Life in London as an international student

We catch up with Yvette Shumbusho, an MSc Marketing Communications student from Rwanda, who in a December blog post talked about settling in London as an international student. As the academic year draws to a close Yvette reflects on what she enjoys most about living in the capital.

London has been home for the past ten months, and I have easily integrated into the diverse culture. This fast-paced, metropolitan city lives up to the hype for many reasons, its culture, food and entertainment, to name a few

The diversity found in London puts it at an advantage compared to many cities in the world. There are a number of food markets that I have been able to visit such as Maltby Street Market and more in various parts of London. I have eaten some of the best meals in these places, freshly made and satisfying overall.

You don’t have to worry about gaining a few pounds because there are so many gyms around the city – there are three different gyms within a radius of 0.3 miles of where I reside! This is surely motivation to keep fit but even if you’re not fond of gyms and exercise classes, walking around alone can help you get in a quick workout. I walk almost everywhere and now that it’s nice and warm (on some days), I walk a lot more than I normally would. I have come to realise that Londoners like to power walk everywhere.

Between juggling school assignments and regular everyday activities, it is a real challenge to get time off and explore, but I have managed to visit a number of places including the London Aquarium. I was a few inches away from a family of sharks, which was exciting as I had never been so close to them. I’ve also visited a number of parks, some unintentionally as I strolled to school or back home, which got me thinking how beautiful it is that London has so many green spaces; it makes walking and general living that much better.

Before I complete my course, there is still a number of places I need to visit within the city and even outside of London but all in all; my experience has been one to remember. I will surely miss this place.

Further information: 

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Ground Hog Day for our next Prime Minister

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics reflects on the challenges facing the new prime minister and suggests that there is a way to overcome them.

Only one thing is predictable about our next prime minister: they will be a ground hog day leader. For all that the candidates are promising new deals, no deals and new directions, from day one they’ll face the same traps and tripwires that have destroyed May’s premiership.

No doubt May faced an uphill task, and had one of the worst in-trays of any peacetime prime minister. Particularly after June 2017, Theresa May faced a divided party, a split House of Commons and a divided country.

We should remember, before sending off our sympathy cards, that her decisions worsened what was already a bad situation. Her premiership was wrecked on her own promises and ‘red lines’, which she had to retreat from. Her neglect of Scotland and Northern Ireland led to talk of new referendums and separation.  And the less said about her decision to hold a ‘snap’ election the better, as she manged to somehow win while losing, doing away with a majority she very, very badly needed.

The problem for whoever the next prime minister is that nothing will have changed. It may be that the new prime minister has some skills that May lacked. Perhaps she will be more decisive, a better communicator or less divisive. She could even enjoy a (brief) bounce in the polls and, if she’s lucky, some good will.

Yet like Theresa May, our next leader will be a ‘takeover’ PM, getting to power by replacement not an election win. Being a takeover almost always limits a leader’s lifespan and, sometimes, their authority. I estimated ‘takeovers’ have about three years.

The Conservative party will still be deeply, hopelessly split. There’ll still be no majority for the government in the House of Commons, and the option of a general election, given the local and EU election results, should be, to put it diplomatically, reasonably unappealing. As for ‘re-opening’ or ‘no dealing’ Brexit, the prime minister looks set to be trapped between an EU who will not renegotiate and a parliament that will not allow a no deal Brexit.

In fact, it will probably be worse for May’s successor. If our new prime minister wins by promising no deal or radical re-negotiations, they’ll have to U-turn or backtrack. Tensions will probably worsen with Scotland, where there are new referendum rumblings, and the complexities of Northern Ireland and the border will stay unsolved. Labour’s dilemmas and problem could make everything worse, not better.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. Prime ministers, like presidents, have a power to persuade. John Harris and Marina Hyde, as well as academics like Rob Ford, have been making the point that no one is trying to change anyone’s mind, or even suggesting it could be done. Yet why people voted how they did was complex and changeable. The whole debate about Brexit has been tied up with a belief that the UK is hopelessly and irredeemably polarised, and that the will of the people is now set in stone (listen in to Albert Weale’s great talk).

Instead of labelling opponents as enemies, why doesn’t our new prime minister try to persuade them? Time after time, from Iraq to same-sex marriage, politicians have tried to persuade the public to re-think their views. Parts of the population were persuaded in 2016. Can’t they be talked back again? It’s the only way out of the loop.

Ben Worthy is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck. You can see more of his work on political leadership here.

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Downing Street Blues: why write a memoir?

Ahead of a talk on the same subject on 23 May, Dr Ben Worthy discusses the purpose of prime ministerial memoirs is – how these apparently personal histories provide insight and are also used to justify, explain and establish a leader’s persona and, most importantly, their place in history.

