BBK Chat: our experience of student mentoring

BBK Chat is a mentoring scheme which pairs students who are in their first term at Birkbeck with students further on in their studies. Mentors and mentees meet at a coffee shop near campus to chat about all things Birkbeck. The scheme runs through the autumn term and has now come to an end for the academic year. We asked Christine, a mentee, and Les, a mentor, about their experience on the scheme this year.

Christine was a BBK Chat mentee in 2018

“When I first decided to study law at Birkbeck, I was so excited. Once I received my letter of confirmation and a start date I knew I would require support to build my confidence.

Within two weeks of starting university, I received a call from the mentoring team reminding me of my request and I gladly accepted their offer of support and was told that in due course a member from the team would contact me to arrange a suitable date/time.

When I received a call from Les, he introduced himself and we agreed to meet and because it would be our first meeting we provided each other with a brief description of ourselves and what we would wear on the day to make it easy to recognise each other.

On meeting Les he gave me a guided tour of the building which I found really helpful and to date I make full use of each domain, including the calm atmosphere of the student bar; this advice I have shared and meet regularly with my fellow students.

In the following meetings with Les, he has shared so much about study skills with me that I have gained so much more confidence in myself and have put into practice much of his advice. This has made me understand my course so much better and I am even considering studying other areas in the future.

Having a mentor has made a real difference in how I see the introduction to studying as a mature student and would definitely recommend BBK Chat to other students.”

Les was Christine’s BBK Chat mentor in 2018

“My experience mentoring over the past two years has been very rewarding and enjoyable.  As a mentor, I am there to support a new student through the first stage, after the initial worries students discover how enjoyable studying at Birkbeck is. At later meetings, the discussion is about the interesting things we are studying, and the location moved to the bar (they sell tea there as well). Occasionally results after the first term are a big concern, and it is easy to feel disheartened afterwards. As a mentor I have been able to help put it into context, it’s not a disaster, learn from the feedback and apply it next time – and speak to your tutor as they are always very supportive.

For those considering mentoring, do it! It only takes up a couple of hours and changes the experience of a new student for the better. Your experience can help calm the worries we all have when arriving for our first term. Being there to offer advice if a student does struggle is vital, just being there to reply to a text message after a difficult first essay meant a student went and spoke to their tutor, got the advice they needed and didn’t drop out. On top of that, you will make new student friends from other departments. I still keep in contact with those who want to, and meet up to keep up with what’s going on.”

If you are either a current student interested in supporting a new student or a prospective student interested in having a mentor when you start at Birkbeck this autumn, please get in touch with the Widening Access team at

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Enhancing content on the Birkbeck website

Birkbeck’s Digital Editor Angela Ashby discusses how the web team are working to improve the quality of the College’s website.

Photo credit: Paul Cochrane

The digital content team in External Relations (ER) had a quandary: with a large and growing website, multiple contributors, and not enough resources to keep eyes on every page, how could we possibly monitor and maintain the quality of the website? We expected there to be broken links, which are inevitable over time, and we had created and published a style guide to keep our content consistent, but we needed both a big-picture view of the site and a way to focus our attention in order to make best use of our time.


With the help of our technical colleagues in Corporate Information and Web Systems (CIWS), we explored various solutions and agreed that an online governance tool called Sitemorse would meet our needs best.

Sitemorse sends us monthly reports that pinpoint various aspects of pages that need attention and score us on issues falling into themes such as accessibility, function/links, search engine optimisation (SEO) and metadata (descriptive page tags). Sitemorse has also allowed us to build in rules that tell us when our pages don’t follow our own style guide and shows us where and how the content can be improved. These rules include decisions on abbreviations, email and phone format, italics, ampersands and link text.

Each new Sitemorse report shows our scores and ranking clearly improving for the pages that we’ve worked on. For instance, the Student Services area went from 5.7 out of 10 in December 2017 to 6.4 in January 2018. It’s a slow process, as each error needs to be individually corrected, but in the last four months, we’ve already fixed over 1000 broken links. It is still early days, but we will watch with interest to see whether errors approach zero over the long term. Our goal is to bring each section to at least a score of 7.0 out of 10.

Web maintainers meetings and Yammer

If you are the only person in your department working as a web maintainer, it’s possible to feel isolated. You are definitely not alone, though – there are at least 30 web maintainers working within Birkbeck, and we saw a need to create a community so that web maintainers feel part of a wider team, with common goals.

