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Black History Month and beyond: in conversation with Dr William Ackah

Senior Lecturer in Black and Community Geographies in the Department of Geography, Dr William Ackah’s academic specialism is around issues of religion and politics across the African diaspora. Here, we find out more about his work.  

Where did your interest in Black diaspora and community development start?
My family came from Ghana to Britain in the 1960’s, and I was born in Walthamstow, East London – so my childhood took place in fairly multicultural setting. I went to Liverpool for university, and after that, went to live in Haiti for a year, to teach English. It was what I experienced there that had a profound impact on the shaping of my political and academic interests.  

Haiti was the first independent Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere, the place where African descendents had thrown off the shackles of white supremacy. It was a place of inspiration but also a place of pain and suffering. I witnessed oppression and poverty based on years of corrupt governance, international neglect and the crazed absurdity that Haiti was paying France reparations.  Seeing what was happening to my fellow African brothers and sisters made me recognise that when I came back to the UK I would want to undertake work to assist in restoring the legacies and improving the lived experiences of people of the African diaspora.  

How did you begin to do that?  
Back in the UK, I initially pursued a more academic vocation, studying for a Master’s in Pan-Africanism, which was all about linking the experiences of Black communities across the globe and looking at their relationships, their common points and differences. And that was the kind of work I then pursued in some shape or another, whilst living in the North West of England for several years.  

I worked in a Black Community College, teaching students largely from Black communities in Liverpool, who had been failed by the school system and lacked confidence in their academic ability. It was really rewarding work. I taught them Black history and Black studies and saw how it helped build their self-esteem and confidence. I saw how in turn, that enabled many of them to get into Higher Education spaces – something that up until that point, many of them had felt wasn’t accessible to them. 

After several years doing this, I moved into higher education, teaching Race Equality Studies at what’s now known as Edge Hill University. All the while, I was doing my PhD doctoral work in Government. Once that was complete, I came to Birkbeck, teaching about Community Development. It was similar work to what I’d always done: all about uplifting marginalised communities, encouraging thought about people whose stories and experiences get ignored and how they can be empowered to improve their own lives, to challenge unfair systems, and fight for equality and justice. That’s at the heart of what I do for Birkbeck, as the programme director for Community Development and Public Policy.  

What else has influenced your work?  
While in the USA in 2009, on a sabbatical, I interacted with some African American Scholars, including Drew Smith, a Professor of Urban Politics, looking at the impact of religion and politics on Black communities. We became good friends and found our interests overlapped and fed each other in very interesting ways. So, we formed, along with Rothney Tshaka from South Africa, the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. This initiative brings together scholars of African descent with faith-based leaders, to think about how spiritual and religious connections can enable people to make a difference to improve the lives of people of African descent.  

Then in 2016/17, I was a Fulbright Research Scholar, again in the US. I was looking at the city of Pittsburgh, urban revistalisation, and the impact that gentrification has on African American congregations and communities there. I’m currently writing that research up, then working on a broader book project that explores the idea of Black space. I make the argument that Black space matters, and that African descended people need our own geographical, cultural and spiritual spaces to resist patterns of erasure, of racism, of gentrification; patterns that have denied us space and in doing so, denied us the opportunity to be who we want to be. 

What are you doing to help create Black space? 
A lot of my work for both Birkbeck and the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR) involves community building. With the TRRR, we hold international conferences, two of which have been hosted by Birkbeck, exploring African diaspora and faith. We also produce academic texts on various themes such as culture and spirituality across Africa and the African diaspora, Black churches and contesting multiculturalism, and most recently racialised healthcare in the context of Covid-19. 

Community building is an important aspect of my academic and personal practice. During Covid, working with a group of Black Christians, we started an online space called ‘BlakPak’. It’s a two-pronged initiative. First, we interview prominent people in the Black community in Britain who have something to share with the wider community. It’s called BlakPak as a play on the word, backpack: what’s in your BlakPak? What’s your historical experience and understanding of life? What is it that you’ve drawn on and learnt that you can share with the wider community? We’ve had speakers like Margaret Busby, one of the first Black publishers in Britain, and Gus John, a leading Black academic and activist.  

The second prong is an international dimension that we call ‘Critical Conversations’, where we bring together people from Britain with people from the US, the Caribbean and from the continent to have conversations around issues that we think are impacting us as a community globally. These might be about health, criminal justice systems, the state of Black womanhood and so on. The whole thing is targeted at ordinary people, the idea is to create a repository of Black wisdom, in the hope it can contribute to uplifting communities.   

For me, it’s a win if people access this information, then go away and, in their sphere, think ‘let me go and make a difference’. Raising awareness and disseminating wisdom and conversations from community elders and experts is so important, because it can result in people taking tangible action.  

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Student hacks for living in London

BA Global Politics and International Relations student, Aditya Mukherjee, shares his favourite tips for enjoying life as a Birkbeck student in London, on a budget.  