We are all waiting with baited breath for David Cameron’s possibly-soon-to-be-published memoirs.  Prime ministerial memoirs are now an event, and the media and the public await revelations from the moment they leave office. Nevertheless, they carry a reputation for being pretty dull and unrevealing. ‘Traditional political memoirs’ Tony Blair argued in his own book, are ‘rather too easy to put down’. So why would a prime minister want to write them (and go to the trouble of buying a new shed to write them in)?

For readers, memoirs can offer a unique insight into seeing through their eyes. They can help us to see how they felt in office and their views of their own triumphs and, more rarely, their tragedies. They do come, however, with a rather big health warning. Like all memoirs, the reminisces of prime ministers can be flawed by poor memory, often sharpened by the politics of revenge and the need to be shown well in the light of history.

Money plays a part. Lloyd George, who wrote the first real blockbuster memoirs in the 1930s, was paid record breaking amounts of money for both the books and serialisation rights. Later Margaret Thatcher’s £3.5 million earnings and Blair’s reported £4.6 million advance caused controversy (Cameron got ‘only’ a third of that, it seems). Blair donated his proceeds to the Royal British legion.

If asked why they were writing, most political leaders would say they want to ‘set the record straight’. Sometimes, this can be framed as an almost ‘moral’ claim to tell some sort of ‘truth’ (when everyone else hasn’t been). Lloyd George declared that he owed it to ‘the public and posterity’ to ‘tell the whole truth’ after being slandered and attacked for his conduct of the First World War by military leaders.

Every prime minister since has followed a similar line and we have learned things we didn’t know. We know that when Harold Macmillan famously told a heckler they ‘never had it so good’ he meant it as warning not a celebration.  Margaret Thatcher felt everyone misunderstood her quoting of Francis of Assisi on the steps of Downing Street. Tony Blair revealed that he always saw himself as being ‘married’ to the British people. We even know some things we didn’t want to know-such as Blair’s revelation that all the travelling messed with his ‘digestive system’.

Whether they are really setting straight is questionable. Selective recall and forgetting is a particular problem for politicians. Anthony Eden managed to not mention in his reflections the collusion with France and Israel that ended his career. Blair’s informal, almost chatty tone changes to ‘Anthony Blair the lawyer’ in his chapters on Iraq-and when he talks about what he calls the ‘dossier’ most readers would recall it better as the ‘dodgy dossier’. Sometimes setting the record descends into some pretty serious wishful thinking, as when Thatcher writes of how the Poll Tax would have worked out if it had been given a few years more to run.

For a leader in retirement, the writing of a memoir is above all a final political act on the stage and final appeal to history and the public. Some then gather dust in bargain bins but some leader’s recollections can determine how we see our history. As Churchill used to warn other politicians ‘all right, I shall leave it to history, but remember that I shall be one of the historians’.

Ben Worthy is giving a talk on prime ministerial memoirs at Birkbeck College, University of London on 23 May 6pm London as part of Birkbeck Arts Week with Birkbeck Politics Writer in Residence Sian Norris. You can book tickets here.

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Championing higher education through trade union discounts

Earlier this year, to mark Heart Unions week, we showed how Birkbeck recognises trade unions through offering a 10% discount for union members in partnership with Unionlearn. In this instalment of the blog, we’ll meet two students who have taken up the trade union discount at Birkbeck, to hear about why they have come to Birkbeck and what the discount means to them as trade union members.

Felix Hamilton is a member of Unite and is a former secondary teacher from Ghana who is in the second year of the BSc Criminology and Criminal Justice. He came to Birkbeck for a change of career.

“Birkbeck’s evening classes are perfect for working people in London. I work full-time as a health and safety inspector for a housing trust and also study full-time. It’s very difficult but I have to manage my time well. It’s not easy doing a full time course and working. It’s all about dedication and commitment. I couldn’t afford to do the full time course without working because I have other responsibilities so I couldn’t give up work, plus I wouldn’t get any other financial support. The discount is really helpful in that respect.

“I came out of teacher training college in 2002 so I had been out of education for a long time. I had done other distance courses but it had been over 10 years without being in the classroom.

“I’m studying Criminology and Criminal Justice because I love the criminal aspects of sociology and learning about human behaviour and how to solve crimes. I’ve been a victim of crime myself, and through my experience I was interested in why people commit crime and wanted to learn more. I had done a Forensic Psychology course before but now I’m learning more about the theory behind offending. Hopefully I can gain experience in the practical side through a career in the Probation & Prison Service after I graduate.”

Barney O’Connor was a rep for GMB which gave him a head start for the LLB course, and he is now in his second year of the Law (LLB) course at Birkbeck after having a difficult time at school:

“School didn’t work for me, I never enjoyed it. I am dyslexic then in my twenties I’ve also been diagnosed with ASD, dyspraxia and ADHD. I‘m bright, I’m clever, I’m just ‘not academic’. This year I got my first 2:1 and I feel great.

