pitching their Business Ideas at this year’s virtual Pitch & Awards evening in June, competing for Best Business Pitch and Best Business Idea.

We are delighted to introduce this year’s Pioneer 1.0 finalists who have been shortlisted to pitch their exciting business ideas in front of a virtual audience and judging panel. Now in its fourth year, the programme continues to support and champion early-stage entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, helping to turn them into a reality.

Pioneer 1.0 is an extra-curricular course for Birkbeck students and recent graduates looking to develop the knowledge and skills to excel as an entrepreneur. Over seven monthly weekend sessions, participants learn from a range of entrepreneurs, industry experts and each other to build the skills needed to develop their business idea further.

Representing the best entrepreneurial minds in Birkbeck, the finalists are in with a chance of winning either the Best Business Pitch or Best Business Idea award, each worth a £1500 cash prize to support their business, along with a bespoke package of mentoring, coaching and promotion.

This year, over 150 students and recent graduates have participated in the programme and their achievements will be celebrated at the virtual pitch and awards evening on Thursday 17 June, with a panel of independent judges, fellow entrepreneurs and industry leaders.

Meet the Finalists!

Picture of Nicky CarderNicky Carder

Being surrounded by people doesn’t automatically cultivate connection. Gatherism understands that and aims to bring customers and businesses together who seek community and share its mission to reduce loneliness and isolation.

Founder Nicky Carder has worked in community development and events management for 12 years and has experienced first-hand the importance of bringing people together.

Gatherism starts with a podcast to engage listeners through the storytelling of shared experiences and the power of community with the aim to inspire, motivate and connect people to the communities, projects, products and services that matter the most. Gatherism wants to listen to the needs of an evolving, post-pandemic community to help them to thrive better, together. Will you gather with us?

Picture of Lydia CarrickLydia Carrick

Apputee is an app designed to guide new amputees through their hospital stay and subsequent recovery, connecting them to a support network of experts and other amputees. Over 1 million amputations occur globally, and amputees often feel alone and scared.

The app will accompany new amputees through their recovery, using progress trackers and a gamified system to help amputees get the motivation they need. The app will also accumulate knowledge from medical professionals, such as doctors and mental health specialists, as well as interviews with other amputees about their experiences.

Apputee helps ease anxieties around the unknown and creates a roadmap from hospital back to their new “normal” – from understanding medication to navigating their return to work.

Picture of Makeda ColeMakeda L. Cole

At Kho Kho London we’re nuts about delivering eco-friendly, affordable fashion! We specialise in repurposing environmental waste into uniquely bespoke bags, saving landfill and reducing toxic emissions and supporting socio-economic empowerment for disadvantaged communities.

Our coconut-shell pouches are designed by nature making them quite literally one-of-a-kind — for the modern person with enough space for what you cherish –handcrafted with love in West Africa.

The amazing thing about our bags is that they are handmade by artisans meaning that we are actively engaged in improving the socio-economic status and livelihood of our crafters in Sierra Leone.

We hope for a world where you know where your products are made and by who. Well, that’s us in a nutshell. Cashew later!

Picture of Grzegorz JadwiszczakGrzegorz Jadwiszczak

Financial Literacy is an ongoing concern, with research showing that many people struggle with basics of finance and money management. My business’s mission is to tackle this issue with a three stage plan, starting with building an online community providing social media content and podcasts under ‘Finance Preacher’.

I hope to utilise this to setup a platform where like-minded individuals can network and learn from each other as well as local experts. This will hopefully enable locals to help each-other, giving more impactful advice than what is available to date.

This platform will be leveraged with the aim to lower the entry point to financial advice. Developing either an AI Chat Bot or a process for short term meetings with financial advisors.

Picture of Rosie MaggsRosie Maggs

History through theatre offers a unique interactive history experience tailored to the national curriculum and delivered straight to the comfort of the classroom.

From plays to talks, we can tailor the session to the school’s needs as well as making it age appropriate. We are fed up of children not getting the most out of their history lessons and disliking a subject that should be valued.

Our goal is to create unforgettable experiences which will spark a life long interest in history.

Picture of Kate StrivensKate Strivens

Afro Cycle is a black owned business designing helmets for children and adults with afro, black natural and thick curly hair. The helmet combines fashionable aesthetics with ergonomic design to produce a product that provides safety to the cyclist and protection to the hair.