Living in London as a student can be quite a challenge, especially for mature students like me, who might find adjusting to a student budget tricky. However, as the saying goes: ‘where there is a will, there is a way’. It’s therefore my pleasure to share the following hacks to enjoy life in London on a budget and as a Birkbeck student. 

Lunch and dinner parties 
Getting together for lunch and dinner parties at home is a brilliant way to swap expensive meals in restaurants for a cozier, low-budget time together with friends and delicious food. It’s also a very good way to make friends and explore the different cuisines and cultures of your fellow students. When my friends and I host our meals, we either get groceries together or decide in advance what we can cook together and who brings what, which brings out the best of what each person has to offer. It’s a great way to build relationships while enjoying great food and drink from all over the world. 

George Birkbeck Bar 
If going out for a pint or glass of wine becomes inevitable, the George Birkbeck Bar, located on the 4th floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street building, is the perfect place. Open from 2-11pm, the George Birkbeck Bar offers spirits, drinks and snacks at very affordable prices compared to other pubs in Central London – you can get a pint for £3.50! Available to students right in the middle of campus, there is terrace seating overlooking Torrington Square, making it the perfect place for evening views of the city and lively pub conversations. Don’t miss out!  

Terrace 5 
Terrace 5 is Birkbeck’s canteen, located on the 5th floor of the Malet Street building. It offers a wide range of hot lunch selections every afternoon. For just £6, students can get a delicious and filling lunch that has a main, two sides and a salad. In addition to this, Terrace 5 is open until 6:30pm and there is always a selection of soups, salads, and sandwiches available to purchase even after lunch service has finished. This means a quick dinner before class can also be enjoyed. 

Bloomsbury Farmers Market
If you are ever in the mood for something exotic, the Bloomsbury Farmers Market in Torrington Square every Thursday is the place to be. Though on the pricy side for most students (£11- £15 for a meal), for those who would like to spice up their Thursdays, it offers a diverse selection of cuisines from all over the world right on Birkbeck’s doorstep. A good hack for getting around the slightly more expensive prices, is to go just at closing time at 2pm, when a lot of stalls are more than happy to sell their meals at half price. It may not work at every stall, but coming from experience, it is worth a try. 

Hare Krishna free lunches 
If you are in the mood for a healthy vegetarian meal, try the free lunch offered by Hare Krishna devotees of London’s Radha-Krishna Temple. The lunch is offered every day from 12-2pm just outside SOAS, which is very close to Birkbeck’s main buildings. It’s impossible to miss, as there are usually queues of students waiting to be served.  

Totum Student discount card and app
This is an absolute must-have, as you get discounts on a range of stores, restaurants and services, advertised on a weekly and monthly basis. The website updates the deals on offer regularly, and if used strategically, it can help save a lot of valuable pounds and pennies.   

Birkbeck student card
Did you know that your Birkbeck student card can also get you discounts while out and about? A vast array of retailers and restaurants offer student discounts if you flash your student card, including Honest Burgers, Yo Sushi, ASOS, Odeon cinemas and many more.  

Birkbeck Film Club 
For movie buffs, who want to keep their viewing up but can’t afford weekly cinema trips, consider joining the Birkbeck Film Club. A club for students to discover films, including those you may not encounter on big commercial screens, Birkbeck Film Club hosts regular film screenings for its members. Themed weeks showcase films from different categories, including French, Spanish, LGBT and more. It’s a great platform to discover arthouse, international, documentary and classic films right on Birkbeck’s campus – for free. Membership is open to current students and alumni, so it’s also a great way to make friends and have interesting conversations after screenings too.  

So, there we have it, those are some of my favourite hacks for living on a student budget in London. But for good measure, here are some final quick-fire hacks too:  

  • Save money on haircuts by joining Facebook groups of ‘@Hair Models in London’ 
  • Sign yourself up for a National Rail Card to get discounts on train travel around the UK   
  • For affordable clothing on a budget, Primark offers stylish options  
  • Get 30% off travel on the Transport for London network, by purchasing and registering a student Oyster card  
  • Fever: an app for various events in London, featuring discounts  
  • Unidays app: similar to Totum, this offers discounts for many retailers   
  • Poundland: get homewares, snacks, and miscellaneous items for just £1  
  • Savers: grab yourself toiletries, beauty products other personal care items for affordable prices  
  • Supermarkets: make use of Meal Deals for £3, which include a drink, a main, and a snack  
  • Too Good to Go: an app that lets you collect, for free or very cheap, perfectly good food from stores that would otherwise be thrown out at the end of each day   

 

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Remembering Professor Kathleen Booth, 1922-2022

The pioneering computer scientist was instrumental in founding Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and her legacy lives on in the College today.

Kathleen Booth

We were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Kathleen Booth (née Britten) on Thursday 29 September 2022.

Kathleen was one of the founding members of Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science in 1946 and she is internationally recognised for her contribution to the field.

Together with her husband Andrew Booth, Kathleen designed and built the College’s first computer, which was followed by increasingly sophisticated models. Kathleen was a skilled software developer and published a book entitled ‘Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator’ in 1958.