Our first step was to invite all web maintainers from around the College (including our Moodle colleagues) to meet every two months as a group. At meetings, the central web team shares details of projects and progress and encourages all web maintainers to raise any issues or queries, and to share their own best practice.

This inclusive approach is continued via an enterprise networking tool called Yammer. All web maintainers are encouraged to join the ‘Web support’ group, and any posted queries and requests for edits are dealt with by the relevant members of the central digital team in a way that benefits the whole community.

Another way that the central digital team extends its support to web maintainers is to invite anyone working on particular web projects to come and ‘hotdesk’ in ER, where we can offer more personalised support and collaboration.

Contact Jane Van de Ban if you’re a web maintainer and you’d like to join the group.

Fix-it Friday

The ER digital content team receives dozens of requests each week from around the College to update content on various web pages. Since our May 2017 go-live for the central pages, we’ve completed more than 200 separate pieces of work. This is in addition to the intensive improvement work we carried out on programme and module pages last year.

In order to fit this ‘quick-fix’ work in with our longer-term ongoing projects, we have initiated ‘Fix-it Friday’, where we schedule in requests that have come to us during the week. We can almost always complete small pieces of work on the next available Friday. If a request involves a larger project, such as a new set of pages, then we can discuss with the project owner how to prioritise the work over a longer period.

We prefer to receive work requests via Yammer, as it’s possible for emails to be overlooked during staff absences. To join Yammer, log in to Office 365, find the Yammer app and select to open it. Search for the ‘Web support’ group and click join. We’ll approve your request.

Training in 2018

So far, the newly designed central web pages have been maintained by the digital content team in ER. This is because we are planning briefings and a comprehensive training programme to ensure that web maintainers have the tools and the confidence to update pages in the new template. Once staff members have completed the training, they will be able to edit and maintain pages, with ongoing support from the content team.

Current and future projects

We are currently working with schools and departments, via a new Web Working Group, to scope and plan requirements for the improvement of department pages, in particular, the very important staff profile pages. We are also planning the improvement and migration of professional service pages to the new web design, beginning with Estates and Facilities, IT services and the library, with HR and the Registry Office to follow.

Like all the improvements made so far, these projects are focusing on users, the questions they need answers to and the journeys they want to make at Birkbeck. We continue to base our work and decisions on evidence and user-testing, adjusting our approach as necessary.

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Have your say in Birkbeck’s 2018 Students’ Union elections

Sean Fitzpatrick from the Birkbeck Students’ Union explains why you should vote in the upcoming SU elections, and how to do it.

The Student Officer elections will be open from 19-23 February. This year’s election is set to be the most highly contested in many years: your vote could make all the difference in ensuring your favoured candidate is elected to lead and shape the Students’ Union’s activities for the coming year.

The Students’ Union is run both by and for students. It’s your way of making sure that the University is acting in the best interests of you and your peers. To make sure that you get the chance to influence how the union is running, we hold elections once (or, occasionally, twice) a year. Students who want to be either one of the Union’s two Student Leaders or a Liberation Officer for the LGBTQ/Women’s/Black Member’s/Disabilities campaigns should submit manifestoes detailing what they hope to do to make Birkbeck a better place for its students.

Once this is done – it’s down to you to pick those that you think would be best for the role! We use the Alternative Transferable Voting system, which allows you to select multiple candidates and list them in order of preference. Once everyone has voted, we do the count, and then announce the brand new officer team.

The Students’ Union then supports these officers to work on the projects they planned on the manifesto they were elected on. If you’re interested in learning a little more about the roles and responsibilities of Officers, you can read our articles here on Facebook on both Student Leaders and Liberation Officers.

You can also vote for students standing to act as Birkbeck’s voice on the national stage. NUS Delegates attend the National Union of Students’ General Conference to represent you within the wider student movement across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These students will bring issues of particular relevance to the attention of NUS, and attempt to gather cross-union support for campaigns intended to improve the student experience nationwide.

In short, your vote has a wide-reaching impact: from the small grassroots campaigns set up by individual students to far-reaching issues at the top of the agenda for millions of students across the country. Your vote matters, make sure you use it.

Log in to our website and head to from the 9:00 am on the 19 February to get started.

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Votes for women… and seats, parliaments, and politics for women

100 years ago, women first gained the right to vote with the passing of the Representation of the People Act. Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck, celebrates the centenary and looks at what still needs to change.