“One of the benefits of doing this and being older is that if I’d gone at 18 and failed a module like I did last year, I would have dropped out. Now I’m older, I’ve realised that not everything goes well first time and you just learn to keep on trying. I was told I would never read for pleasure as a kid so nobody would have expected this.

“I heard about Birkbeck through my trade union, GMB, because someone mentioned you could get a discount and then I found out that Birkbeck had a good Law School. I liked that Birkbeck looks at your background, what you’ve done in life, your work experience, trade union work. It just fit what I needed at the time, and it’s still working.

“The trade union discount helps to tell people what Birkbeck was, why it was set up and how it’s still connected to that. My interest in employment law got me here. Through being a trade union rep, I did training on health and safety and the law behind that but I’ve now had the chance to learn more about different areas of Law. I get excited when I talk about Law. I’ve found something academic which I enjoy and that’s never happened before. It’s improved me all round, helped me to deal with lot of stuff from the past, school-wise. Not everyone does law for the same reasons but if you’re involved with the trade union and you have the trade union mindset then it’s a way of keeping that going.”

Further information about the trade union discount can be found here: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/student-services/fee-payment/discounts

To find out more about the union learning project at Birkbeck and opportunities for trade union members, contact union-learning@bbk.ac.uk

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Birkbeck student overcomes dyslexia and the ghosts of her early education to celebrate graduation success

On Tuesday 6 November, Paola Torrani, who grew up being told she was too ‘stupid’ to go to university, graduated with a BSc Social Sciences with Social Anthropology from Birkbeck. She explains why this is only the beginning.

When Paola Torrani first visited London aged eighteen, it was as a student who felt let down by the education system and shut out from the career in Science she had always wanted. Her teachers, seeing that she was struggling to keep up with her peers, had branded her ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’, even telling her mum that she would struggle to find work. With characteristic determination, though, Paola took a photo of the iconic Senate House building in Bloomsbury and sent it to her mum, saying “one day I will study here.”

Twenty years on, Paola is preparing to receive her award for BSc Social Sciences with Social Anthropology from Birkbeck, University of London, in the very place she first set eyes on all those years ago. “I couldn’t even speak English on that first visit,” she remembers, “so it’s surreal to finally graduate here.”

Fighting for an education

Growing up, Paola’s education was punctuated by failure. Having been repeatedly told that she was stupid by her teachers, she fought to continue her education in Italy and then France, but struggled to finish what she started. “I experienced failure, after failure, after failure,” she remembers, “but I didn’t want to give up.”

While she may have struggled in formal education, Paola has always had an aptitude for languages, which led her to move to work in London. She secured a role in marketing, but was left dissatisfied, saying “I felt bad using my skills to get people to buy more stuff!”

It wasn’t long before Paola began to suffer acutely with stress in that role, however it was on being referred to a therapist that she had her first real revelation. She explains, “My confidence was at a real low and I told my therapist that I was too stupid to follow a career that would really interest me. He was surprised and said that I seemed very intelligent to him, and suggested I take a look at Birkbeck, where he had studied Psychology.” Although the idea of returning to education was daunting, Paola was reassured to hear of Birkbeck’s diverse and inclusive student body, knowing that she wouldn’t be the only person returning to study after a gap. Still, it took her a year to pluck up the courage to apply. “I attended a Birkbeck open evening and was really inspired by how the lecturers talked about their subject,” she explains, “I knew that I’d enjoy being a student there.”

Seeing things differently

As a child, Paola was fascinated by people who were different from herself and their rituals and dynamics, well before she had heard of anthropology. Having previously tried to teach herself about the topic, she realised she’d gain so much more from going to university. It was nerve-wracking returning to study, but she soon felt comfortable among her fellow students, many of whom have become lifelong friends.

Despite enjoying her course, Paola soon began to experience the familiar struggle to keep up. This time, though, things didn’t end in failure. A turning point came when a friend on her course suggested that Paola might have dyslexia and encouraged her to arrange a test. “The support from the disability team was amazing,” says Paola, “they arranged for me to see an educational psychologist and I discovered that I was dyslexic.”

Although relieved to understand why she struggled with reading, Paola still found the demands of study alongside work very tough. The usual concerns that might face a part-time student, such as time management and returning to study after a gap, were compounded by the fact that English was Paola’s fourth language and she needed additional time to work through the course materials. “It felt like I was working forty-eight hours a day at times,” she remembers.

With the support of her lecturers and a very understanding tutor, Paola received the help she needed to complete her degree. She explains “for me, studying at Birkbeck taught me to see the world differently. Partly because I was studying anthropology, but also because I developed critical thinking skills that I’d never had to use before. Birkbeck taught me the academic skills I needed so well that I wrote my 11,000 word thesis in five days – previously I struggled to complete a 2,000 word essay over three weeks! I ended up getting a first for my research, which really proved to me what I was capable of.”