The Booths left Birkbeck in 1962 to pursue academic careers in Canada and their legacy is remembered each year at the Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture. In 2022, the lecture was an opportunity to celebrate Kathleen’s 100th birthday, and we were delighted to share a recorded message from Kathleen with the audience.

Kathleen’s legacy as a pioneering woman in computer science lives on through the Kathleen Booth Anniversary PhD Studentship, which aims to increase diversity in an industry that continues to be male-dominated.

We are grateful for Kathleen’s contribution to computing and to Birkbeck and our thoughts are with her family at this difficult time.

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Uniting as a community to support bisexual awareness and visibility

With Bisexual Awareness Week running from 16 to 23 September 2022, Birkbeck Students’ Union LGBTQ+ officer, Tonya Moralez (Xe/Xem), talks about why it’s an important week, and what their plans are as LGBTQ+ officer to support the bisexual community.

Bisexual Awareness Week (also known as Bi Week) is an important part of the LGBTQ+ calendar and is different from Bisexual Awareness Month, which takes place in March. It was co-founded in 2016 by charities GLADD and BiNet USA to celebrate bisexuality and bring awareness to bisexual or bisexual plus (Bi+) people within the LGBTQ+ community. As well as celebration, the aim is to educate about obstacles faced by the bisexual community and to encourage positive action and policies.   

One of the well-known challenges unique to individuals identifying as Bi+, is that those who ‘accept’ homosexuality can still be prejudiced or condescending towards Bi+ people by not taking their sexual orientation seriously. 

Examples of this include Bi+ people being told that they’re ‘greedy’ for ‘wanting’ more than one gender, or that they must be ‘confused’ about their orientation. Often these types of comments come not only from conventional heteronormative, cis-gendered people, but also from members of the LGBTQ+ community itself. In my early years within the community, I regularly heard people claim with mocking frustration that they wouldn’t date bisexuals, out of fear that Bi+ people couldn’t be monogamous or loyal due to having multi-sexual interests. Without question, this sentiment is Bi-phobic. 

The fact that Bisexuality has often been fetishized in the media does little to help this. Often portrayed as changeable, overtly attractive, desirable and trendy, Bi+ characters are either reduced to sexual objects or plot devices. This sort of reductive portrayal can contribute to the false idea that Bi+ people’s challenges are trivial, and make it difficult for them to feel truly seen and accepted by both sides: ‘straight’ and ‘gay’. 

I think most LGBTQ+ people can agree how patronizing and invalidating it is to be told that you don’t actually know who you are, or that you should be something else. To hear these sorts of comments still regularly directed towards Bi+ people from both outside and within the LGBTQ+ community, is not only annoying, but deeply saddening. Enough of this repeated invalidation of your identity over time, can start to take its toll emotionally and psychologically. That’s why Bi-visibility Day and Bisexual Awareness Week are so important; those identifying as Bisexual, Omnisexual or Pansexual, should be visible and listened to in the LGBTQ+ community. 

I personally feel that the LGBTQIAA++ community is reaching such a large and diverse scale, that sections within the community need to have sub-groups and communities to support each category’s individual needs as much as possible. Bisexuals (along with all other identities) have their own unique social needs and issues to be accommodated and considered. Part of the solution, in my view, is to have Bi+ specific events, educational channels, and spotlight whenever possible, to raise awareness of these needs. The hope is that these activities will not only empower Bi+ people with words, resources, and information allowing them to find their voices and express their sexual orientation and identity with confidence, but also create plans for positive social action.   

As the LGBTQ+ officer at Birkbeck, I will organize events to celebrate each sub-group within the LGBTQ+ community, and ensure that a healthy portion of these are focused on Bi+ specific themes. I will work with requests and feedback received from Bi+ students within the LGBTQ+ network at Birkbeck to host Bi-visibility focused events, workshops that are shaped collaboratively and sensitively. I will also ensure I use Birkbeck Student Union’s LGBTQ+ platform to create Bi+ awareness content, to increase understanding within the LGBTQ+ community itself. 

Let us work together to ensure our Bisexual students feel as visible and supported as others within the community, let us work together to have Bisexual voices amplified by the LGBTQ+ community and allies at Birkbeck and beyond. 

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Smoke and mirrors: the sovereignty trick

Ahead of the Queen’s funeral next Monday 19 September, Dr Jason Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Programme Director of the MSc in Social and Political Theory, delves into the mystique of sovereignty. 

Buckingham Palace, London

Watching the live broadcast of the proceedings of the Accession Council on the morning of September 10 2022 is the closest many of us will ever come to seeing the trick of sovereignty played out in real time. Like all good magic tricks, sovereignty needs the right staging to convince us it is real. And there is no greater stage for performing the trick than the ritual and ceremony around the death of the monarch. 