The celebrations and commemorations are well underway: there are numerous seminars, conferences and workshops; #Votes100 is trending on Twitter; and many of us are donning the colours of the suffragettes (purple, white and green) or the suffragists (green, white and red), and proudly displaying button pins and necklaces.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act is 6 February 2018. The Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification and gave the vote to all men over the age of 21. Whilst we must wait until 2028 to celebrate women getting the vote on the same terms as men, it is definitely time to party – and drink our ‘Equaliteas’.

Perhaps a lesser known fact is that November will mark the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP. Again, we should celebrate (and who would object to another party?), but here we will need to be more circumspect. If democracy demands women’s enfranchisement there remains more to be done in respect of ‘Seats for Women’. The same is true in terms of realizing ‘Parliaments for Women’ and ‘Politics for Women’.

Seats for Women
The 2017 general election saw 208 women MPs elected to the UK House of Commons, the highest number ever. At 32% of all MPs, Westminster remains far from parity – and the 2% increase last year was paltry: 45% of all Labour MPs are women (119 of 262); the Conservatives saw fall-back, from 70 to 67, flat-lining at 21%. The Liberal Democrats have four women (33%) and the SNP 12 (34%). With political parties acting as the gatekeepers to Westminster, all must do more – political recruitment is best understood as a verb – and some should do more than others. Until then the ‘champagne should be left on ice’.

The most effective strategy to increase the numbers of women MPs is quotas. They may not be to everyone’s taste but follow the evidence: quotas deliver women into political office. The success of Labour’s All Women Shortlists and the Republic of Ireland’s quotas demonstrate this. In the Irish case, as Fiona Buckley has shown, the number of women candidates increased by 90% and the number of TDs elected – 35 (22%) – represents a 40% increase on the previous election.

As one of the two main political parties in the UK, the Conservatives have repeatedly resisted the logic of quotas and chosen not to make use of the legislation that permits their use until 2030. In Government, they have also rejected the quota recommendations of the Good Parliament Report and the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee Report on Women in Parliament. This isn’t good enough: the Conservatives saw a decline in their number of women MPs in 2017 and stood still in percentage terms. Political change – the upward trajectory of more women in Parliament – does not just happen. Quotas have to be put back on the table in 2018; and at the very least, the Government should commence Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 so that public can hold the parties to account vis-a-vis the selection of parliamentary candidates. Let’s see which MPs sign Bernard Jenkin’s Early Day Motion, and which MPs choose to ignore the most minimal of requirements, namely, candidate diversity data transparency.

Professor Sarah Childs

Parliament for Women
No-one, following the expose of sexual harassment at Westminster, can be under any illusion that Parliament is a gender-equal institution. The Good Parliament Report documented its diversity insensitivities and made 43 recommendations. The Commons Reference Group on Representation Inclusion, established and chaired by Mr Speaker, has been working since autumn 2016 on taking this agenda forward. Only last week the House agreed to the ‘Mother of the House’, Harriet Harman’s motion on baby leave. The Procedure Committee will now undertake an inquiry into how to best implement this. Securing leave for new parent MPs would be a belated, but nonetheless symbolic and substantive rule change that really would be something new to celebrate in 2018. ‘Anti’ mutterings have already been heard, and so attention must be given to the possibility of backlash.

Politics for Women
Our politics should address the concerns and views of women as well as men. Questions of who can act for women, and what acting for women means, is, however, contested in academic circles and amongst MPs. For some, good substantive representation (acting for women) means feminist substantive representation. For some, it means representation by women. But beware not to confuse women’s bodies with feminist minds; women do not come in one political hue; and men make representative claims ‘for women’. Political debate over the ‘good substantive representation’ is to be welcomed. It helps identify what is in the interests of women, has the potential to re-gender parties’ political programmes, and to deliver a better politics for all.

Politics should be something that ordinary women think about and do, ordinarily, as part of their everyday lives. Votes for women in 1918, and more so in 1928, redressed a basic political inequality. Redressing the gendered democratic deficits in respect of seats, political institutions and politics should be the ‘deeds’ of 2018; nice ‘words’ by political parties and by the Government will not suffice. Both should act, and it is not as if there isn’t a ‘shopping bag’ of reforms out there, ready to be picked up…and acted upon.

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Tapping into Birkbeck’s talent

Hannah and Emmeline from Birkbeck’s in-house recruitment agency for students and recent graduates, Birkbeck Talent, explain how the service can benefit employers.