When I cycle through London I know I am not safe and my hair is getting damaged beyond repair. This is why I am passionate about using my lived experience to create a helmet for people like me, who want to cycle safely and have products designed with them in mind.

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Finding new paths with lifelong learning

John Simons, who was recently awarded a PhD in philosophy, acknowledges his debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning, having been helped by the College to move from a career in campaign management to a successful academic career in sociology, and now to a new career in moral philosophy.  

When I left school, back in the previous century, my only qualification was a satisfactory set of results in the then equivalent of today’s GCSEs. It was enough to get me a job as a research assistant in a physics laboratory and to start studying at Birkbeck, where I planned to obtain the equivalent of A Levels in physics, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics and then to proceed to a BSc course in those subjects.

John Simon

John Simons

In those days, the College was in Fetter Lane and had its own theatre, which was used by an active group of drama enthusiasts, The Birkbeck Players. I joined them to play the part of Hodge, the gullible servant of an elderly countrywoman, in a production of the 16th Century rustic comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle. I believe the happy experience of being in that play with students from across the College departments helped me finally reach a decision that I had been considering for some time: that I was on a career path for which I was not well suited. After obtaining the three A-level equivalents, I abandoned my studies and my job, determined to find a new path. But first I had to get through two years of then obligatory National Service.

After leaving the army (with Second Lieutenant, infantry, added to my very short CV), I worked in marketing for several years, and then obtained a role that would have a radical effect on my subsequent career. It was as Director of a national campaign, sponsored by the Family Planning Association, to arouse awareness of the scale of world population growth and the need for better access to birth control services in many countries. From my work in that post I acquired a strong interest in the dynamics of reproductive behaviour – so strong that I decided to change direction again and become qualified to study it. So, in my mid-thirties – married and with three small children and a mortgage – I went to the London School of Economics (initially part-time) to acquire a bachelor’s degree in sociology and demography. My A-Level equivalents gained at Birkbeck made me eligible for the course. Two other advantages made it possible for me to attend part of the course full-time: a grant that was available from the Local Authority in those days, and, even more important, a wife, herself an LSE graduate, who fully supported my career change.

The degree from the LSE enabled me to obtain a post at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is just across the road from Birkbeck. There I helped the late William Brass, an internationally renowned expert in the analysis of population data, to create the School’s Centre for Population Studies, and make it one of the largest of its kind in Europe. I contributed a course on the Sociology of Fertility to its MSc programme, supervised research students interested in social research on reproductive behavior, conducted my own research in this field, and undertook consultancy assignments for the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, and other agencies. I attended to some of my own educational needs by taking specialist courses relevant to my work provided by Birkbeck and the Open University, eventually obtaining a BA from the latter. I retired from the Centre (as its Head) after 25 years, but continued to work in the field as chief editor of one of its main journals, Population Studies, a post I held for 20 years.

I also continued with a long-term quest into the explanation of differences in fertility by religion. That quest would eventually take me back to Birkbeck, because it led to an interest in the evolution of religious belief, and from that to an interest in moral philosophy and eventually a decision to study philosophy at the College. I first obtained an MA in philosophy there and then a PhD. The latter was for a thesis on the determinants of morally significant conduct in social roles. It offered a revisionary account of the moral philosophy developed by John Dewey, one of the founders of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.

My CV did not have the advantage of beginning with an extended school and university education. But my early experience of Birkbeck enabled me to compensate for much of what I had missed, and later made me eligible for a degree course at the LSE that would make possible my career in population studies. More recently, the College’s outstanding Philosophy department allowed me the freedom to pursue an interest that many other institutions would have regarded as outside their compass, and that enabled me to start a new career in moral philosophy. Now actively engaged in contributing to the literature of that field, it is a pleasure to acknowledge my debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning.

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5 podcasts to listen to on Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day 2021, a day that encourages remembrance in a world scarred by genocides. The 27 January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps in Europe. During the Holocaust six million Jewish men, women and children lost their lives, so on Holocaust Memorial Day we honour and remember the memory of those who were lost and those who survived.

Over the years the Birkbeck Pears Institute for the Study for Antisemitism has produced podcasts that touch on different aspects of this history, through the lens of academics from a range of institutions. They are all free to listen to. There will be a live event on 2 February. 