While theorists of sovereignty don’t routinely talk about it as a trick, they have long wrestled with the problem of its mystique. The mystery of sovereignty was clearly on display at the Accession Council in its proclamation of the death of Elizabeth II and the apparently seamless accession of Charles III. The Council was not making Charles king – he became ‘our Sovereign Lord’ the moment ‘our Sovereign Lady’ died. This suggests that sovereignty was somehow transferred between two bodies, or that it was ‘alienated’ from one person to another. But if we know anything about sovereignty, or at least so the story and the language goes, it is ‘inalienable’. Indeed, the constitution of the UK relies on the idea that sovereignty both never ceases and never moves – it is always invested in a single body eternally occupying the space of command. What is the mysterious process that allows a mortal human being to become the bearer of a supposedly permanent and inalienable power of sovereignty? 

In the later Middle Ages, one way of dealing with the conundrum, as Ernst Kantorowicz sets out in a famous book, was to say that the king occupied ‘two bodies’ – the natural body of his own person and the body politic, or the state. Something of this is captured in Louis XIV’s declaration that l’état c’est moi (‘I am the state’). We might also note, as more than one commentator has this week, that for many, the Queen was Britain in a way that went beyond mere symbolism. At a time when it is increasingly difficult to discern commonly valued national institutions or a common culture, Elizabeth II was the ‘constant’ in people’s lives, the shared reference point of Britishness in a society of growing division and conflict. 

The medieval theorists maintained that the king came to occupy the body politic through an act of God. That notion remains at the heart of the Accession Proclamation: it is God ‘by whom Kings and Queens do reign’. In his Leviathan, written over the course of the English civil war, Thomas Hobbes sought to remove God from the picture of king-making; it’s not God who creates kings and queens, but the ‘Multitude United in one Person’, or the mass of the people agreeing to live under the laws of a sovereign lord.  But Hobbes wanted to maintain that the sovereign power exercised by a king or queen (or indeed by an assembly of men like a parliament) was not their possession but a power that emanated from the state as a permanent body, an ‘Artificial Man’ or a ‘Mortal God’, as he put it. This ‘Leviathan’ is the enduring site of sovereign power, of which sovereign lords and ladies are only ever bearers for a term of life. 

The Accession Council is a bit behind the times in being somewhere between the idea of the King’s two bodies and the Leviathan. In his own declaration, Charles said that he is aware “of the duties and heavy responsibilities of sovereignty which have now passed to me” and that “I know that I shall be upheld by the affection and loyalty of the peoples whose sovereign I have been called upon to be”. In other words, Charles is taking on the personal exercise of powers invested in him by God. But the picture is much more complicated. Charles knows the implications of being head of state in a constitutional monarchy, with the sovereign’s powers (such as they are) largely delegated to the government, as well as being limited and revocable by Parliament. “I shall strive to follow the inspiring example I have been set in upholding constitutional government”, he declares. The King thus acknowledges that he is one element of the state, not the state itself. All this is perfectly consistent with the constitutional law doctrine that the sovereign in the UK is the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’. 

But if a magician promised to pull a rabbit out of a hat and rather produced a tedious document defining what ‘rabbit’ means, we’d probably feel short-changed. The Accession Council was about sustaining the illusion that the King Charles-shaped figure pulled out of the hat is not just the sovereign but sovereignty itself, when we know that this cannot be the case. So the trick can’t stop there. On Saturday, it culminated with the revelation of the sovereign – in obvious tension with the idea of a constitutionally bound monarch – as the unbound law-maker or uncommanded commander (legibus solutus). The concept of an earthly sovereign, is, of course, an essentially theological one, drawn from the notion of God as uncaused cause and unmoved mover. God speaks and it happens; it’s the same idea with the sovereign. Historically, the real expression of this idea of sovereign command was the control the sovereign exercised over their subordinates. In late medieval and early modern Europe this effectively meant command of the court retinue, who promised obedience to their ‘Liege Lord’ (a feudal pledge that remains in the Accession Proclamation) and, as became increasingly important, command of the armed forces. Indeed, the clearest indication of the power of the uncommanded commander is reflected in the British monarch’s status as the ‘Commander-in-Chief’. 

The really important part of Saturday’s ceremony, then, was not the words uttered in the Accession Proclamation, which magic away the problem of how unbound sovereignty can be exercised by a sovereign bound by the constitution, but rather in the reading of the Proclamation on the balcony of St James’s Palace in front of the public. For standing there between the Heralds and the gathered spectators, were the King’s Guards, soldiers armed with bayonets fixed to their rifles, drilled to the maximum, and poised to kill on command. At one point they placed their rifles on the ground so they could raise their bearskins in a perfectly synchronised and completely terrifying rendition of three cheers for the King, an act which, if performed in front of a child at their birthday party, may well have left them traumatised for life. And this, really, is the way that sovereignty has always ultimately shown itself and completed the trick – through the awe and fear inspired by the spectacle of a very coordinated squad of trained killers coming towards you, their deadly weapons drawn. 