A lifelong learner

Studying at Birkbeck may have changed Paola’s life, but she didn’t have to wait to collect her degree for those changes to start to take shape. Two years into her course, she left her job and took up a position as a project manager at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She now uses her marketing skills to promote the research taking place at the School, and volunteers on equalities and ethics committees to use her skills for social good. She explains “I don’t have a job now, I have a career. I love the team, I love what I do and I feel like we’re contributing to society.” But Paola’s passion for education doesn’t stop here: she still sees a tutor and is now teaching project management skills to doctoral students, as well as co-writing a book on project management for health research. When her mum texted her the picture of Senate House that she had sent all those years ago, it felt like she had come full circle.

Paola took a photo of Senate House when she first visited London, saying “One day I will study here.”

She says: “Birkbeck helped me to discover a side to me that’s always been there, but that I’ve never been allowed to show before. I’m not going to stop here – sometimes it’s just about having the courage to achieve, with the right people behind you.”

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Reaching out to teens with a helping hand(book)

Birkbeck PhD student and relationship writer Suzi Godson co-founded the mental health-support app MeeTwo. Now she is busy raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign to create a MeeTwo magazine – containing stories, art, photography, poetry and more – for distribution to schools to provide further help to teenagers in need. Here she explains more about the project.

Research shows that half of all adult mental health issues manifest by the age of 14 and the average age for the onset of clinical anxiety is just eight years old. One in five young people will experience a mental health issue in any given year and suicide is now the leading cause of death in young people. These figures are rolled out time and again to emphasise the dire state of teenage mental health in the UK, but the voice of teenagers themselves is rarely heard.

Two years ago, I represented Birkbeck in the Santander Universities Entrepreneur Awards with my idea for an app that would make it easier for teenagers to talk about difficult things. In September I launched the MeeTwo app and it is now a thriving community of 2,500 teenagers who have lots to say on the subject of mental health. I decided it was time to give them that voice so I am using Kickstarter to crowdfund the printing and distribution of The MeeTwo Mental Help Handbook For Teenagers.

It’s essentially a collection of very moving first person accounts from young people who are coping with a range of issues including more serious mental health issues. The clever thing about the handbook is that it also contains a turbo-charged directory that goes way beyond the usual list of helplines. As well as listing support groups and helplines, the Mental Help directory details the best apps, the best TedX talks, books, self-help, activities and products to enable young people to help themselves. It’s much needed because 61% of GP referrals to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are rejected because the criteria for acceptance are so high.

That’s a scandal in itself so the handbook also provides a unique opportunity to ask experts why teenage mental health is such a big problem. We’ve pulled in some big names to help us answer this question. Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal Society of Medicine, Regius Professor Of Psychiatry at King’s College, London and all-round boffin has given us a dynamite interview. And we will be announcing more big name contributors soon.

The MeeTwo Mental Help Handbook is going to be a fantastic resource for schools, for young people and, indeed, for anyone studying psychology, social care, or education. However, we have to reach our Kickstarter target of £10k in order to be able to print and distribute it. We are half way there but Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing funding platform, so please buy a copy (£10) of the handbook here and tell everyone you know to do the same. Help us to make it happen.

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Birkbeck’s telephone fundraising campaign – meet the 2018 Student Callers

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

The Birkbeck Summer 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 to these students being 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: “The telephone campaigns are a real indicator of how engaged Birkbeck alumni are. Each campaign, more and more alumni pledge their support to the College. This makes a huge difference for both current and future students here at Birkbeck. Not only do the callers gain valuable fundraising experience, they really do enjoy speaking to alumni and hearing their stories.”

The Summer Campaign will run between 2 May and 6 June – if you’d like to receive a call from one of our students, please get in touch with Tara Millington (t.millington@bbk.ac.uk).

Meet the callers

Alex, BA Global Film, third year

“I chose to study at Birkbeck because it is a university for mature students, and students working at the same time. I wanted to participate in the Telephone Campaign because it’s important to fundraise for Birkbeck to continue a high level of education, and to provide funding and help to those who need it.”

Berekad, BSc Computer Science, first year

“I wanted to be part of the Telephone Campaign to give back and get more experience. I think fundraising is important to give everyone an opportunity for support and experience that may otherwise not be available to them.”

Edwin, MA Text & Performance with RADA, first year

“I wanted to participate in the Telephone Campaign because Birkbeck has contributed significantly to advancing my knowledge and skills in my chosen field (Theatre & Politics). I want to talk to alumni who have shared my experience, and to hear their stories.”Fey, BA Management, first year

“I chose to study here because it is an evening university – fundraising helps to keep all the fantastic services that Birkbeck provides for students going. I’m looking forward to learning new skills and raise loads of money for Birkbeck!”