Letters EdithNewYear

A letter from a child called Edith. Letters will be discussed as part of ‘ Holding on Through Letters: Jewish Families During the Holocaust’ a live online event on that will be held on 2 February.

1. A Bystander Society? Passivity and Complicity in Nazi Germany

Professor Mary Fulbrook, University College London, 18 February 2020

Exploring experiences of Nazi persecution, Professor Fulbrook analyses the conditions under which people were more or less likely to show sympathy with victims of persecution, or to become complicit with racist policies and practices. In seeking to combat collective violence, understanding the conditions for widespread passivity, Professor Fulbrook suggests, may be as crucial as encouraging individuals to stand up for others in the face of prejudice and oppression. Listen on the Pears Institute website.

2. ‘Warrant for Genocide’? Hitler, the Holocaust and the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’

Professor Richard Evans, Birkbeck, University of London, 4 February 2019

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antisemitic forgery dating from the beginning of the 20th century, have been called ‘the supreme expression and vehicle of the myth of the Jewish world-conspiracy’. In his talk, Professor Evans takes a fresh look at the Protocols. He asks whether either the contents of the document or the evidence of Hitler’s speeches and writings justify these claims and examines the light they throw on the origins and nature of Nazi antisemitism. Listen on the Pears Institute website.

3. Antisemitism, ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ and Violence: Inclusion and Exclusion in Nazi Germany

Professor Michael Wildt, Humboldt University, Berlin, 27 January 2016

Professor Wildt explores antisemitism and violence in Nazi Germany. By definition, the Nazi Volkgemeinschaft – the national community, barred all Jewish Germans. National Socialist politics included the exercise of violence, and violence against Jews was a visible expression of the Volksgemeinschaft – it was antisemitism in action.  Listen on the Pears Institute’s website.

4. Remapping Survival: Jewish Refugees and Rescue in Soviet Central Asia, Iran and India

Professor Atina Grossmann, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, 28 January 2015

Professor Grossmann addresses a transnational Holocaust story that remarkably – despite several decades of intensive scholarly and public attention to the history and memory of the Shoah – has remained essentially untold, marginalized in both historiography and commemoration. Listen on the Pears Institute’s website.

On the 2 February, the Pears Institute in collaboration with the Institute of Historical Research will host a live event, that is free to attend.

5. Holding on Through Letters: Jewish Families During the Holocaust

Professor Debórah Dwork, The City University of New York

2 February 2021

Jewish families in Nazi Europe tried to hold onto each other through letters – but what to say, and about what to remain silent? In her presentation, Professor Dwork will trace how letters became threads stitching loved ones into each other’s constantly changing daily lives.  Book your free place.

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What has the Covid crisis taught us about happiness?

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we define our happiness. In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, discusses how the crisis has changed society and definitions of happiness. 

Cup of coffee with smiley face

Given what we experienced in 2020 (and on into 2021), it might seem inappropriate to consider a pandemic and happiness as having much to do with one another. And in many ways, levels of happiness in the UK followed the bad news. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has been measuring the nation’s happiness for almost a decade now and it has barely shifted over that time. Austerity, Brexit turmoil —none of these made a dent, until March when the first national lockdown was announced. Then, life satisfaction and everyday mood plummeted while anxiety rocketed. But by summer, with the easing of restrictions, these happiness indicators had pretty much returned to pre-Covid levels.

This resilience may also be testament to a key phenomenon identified by happiness researchers — the extraordinary ability of people to adapt to changes in circumstances and, after the initial shock, to shift their expectations to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. This ‘adaptation’ principle explains why chasing riches produce what economists call ‘low marginal gains’ in happiness terms: you get used to your new-found wealth quite quickly and need to keep accumulating to maintain the same level of wellbeing (yes, just like addiction). New stimuli, both positive and negative, will make quite short-term, dramatic differences to wellbeing; before long, most people revert back to their normal happiness levels. So it was with lockdown. People adapted, found alternative ways to pass the time and got on with things.

But lockdown wasn’t merely tolerated. There were aspects of it people really rather liked. A clue is in the fourth indictor the ONS uses to gauge happiness, often termed the ‘eudemonic’ measure– reflecting a tradition associated with Aristotle that happiness is more than simply feeling good but is connected to the meaningful pursuits and good relationships of our lives – that asks people whether they feel their life is worthwhile. Unlike levels of anxiety, mood and life satisfaction, this measure remained relatively stable throughout 2020. Sure, some of what we find worthwhile (an active social and cultural life for example), took a hit, But the enforced hiatus from normal life that we never expected to inhabit –many dreamt of escaping the rat race; few thought the race itself would stop –has, for some at least, led to realisations and re-evaluations about the way they live.