Sovereignty is smoke and mirrors. We know that in reality human beings don’t possess two bodies, just the one; the ‘body politic’ is not a ‘Mortal God’, but a highly differentiated complex of institutions and daily-applied rules that are constantly challenged and transformed by forces internal and external to the state; and no individual or group can last long pretending to be an uncommanded commander – if we want to survive and flourish in the world we have to engage and compromise with other people rather than just threaten to kill them. For a long time, though, many people bought the trick and embraced the mystery of sovereignty. The reasons are complex – Empire and faith both played a big role – but key was how sovereignty’s workings took place behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the public. But in the present, the permanent gaze of TV and social media mean the trick is increasingly difficult to perform convincingly. The live broadcast of the Accession Proclamation is just one example of the way in which the exercise of sovereign power has been laid bare as quite unmysterious. As Anthony Barnett notes, there are other ways in which the mystique of monarchy is fast diminishing. King Charles seems to understand well that it needs to if the institution is to survive. But the danger to the monarchy is that once the secrets of the illusion of sovereignty have been exposed, you have to find some other way of persuading people you serve any useful purpose. In today’s Britain, the new King will find that a very hard trick to pull off.  

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How to start your studies in the best way possible  

BA Global Politics and International Relations student, Aditya Mukherjee, shares his top tips on how to get stuck into your studies at Birkbeck.  

It feels great to receive an amazing grade that reflects all the hours of study and hard work that goes into preparing for an exam or creating a piece of course work. Often, however, starting a new course can feel a bit daunting: the 24 hours we have in a day slip away faster than we’d like, and study tasks and assignments can easily build up. Sure, studying something you’re enthusiastic about can help with not making it feel like an uphill trek, but every now and then, we could all do with a helping hand. So, here are my top tips for studying that will hopefully help you hit the ground running, so you can get the most out of your course.   

Strategise your time 
Planning ahead and creating a strategy for how to use your time makes the time you invest in studying more likely to pay off. Knowing how much time you have available to you and allocating it into specific sections and priorities can make a big difference. It stops tasks feeling daunting and encourages efficiency. This includes planning in advance for assignments and deadlines. Having a long-term schedule for a specific topic or assignment rather than a hyper-concentrated last-minute rush helps me produce my best work compared to working under the stress of a looming deadline. I say, you’re halfway to success already if you have a robust time management system in place.  

Colour-code your notes
One of my best friends has aggressively color coded her notes ever since school, and gets great results. Colors are not only stimulating, but they can help your brain understand at a glance what is important, what belongs to which category, and so on. So don’t be shy about unleashing your inner artist and adding colour to your notes!  

Find a study space
Finding a suitable space to study to help concentration is essential. Ideally, you want somewhere quiet and with no distractions. If you don’t have this at home, you can always find study spots at the Birkbeck Library or even in the British Library (which is a stone’s throw away from Birkbeck) to have a distraction free power hour.  

Group study
Working in groups that involve active participation and discussion can enhance your comprehension and motivate you to contribute your knowledge or theories. It’s a great way to help consolidate what you’ve learned, learn from your peers, and get the most out of your assignments. Of course, digression is part and parcel of group study, so it’s important to make sure you’re not totally distracted when this happens. Having regularly scheduled breaks can help with this, so that group sessions are concentrated bursts of collaboration. Which brings me onto the next point… 

Allow yourself to have breaks
This is something I am still learning myself. Breaks are good for the mind and body; they help relax you and can leave you feeling rejuvenated after a long studying session. I find that they work best in short, sharp bursts, as the longer you break for, the more concentration you need to get back into a studying mindset. 

Read submitted assignments for perspective 
Similar to group study sessions, reading the submitted work of your peers can really help broaden your perspective and deepen your understanding of the topics being covered in class. Chances are, you’ll learn something that you can apply to future assignments yourself. Likewise, someone could learn from your work too, so don’t be afraid to share your work – sharing is caring! 

Make use of Birkbeck’s Online Library / Subject Librarians
Did you know there is help available for students needing further source material for assignments? Birkbeck’s Subject Librarians are available for guidance and support in accessing the best library resources for your particular subject, and can be spoken to both in person, and online via a chat function! Databases and Online Resources Guides  are useful for accessing articles, books or journals online. 

Make friends with someone who is good at taking notes
Having a friend who is motivated to study is likely to make you better at your studies too! Their attention to detail will always be welcome when comparing and contrasting lesson notes, and if you ever miss a lecture because of illness, your friend can help you catch up. Together you can help each other find inspiration and energy to stay motivated, inspired and supported.  

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“I never expected to gain this much from my studies and practical experiences”

MA Film and Screen Media with Film Programming and Curating student, Riley Wong, talks about some of the experiences and opportunities she had whilst studying at Birkbeck.   

Stepping out of my comfort zone 

Many of us were influenced by the pandemic, including me. After graduating from my bachelor’s degree, I was stuck in Hong Kong and worked in a design company for a year. I liked my job, but my passion for films and dream of studying abroad was so strong that I started looking at courses and applying. When I got the offer to study film and screen media at Birkbeck, I couldn’t believe it. I knew this was a special opportunity, so I quit my job and started my journey to London.  

Why Birkbeck? 