Jenny, PhD in Computer Science, first year

“I was looking for a role that involved people skills and I thought the Telephone Campaign would be an interesting job talking with alumni about their good experiences. I am looking forward to raising money for Birkbeck – it is important so more students can come here and reach their potential through access to Higher Education.”

Madeline, BA Creative Writing and English, third year

“I chose to study at Birkbeck because I loved the atmosphere and the support offered- it just spoke to me! It is important for alumni to be able to give back to Birkbeck and create an atmosphere of support and appreciation between current and former students. I’ve been on the call team for years now – I love speaking to alumni, hearing their stories and seeing where they landed after graduation.”

Natalie, Linguistics & Japanese, first year

“I applied to be part of the call team as I found the nature of the job interesting, I like conversing with people. What I’m looking forward to most about this role is the sense of personal achievement and growth, contributing to future developments at Birkbeck”

Niamh, BSc Psychology, first year

“I wanted to study in London and Birkbeck had the best Psychology course. I wanted to work on the Telephone Campaign here to allow developments to be made to improve student life.”

Melissa, BSc Geography, third year 

“I wanted to take part in the Summer Telephone Campaign as I’m in my final year and I wanted to make the most of my final chance to give back as a student caller. I find it an enriching experience. Fundraising for Birkbeck is important because outside of being a direct source of funds, it shows a strong support network of alumni who are proud of Birkbeck and wish for it to be improved in the future.”

Ria, BSc Biomedicine, third year

“I chose to study at Birkbeck because it is a unique university that allows individuals to study whilst building a career. I think fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it supports students who have so much potential to excel in their studies. I enjoy speaking to alumni and listening to their experience and advice.”

Shakeela, Cert. H.E. Counselling and Counselling Skills, second year

“I wanted to take part in the Telephone Campaign as I like to speak to alumni and find out about their experiences. It was also a way to meet a variety of students I wouldn’t have met before. I feel fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it encourages continued support for the projects here, some of which I’ve benefitted from myself.”

Stephanie, BA Creative Writing and English, first year

“I chose to come to Birkbeck as I wanted to work and study at the same time in London, and be with non-traditional students. Fundraising for Birkbeck is a great way to give back to something one believes in. I’m looking forward to speaking with people who have befitted from a Birkbeck degree, and hopefully, want to give!”

Summer, LLM, first year

“I am both a Birkbeck student and alum! I wanted to be part of the Telephone Campaign as I would love to engage with other alumni and raise money for Birkbeck to improve and sustain services here.”

Thomas, MA Philosophy, first year

“I wanted to be part of the Birkbeck Telephone Campaign to gain experience working in a university and speak to interesting alumni. Fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it allows people from a less advantaged background an opportunity to study.”

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Digital Transformation Project (DTP) stage 2: improving the school and department presence on the Birkbeck web 

Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager for Birkbeck, shares progress and updates on the second stage of the College’s web redevelopment project. This blog is one of a series of blogs about Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Following the successful launch of Stage 1 of our web redevelopment project (prioritising public-facing recruitment pages), we concentrated on making further improvements to our redeveloped web pages, to continue to improve these pages for our prospective students.

We have now launched Stage 2 of the DTP, turning our attention to school and department content on the Birkbeck website.

  1. Requirement-gathering with the schools

This project began during October and November 2017 with ER and ITS facilitating five workshops, one for each school. The aim was to gain a greater understanding of the challenges and priorities for school, department and research centre content, from the point of view of those working in the schools. The facilitators also spoke about the project, by invitation, at a variety of other school and department meetings.

At the workshops, ER and ITS facilitators gave participants an overview of the website transformation project work so far, including some of the evidence and research behind the work already  undertaken. We then presented attendees with data about how our current school and department content is consumed by visitors (such as the most popular content), and we watched recordings of students visiting the school and department sites and talking about what information they are trying to access and the barriers to completing their online journey with us.

Workshop attendees discussed university websites that they thought handled school and department content particularly well, before we began an in-depth exploration of school and department content – what it does, should do, could do better. Participants were given as much time as they wanted to add notes under a range of headings, including issues with current content, and priorities for school, department and research centre content.

When everyone felt they had got all their points down, the facilitators invited contributors to expand on their notes, generating a group discussion about the topics attendees felt were most pressing, helping to draw out commonalities, outliers and voices. Minutes were recorded to capture the conversations, questions and concerns raised by participants at each workshop and the post-it notes were photographed.