Businesses looking to attract new candidates in the recruitment process have been drawing the most talented applicants through Birkbeck’s professional, in-house recruitment agency, Birkbeck Talent, since its foundation in 2015. In this time, Birkbeck Talent has placed 384 students or recent graduates into jobs or internships.

Birkbeck Talent bridges the gap between employers and students by offering paid employment opportunities, finding and shortlisting students and graduates to meet the recruitment needs of businesses all over London and the surrounding areas.

The service provides candidates for:

  • immediate and future graduate positions
  • senior roles aimed at experienced students
  • entry-level roles for students
  • placements and internships

Employer profile: Maria Arpa

When alumna Maria Arpa from the Centre for Peaceful Solutions wanted to recruit a member for her team, she turned to Birkbeck Talent after her friend Caroline Nelson from Viva Sing Spanish had recommended the service; “It was a no-brainer. As a graduate of Birkbeck, I was happy to give it a go and, to be honest, other adverts had not generated the quality of candidate I was looking for. Birkbeck Talent visited us, took a detailed brief and shortlisted 4 high-quality candidates for a Skype interview.

“They kept us informed every step of the way and arranged the interviews seamlessly. Of course, the measure of a professional service is when they make it seem effortless and they made it so easy for me. For a very small organisation, finding a good ‘fit’ is really important which can be difficult when time is not on your side. We’re delighted to have hired our ideal candidate through Birkbeck Talent.”

Find out more and submit your vacancy here.

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Meet the Ronald Tress Prize runners-up

The Ronald Tress Prize was established to celebrate excellence in research by early career academics. In this blog, we learn more about the runners-up of the award.

Philip Pogge von Strandmann, Reader in Isotope Geochemistry

“I’m a biogeochemist, studying how the climate responds to, and recovers from, natural climate change events that occurred in the past. This provides us with information on what will happen as the Earth warms up in the future. In particular, at the moment I’m researching how the planet has broadly kept its climate stable enough for 4 billion years of life to exist. In other words, there is a natural thermostatic regulator of the climate – it operates quite slowly (hundreds of thousands of years), but stops the Earth becoming Venus-like. It is the process that will eventually allow the climate to recover from our activities – and we may also be able to speed it up, to assist us in mitigating climate change.

“I came to Birkbeck (and UCL, who employ me jointly) in 2013 after a NERC advanced research fellowship at Oxford. Before that I was a post-doc at Bristol, a PhD student at the Open University and an undergrad at Oxford. Birkbeck has been a good place both to do research and teach – it has less inertia to get things done than other institutions, and lets departments make important decisions.”

Dr Duncan Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

“I received my PhD in industrial-organizational psychology from Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, which I completed on the validity of assessment centres.  I have continued with this line of research into the present and am currently broadening my research to encompass other types of measure commonly used in organisations, including 360 degree ratings, situational judgment tests, and interviews.

“My research challenges key assumptions widely held about measurement in organisations; particularly assumptions regarding the measurement of competencies (e.g., teamwork abilities, communication skills) that are ubiquitous in the organisational environment.  I have published in some of the leading journals in my discipline, including the Journal of Applied Psychology, the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, and Personnel Psychology.  I have contributed to the international guidelines on assessment centres published in the Journal of Management and I was previously chief editor on the volume The Psychology of Assessment Centers published through Routledge New York.”

Dr Rebecca Whiting, Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

“I’ve been in my current role since March 2015 though my connection with the College goes back further; I completed both my MSc and PhD in the same department, both part-time.  After completing my doctorate, I worked in the College as a researcher on the Age at Work project, then for a couple of years at the Open University as a researcher on the Digital Brain Switch project, before returning to Birkbeck to take up my academic role. Like many of our students at Birkbeck, I know what’s involved to study whilst working and to undertake a career change (I started out as a lawyer).  It’s a privilege now to be teaching students pursuing degree studies at different stages of their lives and for various purposes.

“My current research covers three main areas: age in relation to work, the role of digital technologies in the organization of contemporary working life, and internet ethics. Digital technologies are at the heart of my substantive research interests and the methodologies I use for research and dissemination. In a field traditionally dominated by quantitative methods, one of my contributions has been to enhance the methodological options available to organizational psychologists through my use and promotion of qualitative approaches.”