Because by June, the ONS was reporting that almost half of us had identified some positive benefits of lockdown. One was work-related: not having to commute and spend long hours in the office (one UK wellbeing at work issue is that we put in more hours than most equivalent European nations but get less done!). Other benefits were spending more time with family (particularly quality time with children), appreciating a slower pace of life and connecting with the natural environment. People cooked more and did more exercise. During a guest lecture for UCEN Manchester students, one participant provided a neat formula for staying sane during lockdown: ‘run, plant, bake. Repeat’.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Most of the activities research studies have shown to be associated with happiness –loving relationships, achieving things, the arts, nature, doing things for others – were still possible during lockdown. Volunteering is another activity associated with happiness. ‘For me’, says Karl Wilding, CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), ‘Covid demonstrated that people want to be part of something bigger’. Not only did the one million plus people volunteering (only the tip of the philanthropic iceberg) constitute what the NCVO called ‘the largest peacetime mobilisation in British history’, there was a demonstrable uplift in what might be termed ‘community spirit’: more people felt that others were helping one another, they were more confident that others would help them if needed, and they were checking on neighbours far more than normal. In common adversity, solidarity. Maybe Nietzsche was right when he suggested that human societies ‘build their cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!’.

Of course, even precarious living is subject to the adaptation principle. When danger becomes the new normal, it is hard to maintain this collective spirit. In addition, social solidarity depends not just on feeling connected to a larger entity but also on the idea of shared experience across social groups. This has already faded. Recent reports from the Institute of Fiscal Studies lays out in painstaking detail the ways in which the crisis has both highlighted and deepened the profound social inequalities of UK life. Going forward, unemployment – a key predictor of unhappiness– looks set to rise steeply; a really alarming bit of data picked up from a recent ONS survey was that a third of the population, and half of all renters and parents, say they would not be able to afford an unexpected emergency payment of £850.

Happiness is inseparable from its social context. Every year the UN commissions a ‘World Happiness Report’ and one theme is persistent: the happiest countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on social support systems. Therefore, during the first lockdown, the policy environment became more happiness-friendly. Witness not just furlough but also getting ‘everyone in’ off the streets, suspending housing evictions and benefit sanctions. One Department for Work and Pensions worker told me that advisors ‘no longer felt like cops’ and could offer a more efficient service when clients felt they could speak openly about their problems without a punitive threat. Pre-Covid, a softening of social attitudes towards welfare recipients were being observed in reports like the British Social Attitudes Survey, and it is hard to imagine this reversing any time soon.

In 2020 the state was back, and it felt friendlier. But will this turn out to be just a glimpse of something more hopeful and not a decisive shift? This year has given some actual substance to some of the vague nostrums rolled out by politicians: the big society, the good society, all sectors working together towards a common goal. As vaccines are rolled out, we may not be living on the slopes of Vesuvius for much longer, but we should be mindful of what Covid has taught us about happiness, on a macro level about a more generous politics and on a personal level that the mantra of happiness- Carpe Diem! has two meanings. One, invoked by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and by T-shirts, mugs and online dating profiles, refers to the hot pursuit of happiness. But the aphorism has been re-purposed for our frenetic age. its original meaning pays tribute to the moderate happiness philosophy of Epicurus whose idea of seizing the day was not grabbing it by the scruff of its neck. Rather, cultivate simple joys and appreciate what we have instead of always seeking more. For, he wrote, ‘nothing is sufficient for he who finds sufficiency too little’.

Other ancient philosophies had good lockdowns. The Stoic creed of equanimity seems a bit dreary when there’s fun to be had. But in times of adversity, to face one’s fears, accept what we can’t control and still retain a sense of dignity never seemed so apposite. In a timely piece, writer Brigid Delaney recalled the Roman Philosopher Seneca, who, exiled by the state, cut off from his friends, wealth and influence, began to reconcile himself with the enforced simplicity and seclusion of his reduced circumstances, noting that ‘until we have begun to go without them, we fail to recognise how unnecessary things are’. Or, as one UCEN Manchester student put it: ‘the things we thought mattered, didn’t matter’.

 

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