1.1 Workshop discussions – recurring topics across all five schools

Staff across the College shared similar concerns. Unsurprisingly, better navigation and good, up-to-date content constantly cropped up as high-level concerns and priorities. In addition, our attendees talked about:

  • Staff profiles: These are by far the most visited area of school and department content and, thus, demand attention. Much discussion centred on questions of audience, degrees of standardisation and information management – who will update the content and how they will connect with other systems that academics use, such as BIRon.
  • Design: By far one of the greatest concerns for the project across all schools was the visual appeal and imagery of the school and department web content.
  • The web as ‘shop window’: A good deal of time was spent discussing how to showcase the best that Birkbeck’s schools, departments and research centres have to offer. There was a unanimous desire for space to show off news, events, research impact and other activities. Some schools felt that this would help garner a deeper sense of community between students and staff.
  • Showcasing department individuality: Finding the right balance between heterogeneity with the ‘corporate’ site, while allowing the personality of each department to shine through was important.
  • What role do schools play on the Birkbeck web? There were mixed opinions on the necessity of keeping school content. Some participants argued that the school is merely an internal managerial structure that does not have much relevance to the outside world, while others thought we might be missing a trick by not giving space to school-level events, news and rankings. Some consideration still needs to be given to identifying the target audience.
  • Information for current students: there was a mixed reaction to the necessity for having a section for current students in certain schools. Some departments use the current students section for essential information such as handbooks and module timetables, while others do not have a current student area at all (eg Law). This also sparked much discussion of what should be behind the current student log-in area, ‘My Birkbeck’.
  • Maintaining web standards: Finally, many participants were concerned about who will take responsibility for ensuring web content is kept up to date while maintaining consistency and how this will be resourced. Most thought that some collaboration was required between professional services and the school and department-based staff, to ensure consistency across the website while keeping content fresh and distinct.

2. The launch of the Web Working Group

Now that we have completed the initial consultation and we have a good grasp of what staff across the schools are most concerned about, we have begun working with the Web Working Group (WWG), consisting of key staff (academic and professional support) from all five schools.

The aim of this group is for the digital transformation team (comprising the ER and ITS digital teams, and our project managers, Kayleigh Woods Harley and Richard Evemy) to work collaboratively with school / department staff (academics and professional support staff who represent their schools) to redevelop the school and department content on the Birkbeck website, informed by the workshop discussions with the wider group.

  1. ‘Layering’ the new look and feel on to our school and department content

But how best to redesign this important part of the Birkbeck website? The overall look and feel of our school and department web presence will take its cue from the ‘new’ Birkbeck visual identity, which – a year into its life – is now being used extensively by every school and professional service for everything from new architectural designs for Estates to event posters and prospectuses. But what is the best way to apply the new visual identity and digital standards to our school and department web presence?

In previous years, when we upgraded school and department microsites, we did this on a site-by-site basis, which meant it took a long time for the latest design to roll out across our school and department sites. This was obviously frustrating for the departments lower down our list (which were upgraded more than a year after the first upgraded site went live). So, this time, we are taking a different approach. Rather than improve one site at a time, we are going to target specific parts of or topics on each site (eg research information, staff profiles) and, with the guidance of our WWG, we are aiming to go live with the new parts for all school/departments at or around the same time.

This means that ‘old’ and ‘new’ designs will co-exist for the school and department web, but we believe this disadvantage will be outweighed by the fact that the whole of our school and department web will feature ‘layers’ of improvements, which will – over time – eventually take over, until all of the ‘old’ content has been transformed for the better.

After our first two meetings with the WWG, we have not only started to work on two project layers, but we have identified a series of other projects that we will need to tackle:

3.1 Department gateway pages

For many staff, the most important page on a department site is the gateway page (in effect, the homepage of your department). So, rather than start with other parts of our site, we decided this would be our first priority and the first ‘layer’ to be applied.

Our aim is to develop new ‘gateway’ pages for all of our departments (school content and gateway pages will be addressed in a separate ‘schools’ project – see 3.3) that will better enable visitors to access key information, in the new design. To do this, we need to analyse feedback we’ve received from the initial web workshops with schools, the WWG meetings, and our ongoing user testing, in order to determine the requirements for our department gateway pages. We will then share our findings and results with the WWG. After this, we will develop new pages for all of the departments, with a view to getting sign off from local heads of departments (ideally, with the support of the local WWG representative).

Once we have reached this stage, we will apply this first ‘layer’ to our department content.

3.2 Academic and research staff pages

Academic and research staff pages are critical for our users, but currently they are riddled with problems and errors – a lack of consistency in respect of the type of information we present, out-of-date information, duplicate content, concerns about design and layout, etc. This is obviously of great concern to the Birkbeck community as well as ourselves. So, we need to ensure that we make this content as good as it can be.