Dr Pedro Gomes, Lecturer in Economics

“I completed a PhD in Economics in 2010, at the London School of Economics. The title of my thesis was “Macroeconomic effects of fiscal policy” and it was supervised by the Nobel Prize winner Sir Christopher Pissarides. After completing my doctorate, I took my first academic position at Universidad Carlos III in Madrid. I’ve just started as a Lecturer at Birkbeck, joining in 2017. What I like about teaching at Birkbeck is that most students have accumulated so many different experiences in their lives that I see them as my peers, rather than students. I teach them Economics, but I feel I could learn as much from them in other areas, as they can learn from me. This makes the lectures all the more interactive and challenging.

“My current research focuses on understanding the effects of public sector employment and wage policies. Public sector employment is a major element of both the labour market and government budgets. In the UK, public sector employment, including NHS and Armed Forces, represents 22% of total employment and its wage bill represents 52% of government consumption expenditure. It is particularly sizable for specific groups of workers. The UK public sector hires 37% of all college graduates; 34% of all working women; and 30% of all workers age 47-55. Decisions like raising pay by 3% instead of 1% or hiring 20000 workers instead of firing 10000, affect the state of public finances, as well as the unemployment rate or private sector wages. Understanding what are the effects of these decisions and whether the chosen government policies are the best for the country is the goal of my research.”

Dr Sarah Marks, Postdoctoral Researcher in History

“I joined Birkbeck in October 2016 as a historian working with the Hidden Persuaders research group, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project examines the ‘psy’ professions – psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis – during the Cold War, and particularly how debates about brainwashing and hidden persuasion shaped their reputation at the time and into today.

“Much of my own work focuses on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain, on how these professions operated under Communism, and what models of mind and therapy were developed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet sphere, in addition to the abuses that we’re more familiar with. This offers a more balanced account of the Cold War, moving away from stereotypes about the ‘stultification’ of science and medicine in the socialist world by comparison with the West. It’s useful to look back at this history for policy today: many countries in the region are beginning to embark on mental health care reforms, and are dealing with the legacies of the past. Birkbeck is an incredible research environment to be part of – I’ve been impressed by the sheer range of different projects being undertaken here, and the vibrancy of seminars and events where both staff and students participate. It’s clear that this culture feeds in to the teaching, too, making the college a rich and unique forum for ideas and debate.”

Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art

“I worked as a curator in Australian art museums before completing my PhD and joining the History of Art department at Birkbeck in 2013. I have a long-standing interest in the visual culture of the British empire, and the role and special character of travelling artists in the nineteenth century. I have recently completed a book called Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition. My work on the iconography of slavery has led more recently to an interest in the cultural legacies of British slave-ownership, particularly as it relates to the early history of public art museums in Britain.

My publications include an award-winning book, The Encounter, 1802: Art of the Flinders and Baudin Voyages (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2002), book chapters including ‘Slaves and the spectacle of torture: British artists in the New World’ (2013) and ‘Allegorizing Extinction: Humboldt, Darwin and the Valedictory Image’ (2015), and journal articles such as ‘The Spectre of Empire in the British Art Museum’ (Museum History Journal, 2013). Birkbeck provides a very supportive research environment for an emerging scholar. I currently run a work placement module for MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures students, and as part of this I very much enjoy working in partnership with museums across London.”

Meet the winners of the Ronald Tress Prize here. 


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Birkbeck’s telephone fundraising campaign – meet the Student Callers

Say hello to the new Birkbeck student callers who will be working on the telephone campaign to raise valuable funds for bursaries, facilities and support services.

The Birkbeck Autumn Telephone Campaign has now begun. A team of dedicated Birkbeck student fundraisers will be contacting alumni over the next five weeks to fundraise for College priorities, including bursaries. 40% of Birkbeck students require some form of financial assistance, and often this support is key for bursary recipients to be able to complete their studies.

Not only do alumni gifts provide financial assistance to these deserving students but they can also have an impact on life at the College, ensuring that future generations of students have the best facilities, support, advice and career guidance during their time at Birkbeck.

We have been running telephone fundraising campaigns for the past nine years, with over 300 telephone fundraisers taking part so far. Tara Millington, Regular Giving Officer at Birkbeck has said: “In the last telephone campaign, our telephone fundraisers secured over £93,000 in pledged donations. This is a real testament to how generous our alumni are – their support can make a huge difference for both current and future students here at Birkbeck. Not only do the callers gain valuable fundraising experience, they really enjoy speaking to alumni and hearing about their experiences.”

The Autumn Campaign will run between 30 October and 2 December – if you’d like to receive a call from one of our students, please get in touch with Tara Millington (

We talked to this year’s Student Callers about why they wanted to participate in this year’s campaign:

Grace, MSc Environment & Sustainability: “I wanted to be more involved in university life and to help raise money to support the student services available at Birkbeck. I’m looking forward to speaking to Alumni and hearing about their experiences”.