I came to Birkbeck for several reasons. Firstly, Birkbeck is the only university I found which offers a film and screen media course with specific insight into film programming and curating. Secondly, there’s always a wide range of course-related activities and opportunities offered to film students. For example, in February, thanks to my place at Birkbeck, I found out I could join the Berlin International Film Festival as a student accreditation holder. This meant I could watch unlimited screenings and attend different masterclasses at the festival.  I had so much fun and gained valuable experience and knowledge from it. In addition to this, two months after the Berlin International Film Festival, I was honoured to be given a chance to work for Raindance Film Festival as a festival programme viewer, where I reviewed and commented on films that were submitted to their competitions.   

Work placement  

The work placement is an accredited part of the MA programme, where your tutor matches you with a suitable placement. I was initially worried that not many organisations would be interested in my profile, because I had no background with films before studying. But I didn’t give up, and nor did my tutor who was working hard to find a suitable match for me. Eventually I received an offer from UK-China Film Collab. Founded by Dr. Hiu Man Chan, UK-China Film Collab (UCFC) is an independent non-profit organisation, supporting a wide range of film-related collaborations and debates between the UK and Greater China. 

My ‘dream come true’ moment 

Supported by UCFC, I developed and organised a curatorial project in one of London’s most historic and important independent cinemas, The Prince Charles Cinema.  The programme was called “The Heroic Mission: Johnnie To Retrospective”. It featured three screenings of Hong Kong films, and conversation panels with the filmmakers and other associated experts. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. Not only did I experience how a film festival programme is curated, I also learned how it’s organised logistically from start to finish. I also got an important insight into all the different stakeholders involved in a project, and how to communicate with them. Reflecting on my time at Birkbeck, I almost find it unbelievable. I had high hopes, but I never expected to gain this much through my studies and practical experiences. I feel like the passion that brought me to London, to study films, at Birkbeck has been strengthened, and going forward, I’d like to bring more Hong Kong film culture and directors in front of a UK audience. 

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Cryptocurrencies are the ‘Great Pretender’, but have they pretended too much?

Dr. Daniele D’Alvia, Module Convener of Comparative Law at Birkbeck College, University of London and Associate Research Fellow at IALS and the European Banking Institute

Dr Daniele D’Alvia, from Birkbeck’s Law Department, explains the root philosophies behind cryptocurrency, the meaning behind ‘stablecoins, and how the cryptocurrency dream turned into a beast that ate its own tail. 

In old times if you put £1 under your mattress, you knew you could get back £1 when you went looking for it. Today, thanks to regulations developed over centuries, if you deposit £1 with a bank, you know that you can get it back, even if a bank does more with it than lock it in a vault. One major criticism of cryptocurrencies is their volatility, specifically their inability to keep their value stable. Bitcoin is a perfect example. After the price of Bitcoin peaked during its first bubble – at $1,137 on 29 November 2013 – it dropped by 84% to $183 just over a year later, on 14 January 2015. This trend repeated four years later with a cumulative drop of 83%, and happened again in November 2021.  

Now, a branch of cryptocurrencies called stablecoins are trying to back up their promise of being more stable, by replicating the equivalent of a digital vault. In brief, to maintain their value, stablecoins are usually pegged to a fiat currency – government-issued currency that is not backed by a commodity such as gold. Most modern paper currencies, such as the US dollar or the Euro, are fiat currencies. To do this, stablecoins such as Tether maintain a reserve of cash or cash-equivalent assets whose value theoretically matches the total value of the stablecoin in circulation. Translated in loose terms, when a user pays Tether $1 for a token, that money is supposed to be held in Tether’s bank accounts, but the reality can be more complex.  

As such, stablecoins are meant to address the major criticisms of cryptocurrency in two ways. First allowing crypto owners to conduct transactions without having to take volatility and sudden value changes into account and also offering a safe haven for their holdings, protected from the devaluations of the crypto market. But despite being attached to fiat currencies, stablecoins are not risk-free. TerraUSD (an algorithmic stablecoin), also known as UST, and its sister token, Luna, crashed in May 2022, sending their prices to near zero.  

These examples are based on a central idea that sees money as ‘portable power’. Money is a tool that is supposed to be easily and readily exchanged, making bartering with multiple goods and services unnecessary; allow economic exchanges to be conducted over long periods of time and distance; help provide calculation and valuation for goods and services 

To perform those functions, money must be portable, reliable, interchangeable, durable, affordable, and available. However, money is only worth only what someone is willing to give you for it; currencies in general are based on faith. Therefore, the value of money is not solely based on saleability (i.e., the material from which it is made), but is instead attached to a specific quality that attracts the lust of generations: power in terms of acceptance as a medium of exchange.  

It’s common knowledge that many supporters of cryptocurrencies are compelled by the idea of decentralisation. Unlike fiat currency that is controlled by a central bank, cryptocurrencies are processed through something known as distributed ledger technology, so they are not manged by any one entity. The whole point of cryptocurrencies is to avoid government control, and as such a decentralised sovereign cryptocurrency cannot exist. For a country’s currency to be accepted internationally, it must be carefully controlled by the country, in order for other nations to trust the currency. Cryptocurrencies are not money because they lack an official issuer and do not function like a normal means of payment. Cryptocurrencies can therefore be seen more as a form of financial asset that can be used as a speculative investment tool rather than actual currency.  