Among other actions we need to take to improve our academic and research staff profiles, we need to:

  • Complete our analysis of requirements gathered through user testing and the WWG discussions, to inform our planning
  • Develop a comprehensive list of ‘fields’ (contact details, links to personal websites and profile information on academic.edu, LinkedIn, etc.) that apply to all academic and research staff, while providing a mechanism whereby academic staff themselves decide which of these fields should be presented on their part of the Birkbeck website
  • Consider the best way to maintain and update this information
  • Think creatively about how we can ensure that this important information is embedded with other key parts of the Birkbeck web (eg our course listings, where we need to let visitors know which of our staff teach on which courses)
  • Do a better job of rationalising our sources of information to avoid duplicate content updates on the Birkbeck site – so, for example, we need to pull information from BIRon into our staff profiles, rather than providing duplicate (and, inevitably, out-of-date) publication information pages.

After all of this, we will be able to identify the way in which we can implement this project and will discuss this with the WWG. Then we will be able to plan the appropriate stages of development for this project.

3.3 Other projects

We have also identified a range of other projects that need to be addressed in this stage (in no particular order – and probably not a comprehensive list):

  • Department research: this project will concentrate on how we can best present information on a department’s research – their aims and objectives, their activities and their outcomes.
  • Search and discovery: we know that Birkbeck’s search – course and site search – needs to be improved. This project is going to ensure that we make it easier for our web visitors to find the information they need when they are on the Birkbeck web.
  • Departmental student experience: what is it like to study in a department? What is the student experience? This project aims to address these questions and more, to give prospective students a better understanding of what it will be like to study at Birkbeck in a specific department.
  • Student funding: we know that prospective students don’t always find all the funding information that might be relevant to their studies, so we need to do something to make this information both easier to find and comprehensive. That’s what this project is about.
  • Prospective Phd students: we know that department sites are critical for prospective PhD students, and we could improve their experience. This project will look at providing the information that Phd students need in order to make the decision that Birkbeck is right for them.
  • Current students: this project will look at the best way to provide information for current students.
  • Course information: we know it’s important to let our visitors know what courses each department offers, because staff have told us this and the WWG reinforced this. This project will concentrate on how we can and should provide this information.
  • Business services / partnership project: this project will consider how best to make this important information visible to our stakeholders.
  • Schools project: in our workshops, some staff told us that school information isn’t necessary on the Birkbeck web; others told us that we needed to find a better way to showcase school information. With this project, we will need to tackle this and come up with a solution that works for everyone.

We are reliant on the WWG to help us prioritise these projects and to help us to understand the requirements better, so that each project can be tackled on a stand-alone basis and layered successfully across the Birkbeck web.

  1. When is this all happening?

Currently, the Birkbeck school and department web comprises more than 27,000 discrete items of publicly indexed content (ie content available via a Google search). Transforming this quantity of content into something better (all of which will need to be reviewed with much content either rewritten or deleted, in consultation with local content owners) is a massive undertaking, and we are only at the start.

However, this is an important project to us, and we are keen to make progress. So, although we can’t tell you exactly when your ‘old’ pages will be improved, we are aiming to go live with new layers throughout the year and we will continue to use blogs to tell you more about the reasoning behind our decisions and, once we have plotted the timeline, when we are hoping to deliver them.

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Birkbeck Study Skills: play to win

Sal Campbell, a Learning Development Tutor at Birkbeck explains what Learning Development Tutors do and how students can use the resources available to them.

 What if I told you I knew how you could work a little less on your degree and get better results?

Imagine someone wants you to bake them a cake. You know about cakes, having eaten many of them, and you’ve been given all the basic ingredients – but not a recipe, because they thought you already have one. You don’t- but you know it involves mixing everything together and there’s an oven involved, but beyond that, it’s pure guesswork. You assume that it must be straightforward because other people seem to know what they’re doing, and you’re not going to admit you don’t know the method, because how hard can baking a cake be? So you give it a go, but it’s all a bit stressful and the result is… well, cake-like, but it’s not the best cake you could have baked, compared to if you’d had the recipe in the first place.

Birkbeck isn’t a bakery, but we do expect you to produce essays and assignments with all the ‘ingredients’ – the knowledge and skills we are trying to teach you on your courses – to prove your abilities. This can be a stressful and frustrating process if you’re not familiar with how to go about it, or it’s been a while since your first degree, and sometimes this means your ideas and understanding – which is really what your lecturers are interested in – don’t shine through as much as they could.

Across all subject assignments, as well as assessing your understanding of the content of your courses, lecturers are also assessing how well you can perform various academic skills, such as how to structure an essay, your use of correct academic English, correct referencing and citation, evidence of critical thinking and so on. We want to know that you can read and understand; that you can think critically; we want to know how well you can articulate and substantiate your own arguments, and how well you can write.