Jasmine, MA Victorian Studies: “I wanted to do something for Birkbeck whilst I’m a student here, I think it’s important to raise money for ongoing projects, scholarships and bursaries that benefit both current and future students”.

Thomas, MA Philosophy: “I wanted to gain experience of working within a University. This kind of fundraising allows students to have opportunities they otherwise might not, and I think that’s important.”

Kelli, PhD Film and Screen Media: “I wanted to improve my communication skills and I believe in the objective and importance of alumni relations – which benefits current students in so many ways”.

Tasawar, MSc Middle East in Global Politics: “I wanted to gain experience in connecting with Birkbeck alumni, I think it’s important to give back to a community that you will always be a part of”.

Shakeela, Cert HE Counselling and Counselling Skills: “I was a caller in the last Telephone Campaign – it’s a chance to give back to Birkbeck and gain experience in a fundraising role.”

Shade, MSc Global Criminology: “I wanted to gain fundraising experience and to talk to alumni about their experiences at Birkbeck. Fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it gives a chance to students who may not be able to study without financial help.”

Roland, Counselling Skills“I wanted to get to know Birkbeck better by meeting other students and talking to alumni – fundraising is important as it keeps alumni engaged with Birkbeck and gets the message out there about the good work Birkbeck is doing”

Madeline, BA Creative Writing and English: “I’ve worked on the last two Birkbeck Telephone Campaigns and loved the calling team and getting to speak with alumni about their experiences.”

Melissa, BSc Geography: “I’m a returning caller to this campaign – I want to gain some fundraising experience and feel that raising money for Birkbeck is a sound and just reason; I feel privileged to be able to attend university myself. The bursary I received is incredibly helpful, and the career service at Birkbeck is invaluable.”

Mohammed, BSc Psychology: “It felt like a good opportunity to get involved and be more of a part of Birkbeck, whilst gaining valuable fundraising experience.”

Moonlie, MSc Education, Power and Social Change: “I want to fundraise for the support made possible by alumni donations e.g. career support for disabled students and to enhance the student experience.  I’ve called in a previous campaign and really enjoyed speaking to alumni.”

Ria, BSc Biomedicine: “I’m a returning caller from a previous campaign, and really enjoyed speaking to alumni and gaining fundraising experience. It’s very exciting to be able to speak to alumni.”


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Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, discusses Stage One of our online redesign.

Stage one of Birkbeck’s ambitious Digital Transformation Project went live on 16 May 2017, with the launch of a bold new design and layout for our homepage, corporate site and online prospectus. Since then, External Relations and the ITS Web Team have busily continued with improvements that, while less dramatic in terms of immediate, aesthetic impact, are just as important for bettering the user experience, optimising the accessibility of our website for all users, and making sure visitors can get the information they want quickly and easily.

A core principle of the Digital Transformation Project is that our decisions should be evidence-based and user-focused. In pursuit of this goal, we regularly test users’ responses to our website. Since February 2017, we have run around 50 user testing sessions, which covered the pre-launch, launch and post-launch phases of stage one. Some initial changes we made as a result of user feedback were adjustments to styling and making information clearer and easier to find.

During the June user testing sessions, we looked at how users search for courses and judge their quality, using Google, UCAS, and other comparison and rating sites. As a result, we implemented improvements to usability on our online prospectus, including: rewording and redesigning buttons and signposts; adding links to other available years of entry and to other versions of the same course (‘Related courses’); retitling fields to make browsing easier; and adding career destinations information (pulled from Unistats) to all of our full-time undergraduate courses.

As well as identifying usability issues, regular user testing is also increasing our understanding of how people use our website, which informs future developments. This feedback is proving vital for the next part of the Digital Transformation Project, which is focused on improving our site and course search. We know that the majority of our visitors come to us via Google. But we have learned that an increasing number of visitors – especially younger users – primarily navigate our site via internal course and site search, or externally through Google, rather than using our menus. This makes it even more pressing to ensure our search facility is the best it can be, which is one of our primary aims for the immediate future. User testing sessions in August concentrated on course and site search; they confirmed that improvement is needed and provided vital information on how users expect a search facility to work on a university website.

We are also looking at how students use school/department content on the Birkbeck website and how this content fits into the user journey. This is with a view to launching a project to bring our school/department content into the new visual identity and web design, which will also include rationalising and improving content and navigation, in order to enhance the user experience and ensure all of our users can find the information they need.