It is ironic that cryptocurrencies started as a libertarian dream to free money from the arm of the state, namely central banks and tax authorities. They were the ‘Great Pretender’, but perhaps they have been pretending too much, as the recent collapse of TerraUSD has shown. Now, with the inevitable rise of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs), a digital equivalent of fiat currencies issued by a central banks, it looks like cryptocurrency may in fact serve to empower these centralised systems that Bitcoin’s investors originally wanted to circumvent.  

To this end, CBDCs are a necessary alternative for private cryptocurrency schemes because I firmly believe that the value of money strictly depends on the power of its issuing authority, otherwise law and order would simply disappear, and anarchism would inevitably prevail. 

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10 tips on how to meet people and make friends as a new student in London

 

A group of four students sat on the grass in a park on a sunny day

BA Film and Media student, Valentina Vlasich, knows first-hand what it’s like to be a new student in London. Here, she shares her top tips on how to find opportunities to socialise and bond with classmates.  

You just moved to London after being accepted into university, a lot of exciting new experiences are on the way. But worry about meeting new people and making friends starts to set in. Never fear, here are some tips on how to overcome that concern.  

1. Know that you are not the only new person around
Even though it may seem like it is you against the world at the beginning, keep in mind that most new students are in your shoes as well. Almost everyone is a bit lost at the start of their university experience, so try bonding with others over being new and discovering London together.   

2. Start Conversations
As a shy person myself, I understand it can be difficult to come out of your shell and make the first move when meeting people. However, if you try talking to others, you will quickly realise that everyone is very approachable and eager to make new friends. A really good way to overcome shyness is to join activities that other students are organising, which leads me to my next tip… 

3. Join others to socialise after classes
Being in the heart of London gives students plenty of opportunities to go out after class and you’ll find that many students fancy going out for some drinks or food. If you have the opportunity, definitely join them – it’s a great way to learn more about your classmates outside the academic environment! 

4. Join student clubs and societies
Birkbeck has many clubs and societies for students to join, from the film society to the international student’s society, there is something for everyone. Joining a society will help you find people who share your interests and come from similar backgrounds as you, they’re great for building a sense of community. These societies are free to join, and you can join them via the Student Union website 

5. Attend events
Another fun tip is to attend one of the many cultural events offered by Birkbeck and other central London institutions. Going to events such as the film screenings at Birkbeck, or the special exhibitions at museums and galleries around London, opens the door to meeting new and interesting people.  

Valentina stood in the doorway of an gallery room about to enter

Valentina exploring one of the many galleries in central London.

6. Explore by yourself
It might sound a bit strange to recommend going solo as a tip to making friends, but you should not deprive yourself of new experiences and discovering all that London has to offer, if you have no one to join you yet. By exploring the city by yourself you will discover quirky locations, fun events, and meet new people. Going out by yourself is better than staying in your room, and one way or another, you will meet someone on your adventures.  

7. Join WhatsApp group chats
For most classes and modules someone will create a group chat to exchange information. Using these chats to talk to others and propose activities outside class is a simple way of breaking the ice with your classmates.  

 

8. Volunteer
If you don’t have a lot of spare time for socialising, volunteering is a fantastic way to use your spare time effectively and still be social. By volunteering you meet new people while dedicating less hours than you would at a job, and it is also plenty of fun. What’s more, it’s rewarding, and you are also expanding your resume at the same time.  

9. Cultural excursions
This tip is specifically for international students, but everyone can benefit from it. Birkbeck regularly offers cultural mixer activities for international students, which are a great way to meet and bond with lots of international students from different universities. Recently, for example, they offered a tour around Greenwich which was a huge success. It’s a great idea to take part in these cultural excursions, which are a great way to both meet new people and see the city!  

10. Be yourself
Finally, even if it does sound a bit cliché, you should always be yourself. Do not try to change who you are to make friends. The right people will come along and making fake friends or having to put on a façade for others will not bring you joy. London is so diverse that you will always find people who are the right fit for you, so don’t be afraid to be you. So, go out there and see what London has to offer while people join you along the way.  

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Prime Minister Truss or Sunak and the Curse of the Takeover Prime Minister

Dr Ben Worthy, Director of the MSc in Government, Policy and Politics, shares his analysis on the prospects and promises of the candidates in the running to be the next Conservative Party leader.   

