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

george-orwell-bbc-1

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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Declutter your cupboard if you want, but it won’t save the planet

This article was written by Professor Frank Trentmann from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian

clutterIs this the year we finally get to grips with all our stuff? If so, it has been a long time coming. Forecasters and commentators say we have entered a new era where people prefer to share rather than own, and prize experiences over possessions. Retailers worry about the implications for them of a public sated on “peak stuff”. Official figures suggest that Britons are consuming ever fewer resources. And witness the worldwide success of the rationalisation bible, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising.

It’s an encouraging thesis with which to start a new year. If only it were true. The talk is of the sharing economy, but the reality is that very little is being done on a large-scale level to reduce our high-consumption lifestyles. While it might feel virtuous to Marie Kondo your wardrobe, we urgently need to address the vast amount of often unseen resources that support our modern way of life.

To be fair, there are some signs of hope. The first repair café opened in Amsterdam in 2009. Since then, a thousand of these places have sprung up across Europe and North America, giving people a chance to share tools, materials and knowledge.

The bulk of the so-called sharing economy, however, follows a different model. On New Year’s Eve more than half a million people on the planet stayed in a home rented via Airbnb. Much of this is not about sharing but about renting and profit. It increases the demand for resources, rather than reducing it. Hotels earn less, but hosts earn more – which they spend on additional holidays. Lodgers save on cheaper accommodation and take more mini-breaks to Florence and Barcelona. Meanwhile, the total number of people owning second homes (and a second set of domestic appliances) steadily rises.

Car clubs have become a common sight. But let’s put it in perspective. In the UK, Zipcar has 1,500 cars. At the same time, Britons bought more than 2.7m new cars last year, more than ever before. Yes, perhaps, young people are less car-oriented today, but it might also just be a lag – housing costs and university fees have gone up and mean that cars are bought at 30, not at 20.

Sharing is not some new paradigm. Modern societies have done it for a long time – from the cooperatives to municipal baths and playgrounds. While growing in some commercial sectors, we are seeing it being chopped down in others, such as public libraries.

The story of “from stuff to fluff” is a similar mix of hopeful thinking and bad history. Visits to film and music festivals have sky-rocketed in the last decade. But let’s remember that more than 12,000 people flocked to the rehearsal of Handel’s Fireworks in 1749 in Vauxhall Gardens, causing a three-hour-long traffic jam on London Bridge. Experiences have been an essential ingredient in the rise of consumption over the last 500 years, from pleasure gardens to football stadiums. Nor is it wise to think of possessions and experiences as separate: since the 17th century, shopping for pleasure has been about making purchase a sensation.

Commentators have been complaining of people accumulating too many possessions since the sumptuary laws of the 15th and 16th centuries. In ancient Rome, Seneca warned the young were being corrupted by the pursuit of things and leisure, and before him so did Plato.

Today, services make up a bigger share of the world economy than ever – more than 40% in value-added terms, compared with 30% in 2008. But this does not mean the volume of goods and merchandise has fallen. It has grown in total, just a bit less fast than services. Since 1998, merchandise trade has more than doubled. More than four times as many containers travelled back and forth between Europe and Asia in 2013 as in 1995.

And a lot of leisure and other “experiential” services depend on material and resources. Zip-wiring in a jungle might feel more virtuous than buying a designer handbag, but you do not get there by teletransportation. In 2007, the French travelled 42bn kilometres to pursue their hobbies and another 12bn to eat out. That takes a lot of fuel.

A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol, but it eats up valuable rare-earth elements.

A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol, but it eats up valuable rare-earth elements.

Our love of digital services often leads to the idea that these somehow must be ethereal. But behind virtual communication there lurks a lot of physical matter: power stations, data centres, cables, batteries and cooling systems. Our mobile phones and headphones would not work without lanthanides. A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol but it also needs 9kg (20lb) of rare-earth elements, and that’s just for its battery. Information and communications technology already account for 15% of the service sector’s electricity consumption in France.

Adam Smith, the great moral philosopher and economist, noted in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments that people spent more and more on “trinkets” and “little conveniences” and then designed new pockets in order to carry a greater number. Today, you can buy magic jackets with a dozen, even 20 pockets, to accommodate a tablet, phone and other digital devices.

We are not dealing here with a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Contrary to popular image, Scandinavians are not that austere either. In Stockholm, for example, the number of electronic appliances tripled between 1995 and 2014.

The idea of peak stuff rests in part on distorted and inadequate numbers. At the Office of National Statistics’ latest count (2016), the average Briton consumed 10 tonnes of raw materials and products in 2013, down from 15 tonnes in 2001. That looks heart-warming, but is a bit of an optical illusion. For it only counts the materials used in the UK. We are considered to have used more fossil fuel and minerals if we make a car in Luton with British coal and iron and steel than if we import a car made in Brazil or Poland. We really need to know about all the materials used. In effect, since the 1980s, Britain has off-shored the environmental consequences of its own consumption.