In External Relations, our focus so far has been on improving our online prospectus, the most visited and the most important part of our entire website. Depending on the time of year, our online prospectus can total well over 4000 pages, each with its own unique content and each playing a vital role in telling prospective students about Birkbeck and encouraging them to apply. Improving our online prospectus has two strands: rewriting descriptive text for our courses and improving all of the modules that are currently available for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In both instances, we have been applying our new house style and polishing content to make our course and module descriptions accurate and engaging. Our primary aim with any online course description is to grab the reader’s attention and let them know about what is unique, interesting and exciting about the course and about Birkbeck.

An example of a programme page in our new design.

On our programme pages, we have focused attention on the overview, highlights and course structure fields. We know from heat maps and analytics that these are the most visited parts of every programme page, so we wanted to dedicate time and attention to making this text really sing. It’s important to us that we do justice to the intellectually stimulating content of our courses, to the dedicated, world-leading academics who teach them, and to the life-changing opportunities offered by Birkbeck’s unique model of evening study. We have also been working hard with colleagues to ensure our online course pages are compliant with new legal requirements from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). These changes will increase the usefulness of our online prospectus by presenting important information on student contact hours, independent learning, learning development and support, and how students are taught and assessed across Birkbeck.

Our module improvement project has one primary focus: ensuring that every available module at Birkbeck is part of our online prospectus and includes rich, appealingly written descriptive text that adheres to our new house style. We have been working closely with our colleagues across Birkbeck’s five schools to source content and have updated and improved around 200 modules so far.

So, what difference has our redesign made, in terms of the number and quality of visits? An important measure of improvement and quality is the increased amount of time people are spending on our site; visitors spend longer engaging with the improved content and are finding it easier to navigate between different areas. There has also been an increase in the number of returning visitors, so we know that people are coming back to us.

Our online prospectus remains the focus of most visitors’ attention and continues to attract the highest interest. User testing and analytics reveal that, for many visitors, our course pages are their first interaction with Birkbeck, so one of our primary aims with the new web design has been to convert each of our online course pages into a ‘mini-homepage’, with links to news, events and research across Birkbeck and to vital information, such as financial support, student services and accommodation. To this end, we added tertiary signposts to every programme page and we are now seeing that people use our course pages as their main entry route into, and the jumping-off point to, other parts of the Birkbeck website. Other parts of our site have been dramatically upgraded: there are far fewer pages and we have consolidated information in one place and converted old information into downloadable documents, where appropriate. This has led to a significant increase in engagement: visitors are now spending more time on these pages and going through the information more thoroughly, because it’s all in one place and easily navigable.

Meanwhile, we have instituted a regular weekly maintenance slot, during which three web editors in External Relations make requested changes to all areas of our new site. Since May, we have implemented hundreds of such requests, all with the purpose of improving the accuracy and helpfulness of our content.

We have also developed an entirely new Digital Standards area on our website, which provides advice, information and support to all Birkbeck staff who need to convey information online. You can read our house style guide, find out about search engine optimisation, get practical information on links, files and redirects, and learn more about our visual identity and our social media guidelines. We are working hard to supplement this online support with bespoke face-to-face training, which we are in the process of developing. We have also begun using new software that identifies accessibility, content and coding issues across our site, which is greatly helping us continually maintain and improve the new site.

We have a series of ‘conversion goals’ on our website, whereby a user’s visit is translated into an action. We primarily want visitors to: order a prospectus; or book an Open Evening; or submit an application to study. We have seen a dramatic increase in these since we launched the new website, so it is pleasing to see that our work continues to support and advance the primary objectives of the Digital Transformation Project.


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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/flat mates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you, if possible.
  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 BBK Welcome and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre on Saturday 30 September 2017. 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 Whats App 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 and/or Stratford. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and cultural and sporting facilities close to both our campuses.
  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. Download the Birkbeck app to view your course resources and assignments, help you prepare for the start of term, and communicate with fellow new students from your School prior to starting your course.
  12. 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 post-storm city: the very different depictions of Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina

Dr Anna Hartnell comments on the different responses to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and how in both disasters, it has been the poorest who are hardest hit. This article first appeared on openDemocracy.