These are not personal qualities you either do or don’t have – they are skills that can be learned, and the fundamentals can be learned easily and quickly. As a Learning Development Tutor, I think it’s a tragedy when students are clearly motivated, hardworking, diligent and able –  in short, they have all the ingredients they need to reach their potential –  but they don’t know how to go about it. As a result, their efforts miss the mark, and they don’t get the grade they are capable of. The only thing missing is a kind of ‘academic capital’; it is freely available information.

Students often mistakenly believe that coming to study skills workshops is what you do if you need ‘support’, and you are not independently able to do your degree – whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Study skills tutors are academic specialists, the methodologists of academia. We are the equivalent of personal trainers for your studies, and our whole purpose is to show you how to optimise the quality of your work. Your course lecturers are experts in the content of your degree – they teach you what. We are the experts in how to do your degree, and we can show you how to do it to a higher standard and in less time than you can work it out for yourself.

Studying at university is hard work, and it is expensive – so play to win. Use the resources and services available to you to maximise your chances of doing the best you can. Don’t sweat in the library hour after hour trying to work out how to do your assignment, when you can come to a workshop, meet with a tutor, or look at the huge wealth of online resources available to find out what you need to know right now.

Our resources, workshops and tutorials are freely available. Take a look at the Birkbeck Study Skills webpage and Moodle module, the Study Skills workshop timetable, and just see what’s available.

So many students I meet don’t realise how much it can help, or how easily and quickly they can access it. Do yourself a favour – just invest a little time in investigating what is available, and if it looks helpful, pick three things to look at in more detail. Read what the lecturer feedback says on your essays and assignments and choose one or two things to improve on your next assignment, and look for resources to help with that.

As Birkbeck students, we know you are as busy as you are dedicated, and we want to help ensure that your hard work and dedication pays off. Let’s do this right: the information is there and it works – all you have to do is take a look.

 

 

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Journalist uncovers new opportunities at Birkbeck through Chevening Scholarship

Carolyn Bonquin is a 27-year-old journalist from the Philippines. She is currently taking MA Investigative Reporting at Birkbeck after applying to the Chevening Scholarship programmeShe discusses how her studies have opened up a network of opportunities for her career.

I spent most of my childhood in a rural town in Quezon province in the Philippines. Growing up, I witnessed how poverty separated families and sometimes pushed people to do bad things.

Now, 27 years later, I still see thousands of Filipinos living under worst conditions. This motivated me to become a journalist and further enhance my investigative reporting skills — I find it unfair to see other people struggle and live in suffering because of the greed and apathy of those in power.

For seven years, I worked as a journalist for ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation up until last September, when I came to the UK for my postgraduate studies. Aside from reporting for television, I also produced stories for our radio and online platforms.

I started as a regional correspondent in the South Luzon before I was assigned to the national platform. Crimes, rallies, environment and agriculture are the areas I usually covered until in 2015, I was assigned to the anti-graft beat, which included monitoring of criminal and civil cases against public officials and audit reports on public spending.

My heart is really set on doing investigative reports.  By uncovering under-reported issues and exposing wrongdoings, I hope to affect policy changes and trigger developmental reforms. One of the last expository stories I did with our investigative team was about the alleged human rights violations of policemen in the Philippine Government’s bloody campaign against illegal drugs.

With the help of data, I want to do more expository reports that will unravel the root causes of poverty when I come home. These are the stories that would reveal corrupt and neglectful activities. This way, I feel like I could help the reported 20 million Filipinos who still live under the poverty line.

Leaving the Philippines amid ongoing chaos and cropping up issues on human rights abuses was a struggle. A part of me wanted to stay but, in the end, I realized that I need a year away to enhance my skills so I can better serve the public.

Aside from funding my study in the UK, the Chevening Scholarship programme is a network of future and current leaders and influencers that could help me realize this goal. After all, what’s not to like about being a part of a network of experts in their own field, who would work together in imparting their knowledge to help change the world?

I found Birkbeck while researching for an investigative journalism Masters programme. When I saw the curriculum, I immediately knew it was the right programme for me. I appreciate how the modules have been designed to fit the current demands and trends in journalism. This ensures we have all the practical skills needed to start (or continue) working after graduation.

I’m also impressed by the diversity of students in our class — from journalists to a podcast reporter to a political science graduate. This provides various insights and ensures mature and rich discussions in our class.

Information security experts and award-winning journalists have presented at our seminars, including Iain Overton and Ewan MacAskill (remember the Snowden files?). This is all just in the first term and I look forward to all the great things I will learn for the rest of the year!

If I could offer any advice to someone looking to apply for the Chevening scholarship or wanting to come to Birkbeck, it would be to know your purpose and your goal. All the scholars I’ve met, and even my classmates at Birkbeck have one thing in common —their hearts are set on doing something that would make an impact on other people’s lives.

It’s important to realize that we are continuously honing our skills and gaining knowledge not only for ourselves, but also to contribute to the development of our society, even in our own little ways.

 

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