What’s needed is a level of thinking and a scale of action commensurate to the problem. By all means, buy fewer gifts next Christmas, but don’t fool yourself that this will accomplish much. Shopping is part of it, but our entire lifestyle is using up resources at unsustainable levels. Consumers carry a big, heavy “ecological rucksack” on their shoulders full of all the materials needed to service their lifestyle. It amounts to between 45 and 85 tonnes a year per person, depending on where you are in the rich world. This includes leisure, travel and comfy homes with central heating.

Changing that lifestyle must be the fundamental focus. This is not impossible; modern history is one rich story of successive lifestyle changes. But these have rarely been the result of individual choices. States and social movements played critical roles, harnessing the power and moral authority of collective opinion. If we are to bridge the gap between aspiration and achievement, this must be their task again.

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Will Britain’s new definition of antisemitism help Jewish people? I’m sceptical

This article was written by Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. It was originally published by The Guardian

Hackney, London. Credit: kafka4prez

Hackney, London. Credit: kafka4prez

Antisemitism is anathema. From Ken Livingstone to Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi, no one has a good word to say for it. For some there has been a crisis in 2016, for others there has been a witch-hunt. Everyone is against antisemitism: we just can’t agree on how to recognise it.

This year there have been no less than three inquiries and reports on antisemitism: Janet Royall’s presented in May, Shami Chakrabarti’s at the end of June (I served as one of the vice-chairs to this inquiry, although the resulting report was Chakrabarti’s alone) and the home affairs committee report published in October. All dealt exclusively or significantly with the issue of antisemitism in the Labour party.

Now, at year’s end, the prime minister has announced that the government has adopted the definition of antisemitism recommended by an inter-governmental body, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Theresa May heralded a single standard with which we can identify and call out antisemitism. The Labour party quickly fell into line and British Jewish leaders welcomed the initiative. Does this promise a new year in which the politics of antisemitism will be less divisive? Or are the issues bound up in antisemitism too complex to be solved by fiat?

Much of the rancorous debate around antisemitism this year has circulated around three disputed terms: antisemitism, Zionism and anti-racism.

Credit: Ron Almog

Credit: Ron Almog

The term antisemitism was first popularised in Germany in the late 1870s. It is closely bound up with the experiences of Jews as a minority group. It carries memories and knowledge of discrimination, violence and genocide. Yet now the term also operates in a context created both by the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the consequence of its military victory in 1967. Israeli Palestinians possess citizenship rights within the country’s internationally recognised boundaries. Nevertheless, Israel’s relations with the Palestinians have also been characterised by discrimination and occupation, annexation and expropriation. Those who make Israel the target of criticism for these actions are now denounced as antisemitic by Israel’s leaders and by their supporters around the world.

In this way antisemitism is a term that does service both as a defence of minority rights, and in the context of support for a discriminatory and illiberal state power. Little wonder the word provokes so much disagreement.

At times the debate over antisemitism has been a surrogate for another quarrel: whether the Labour party should be a comfortable place for Zionists. In parts of the left the terms “Zionism” and “Zio” have become part of the lexicon of invective. Zionism and anti-Zionism encompass a range of positions, but in debate they get defined by opponents according to their maximalist connotations: religious and ethnic privilege, occupation and settlement are ascribed to one side, refusal to assent to the legitimacy of the state of Israel by the other. The facts provide a different picture. Many people who think of themselves as Zionists are at the forefront of protest against Israel’s policies. Many who conceive of themselves as anti-Zionists accept the state’s right to exist while they oppose its objectionable laws and policies.

Anti-racism too has generated conflict, not least in the Labour party. Chakrabarti provided a cautious assessment of the extent of antisemitism within Labour. But it is not only the proven incidence of antisemitism that should concern us but also the well of support that exists for people who reveal prejudice or callous insensitivity towards Jews. The last year has been punctuated by a handful of headline-grabbing incidents of this sort.

These incidents provoke debate over individuals. However, the problem also lies in political culture. The commonplace idea that racism expresses relations of power too often leads to the belief that it expresses only that. But racism can inform acts of resistance and solidarity as well as domination. If we fail to recognise this we will be poorly equipped to identify racism when it is directed against a group that is relatively affluent, coded as “white”, and most of whose members feel attached to the strongest power in the Middle East. It will increase the chances that we are blind to bigotry and myth when it is directed against British Jews.

So does the IHRA definition that Britain has adopted provide the answer? I am sceptical. Here is the definition’s key passage: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews.” This is bewilderingly imprecise.