One thing we can say for certain is that our next Prime Minister, whether Truss or Sunak, will be a takeover leader. This means that they get to Downing Street through internal party procedures rather than a general election. But is there a curse for ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers 

Most Prime Ministers who take over from another leader rather than win an election have short, unhappy times in office. To give you a flavour, here’s the list of post-war takeovers: 

  • Anthony Eden (1955–57) 
  • Harold Macmillan (1957–63) 
  • Alec Douglas-Home (1963–64) 
  • James Callaghan (1976–79) 
  • John Major (1990–97) 
  • Gordon Brown (2007–10) 
  • Theresa May (2016–2019) 
  • Boris Johnson (2019-2022) 

With probably one exception, this is not a list of successful or happy Prime Ministers. In fact, it looks pretty much like a list of failed leaders, with at least one name that should make you shout ‘who?’ As you can see, most didn’t spend long in Downing Street and most struggled to get past the three-year mark, with only Macmillan and Major as exceptions.  

So why is it cursed? It’s partly because a leader ‘taking over’ doesn’t get the ‘bounce’ or legitimacy from winning an election. It’s also because the reason you are there. A takeover is because there’s been some sort of crisis, normally one that was big or severe enough to make your predecessor resign. This means that often, you inherit a crisis and a divided party. Prime Minister Sunak or Truss will lead a party divided over the economy, and the rather poisonous legacy of Boris Johnson. The leadership debates seem to be making it worse, as some Conservatives have made clear 

As well as the curse, our new Prime Minister faces huge challenges and expectations. As has been clear in the debates so far, the public expect the Prime Minister to do something about the many crises that are facing the UK, from the cost of living and inflation to the buckling of public services and threat of climate change which has appeared in our homes and on our doorsteps in a way that makes it hard to deny. On top of this there is Covid, which has not gone away, and Brexit, which is continuing to cause ruptures everywhere from Dover to Belfast. You can see an expert analysis by Full Fact, which looks at whether the candidates’ pledges will solve the problems we face. 

Conservative MPs and members have another, even higher hope, which is that the new leader can win an election. The UK must dissolve Parliament for a General Election by 17 December 2024 at the very latest, though the new Prime Minister can call one any time before, thanks to Johnson abolishing the Fixed Term Parliament Act. This power is not to be sniffed at, and can be worth 5 points in an election 

But for a takeover Prime Minister to win an election is a tall order. Boris Johnson did, of course, in 2019 and John Major did in 1992. Before that it was Harold Macmillan, way back in 1959, when he famously told a heckler “you’ve never had it so good” (a phrase Liz Truss has repeated).  

The numbers seem against our new PM repeating this trick, as neither Truss or Sunak are polling well. As of July 2022, Labour hold an 11 point lead over the Conservative party. Although Sunak has flagged up a YouGov poll showing he has the ‘edge’ over Truss in attracting swing voters, it’s only a 2 point difference, and both are rather far behind Keir Starmer. As YouGov explains “neither can be characterised as popular.” This is made worse by the fierce leadership debates, which have handed Labour large amounts of pledges and quotes to use back at whoever wins.  

Hovering in the background is the fact that both Truss and Sunak were major figures in Johnson’s government and are connected to his reputation and legacy. Truss described herself as a Johnson ‘loyalist’ while Sunak was fined for attending a ‘Partygate’ party. To my disappointment, but not my surprise, both candidates have vowed to continue Johnson’s bizarre immigration policy, which was condemned by the UN Refugee agency.  Both leaders could find a sulking Johnson could do a great deal of damage to them, whether on the backbenches or back writing newspaper columns.  

So, what can they do? Takeovers can succeed by pretending to be different, and representing a new start, as John Major did after Thatcher in 1990. But with little money and room for manoeuvre, what else can they do? 

One option is to go for eye catching policies. Truss has committed to a new law against Street Harassment (which, conveniently, Johnson rejected), while Sunak has called to make similar activities illegal and promised a women’s manifesto.  

Another option is to do something to create distance from their predecessor. As the Full Fact report points out, “one of the defining legacies of Boris Johnson’s premiership has been its bulldozing of political trust and erosion of citizens’ faith in democratic politics and politicians.” This YouGov poll of Conservative members found “honest/integrity” to be the two most desirable traits in their new leader.  

My guess is they’ll opt for some sort of transparency, which can actually help create a sense of newness and distance at the same time. Governments often promise openness to show they are ‘better’ than whoever went before. Tony Blair offered a Freedom of Information Act in 1997 and David Cameron, all sorts of ‘open data’ on government spending. It could be something relatively small. Truss has already suggested new data on police performance and both leaders have promised to publish their own tax returns. They could promise to open up ministerial diaries, something, conveniently, Boris Johnson has refused to do. In an effort to seem less corrupt, and clean the system, they could publish more systematic data about lobbying or Ministers’ or MPs’ interests. The new Prime Minister could even commit to a new ethics regime, or embrace an inquiry, perhaps even borrowing Labour’s idea for a new ‘super watchdog’ Ethics and Integrity Commission to watch over lobbying and Ministers interests. 

This could create distance and be a symbol they’ll be ‘different’… but it won’t be enough to stop the curse 

References:  

Worthy, B. (2016). Ending in failure? The performance of ‘takeover’ prime ministers 1916–2016. The Political Quarterly, 87(4), 509-517. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1467-923X.12311  

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