‘It happened to Texas and Texas can handle anything’, President Trump said last week, waving the flag of the Lone Star State to an approving crowd in Corpus Christi in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  ‘They represent truly the very best of America’, he added later. Trump’s characterisation of Harvey as a trial to be met by Texan grit and an all-American resilience couldn’t be further from the portrait painted of those impacted by Hurricane Katrina by President George W. Bush 12 years earlier. Following an aerial tour of New Orleans completed soon after Katrina, he remarked ‘I’ve just completed a tour of some devastated country’; he also claimed to ‘know the people of this part of the world are suffering…’ People ‘from this part of the world’, Bush insisted, would not be forgotten.

Bush’s disconnect from the region reflected a larger sense that post-Katrina New Orleans resembled a ‘Third World’ disaster zone, a sense that also led to storm survivors being widely referred to as ‘refugees’, despite the fact that only a tiny minority were not US citizens. This feeling that the post-storm city was not quite American has a long history. It relates to the fact that New Orleans is a majority-black city, but is also connected to the city’s distinctive and pronounced relationship to its French and Spanish colonial past, its links to West Africa, and its apparent flouting of the Protestant work ethic as evidenced in its calendar of festivals, its rich parading and performance culture, and an economy dominated by tourism. New Orleans has thus come to stand out as a quaint relic amidst a relentlessly forward-looking national culture that dispenses with the past in favour of the future.

This stereotypic understanding of New Orleans culture made it into a New York Times piece written last week, which suggests that when ‘Katrina devastated New Orleans, the disaster played out in an eccentric anachronism, a city of modest economic heft proudly tethered to its exotic past. But Harvey has inundated a city perpetually looking to the future, a place built on boundless entrepreneurialism, the glories of air conditioning, a fierce aversion to regulation and a sense of limitless possibility.’ Where New Orleans has long been cast as a disaster waiting to happen, Houston, the coverage seems to be suggesting, will triumph. It is a ‘muscular’, ‘resilient’ city, whereas New Orleans, historically portrayed in literature as weak and effeminate, is imagined in very different terms. While both cities are sited in improbable locations, vulnerable to floods and storms, it is New Orleans and not Houston that is seen as somehow irresponsible for perpetuating its own existence. In the wake of Katrina, there were widespread calls for footprint shrinkage and some commentators went so far as to suggest that the city should not be rebuilt. Despite the rapid growth that has led to Houston becoming synonymous with unsustainable sprawl and concrete, the merits of rebuilding have not been challenged.

Texas stands at the centre of national narratives of rugged individualism and self-reliance, and Houston in many ways represents the neoliberal expression of these values, a playground of unregulated physical and economic growth. So where the story about New Orleans after Katrina was dominated by a narrative about race and class, the racialised poverty that the Hurricane seemingly uncovered, the story about Houston in the wake of Harvey has been embodied by the image of the white, middle-class home owner. Where, according to grotesquely inaccurate and racist media coverage, New Orleanians behaved badly after the storm, the best is being brought out in Texas.

This is not another Katrina, the narrative insists. Disasters, so the myth goes, are great social levellers.  Another recent New York Times story captures the essence of this political and media messaging: ‘Storm With “No Boundaries” Took Aim at Rich and Poor Alike’.  Although this piece does acknowledge that once disaster has struck, the poor have fewer options, this is an enormous understatement. Where depictions of Katrina survivors were sensationalised and often overtly racist, those who will be hit hardest by Harvey have been rendered all but invisible.

What the very different characterisations of post-Katrina New Orleans as compared to post-Harvey Houston obscure is the very sizeable minority and low-income communities in Texas who did not own cars with which to evacuate or homes against which to claim insurance. 30% of Houston’s population live below the poverty line and more than 40% do not own their own homes. As the lessons of Katrina have shown, it is renters and those living in public housing who are most vulnerable to homelessness and displacement following a disaster of this kind. And just as poor black Americans in New Orleans were more likely to inhabit lower-lying and thus flood-prone land, communities of colour in Houston are similarly exposed to risk, living in close proximity to the oil refineries and chemical plants that in the wake of the storm are leaking dangerous levels of pollutants into the environment.

Hypervisible in the case of Katrina and invisible in the case of Harvey, low-income communities of colour are on the front line of climate change in the United States, just as they are across the rest of the world. Stories about plucky Texans facing up to the storm, or indeed about looting in New Orleans, seek to suck us back into the ‘human interest’ narrative of the here and now, into the seductive rhetoric of everyday survival. Meanwhile, the larger, deeply discomforting significance of storms like Harvey and Katrina, as signs of things to come, remain in shadow.


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