The text also carries dangers. It trails a list of 11 examples. Seven deal with criticism of Israel. Some of the points are sensible, some are not. Crucially, there is a danger that the overall effect will place the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not antisemitic. The home affairs committee advised that the definition required qualification “to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse on Israel and Palestine”. It was ignored.

The IHRA definition has been circulating for over a decade and has already been buried once. It is almost identical to the European Union monitoring commission’s working definition, formulated in 2005 as part of the global response to the second intifada in the early 2000s. The definition was never accorded any official status by the EUMC and was finally dropped by its successor body, the Fundamental Rights Agency.

The definition has been resurrected just as we are moving to new times. David Friedman, who will soon become President Trump’s ambassador to Israel, has denounced the “two-state” solution. The prospect of continued Israeli dominion over disenfranchised Palestinians, supported by a US president whose noisome electoral campaign was sustained by nods and winks to anti-Jewish prejudice, is changing the dynamic of Jewish politics in Israel and across the world.

In this new context, the greatest flaw of the IHRA definition is its failure to make any ethical and political connections between the struggle against antisemitism and other sorts of prejudice. On behalf of Jews it dares to spurn solidarity with other groups who are the targets of bigotry and hatred. In the face of resurgent intolerance in the UK, in Europe, the United States and in Israel, this is a luxury none of us can afford.

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Social justice must be at the heart of a renewed strategy for integration and cohesion

This article was written by Dr Ben Gidley from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies and Prof David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck

It’s not unusual, when a major government report is published – not least on a contentious topic such as integration and cohesion – that the content of the report bears little relationship to how it is spun by ministers and reported in the media.

In the case of the report earlier this month of the Casey Review into Integration and Opportunity, sensationalist media reportage has amplified the elements of the report which demonise particular – mainly Muslim, migrant and Roma – communities already feeling under pressure in Brexit Britain, promoted a message that integration is somehow the solution to the problem of politically-correct multiculturalism, and highlighted the most gimmicky recommendations.

Civil society activists, academics and the liberal commentariat have understandably focused on the same problematic elements from a critical angle, while also highlighting the unevenness in the use of evidence in the report (heavy on official statistics, thinktank reports, attitudinal surveys and anecdote, light on the use of scholarly literature and in particular on qualitative research on how integration works in practice).

And so, once again, an excellent opportunity for a meaningful national debate on this important topic is slipping out of reach.

The Casey Review makes three major political interventions. The one that has been highlighted in the public debate so far is elaboration of integration as a panacea for the alleged failures of multiculturalism, with a focus on migrants’ and minorities’ responsibility to integrate and sign up to “British values”, tested, for example, through a heavy-handed integration oath on entry. In this sense, the report follows the orthodoxy embraced by New Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments since the 9/11 attacks and milltown riots of 2001.

The other two interventions, however, have received less attention, and deserve more acknowledgement. First is the insistence that, while integration happens locally, it is not enough to devolve all responsibility to it for under-resourced and under-equipped local authorities and their civil society partners. What is needed is a national strategy and national guidance – and nationally ring-fenced funding.

Second, we cannot talk about integration without talking about what Casey generally refers to as inequality of opportunity – the structural iniquities which block the path to integration of some groups. Casey is admirably clear that discrimination and racism (intensified by irresponsible media), alongside class injustice, is one of the primary barriers to integration.

These are points we made in a 2014 report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, Integration, Disadvantage and Extremism, based on a thorough review of the evidence.

market-778851_1280There, we showed that many in Britain’s diverse population – including both minority ethnic and majority ethnic citizens – face a range of disadvantages, several of which are shared. These disadvantages give rise to both real and imagined grievances – whether about the war on terror or about rapid demographic change. We showed that social disadvantage and racial injustice, alienation and disempowerment, generate divisive social relations and political movements that feed on hate.

We concluded therefore that integration policy must be aligned with the realities of disadvantage: rather than tackle intolerance and extremism in isolation, the debate about achieving racial equality, social mobility and social justice must be at the heart of a renewed strategy for integration and cohesion.

By reviewing the evidence of what has worked at a local and national level, we concluded that the continued national abdication of responsibility for integration strategy is untenable. Crucially, a national strategy requires national guidelines for its implementation. It should set out detailed, concrete, substantive actions and a coherent methodology for measuring progress, based on robust data: such a “smart” approach is the only cost-effective approach to doing social policy in a time of austerity.

The urgency of these tasks has been amplified by the evidence presented in the Casey Review. But they will fail if the debate continues to be dominated by the shrill voices of panic and isolationism, if a rigorous analysis of disadvantage continues to be obscured by a mantra that equates the working class with whiteness and sees the white working class as some kind of ethnic group, and if the evidence required for smart interventions is dismissed in the Brexit age’s retreat from expertise.

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