Finding the balance between work and study

Sports Management 2017 graduate Bethan Taylor reflects on her time at Birkbeck and shares her top tips on how to find a balance between your job and your studies.

Image: Anna Rachel Photography

I studied MSc Sports Management at Birkbeck from 2015-2017, taking a special interest in women in endurance sport. I’m a civil servant working in the Ministry of Justice, and I also write for a range of publications including my own blog A Pretty Place To Play which features my new podcast The Mental Health Podcast. When I’m not working or writing, I like to run and am currently training for my first ultra-marathon – 56 miles from London to Brighton next year.

There are lots of reasons why I decided to go back and study for an MSc – I’d been working in financial services for around five years and while I loved my job, I wasn’t finding it that intellectually stimulating. At the same time, I’d become really involved in running and was writing for various print and digital publications on the topic of women in sport, which really peaked my curiosity. I decided that I wanted to be able to talk with authority on the social issues in sport, and in my mind, the best way to do that was through postgraduate study.

The whole experience at Birkbeck was amazing! I loved that I was able to study an academically rigorous and challenging course while still progressing my career. The academics I worked with in Birkbeck Sports Business Centre were really open and supportive, encouraging us to question everything and to challenge each other, which I really enjoyed.

Being able to work while I studied meant I could pay my course fees without worrying about debt. Academically, it was great studying over two years – it meant that I could really take advantage of everything Birkbeck had to offer, simply because I was there longer! It also meant I had more time to think about what I wanted to research for my dissertation, which meant I got to dig deep into issues that really fascinated me.

There were challenges, of course, one of the biggest being that I felt like I was constantly saying no to social events and letting people down. That was really hard. Thankfully my friends and family were all really supportive and totally understood when I had to decline a dinner invite again, or sloped off home after one drink to study!

Between working and training for a marathon and a couple of half marathons my time at Birkbeck was pretty busy, and it did mean that I didn’t get involved in any societies or clubs. However, I did have a mentor and she was fabulous – it was great to be able to sit down with someone and discuss my career and direction really frankly.

I think it’s really important for people in the sports/fitness industry to really understand the unique nature of their business, as well as the social issues that surround people’s engagement in sport (my area of interest). Courses like the MSc Sports Management are helping to develop a new generation of professional sports administrators, as well as the academics who’ll be thinking about how we can challenge ourselves and develop the industry in the future.

I think education is a life-long pursuit, and I was really lucky to have great role models in my parents who both studied while working throughout my childhood (in fact my Dad was also at Birkbeck last year!). Learning new things helps to boost your creativity, enhances your problem-solving skills and challenges your perceptions – it makes life a lot more interesting! I also believe that life shouldn’t be all about work, you need some challenges that are just for you, whether that’s studying for an MSc in a subject that fascinates you or running a marathon (or both!).

If you’re thinking of studying at Birkbeck, don’t question whether you can do it, as you absolutely can! You’ll need to be super organised both at work and with your studies, and there will be some sacrifices, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Before you start your course it’s worth chatting to your employer about flexible working – I always kept my boss in the loop with my timetable so she knew why I was bolting out the door at 5pm. Also make sure you talk to your friends and family, as you will need their support and understanding because there will be times when things feel tough.

When I was studying, being organised was essential! You cannot over-plan when it comes to studying while working. Make sure you leave lots of contingency time, just in case something kicks off at work or you get sick.

Looking back on my time at Birkbeck, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places in the world to study sports management – but beyond that, there’s so much more! Studying while working is a great way to demonstrate to employers a whole range of desirable skills, like time management, organisation and dedication. It really illustrates how dedicated you are to your subject – you have to really want to do something if you’re going to sit through three hours of lectures after a full day at work! Beyond that, I’ve had the opportunity to carry out brand new research on a topic that hasn’t been explored much in-depth before, and I think this contribution to my subject really sets me apart.

Looking forward, I would love to become an expert in my field, specifically focusing on women in sport. The dream is to be cited as an ‘expert’ in a Runner’s World investigation. In the meantime, I am working on building my experience and thinking hard about a PhD (possibly at Birkbeck…).

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Guardian University Guide 2018

Today’s 2018 Guardian University Guide league tables include Birkbeck, University of London, for the first time, with Philosophy ranking  3rd in London and 17th in the UK, while English as well as Modern Languages and Linguistics feature in the capital city’s top 10.

However, the value of what Birkbeck offers in changing lives is not always well represented in league tables and rankings. Birkbeck remains true to its founding mission of widening access to education for all Londoners and our evening teaching makes Birkbeck uniquely different from all other universities included in the Guardian’s ranking.

Many of our full-time undergraduate students are the first in their families to study at university, or are returning to education after many years of lacking the confidence to do so. The Guardian league tables measure, among other things, the qualifications that students arrive at university with. Across the sector, just 2% of full-time undergraduates begin university without A-Level or equivalent qualifications. But Birkbeck demonstrates an unstinting commitment to accepting applicants with non-traditional qualifications: 35% of our part-time and 21% of full-time students arrive without A-Level or equivalents.

And our students have outstanding success in progressing to further study and rewarding, fulfilling careers, with 95% of our full-time students and 97% of part-time students in employment or further study upon graduation.

Birkbeck’s appearance for the first time in this ranking is a consequence of the College’s innovation in offering three year evening undergraduate degree courses which are classified as full-time.

Many years of hard work have gone in to establishing Birkbeck’s full-time undergraduate degree programme: in less than a decade the College has gone from having no full-time undergraduates to over 3,000. However, like all other Birkbeck undergraduate courses, they are accessible to motivated students without formal qualifications, and most importantly, take place in the evening, allowing students to work during the day.

Birkbeck is a research-led institution and this directly informs our teaching of predominantly non-traditional students but the Guardian’s league tables do not take research metrics in to account. Our scholarship informs public policy, delivers scientific advances, supports the economy, promotes culture and the arts, and makes a positive difference to society. Over half of our research was in the top 20 in the UK in the most recent REF exercise and our 40+ research centres and 700+ research students play a vital role in our success. Birkbeck has corresponding excellence, too, in postgraduate programmes, which have a superb reputation both nationally and internationally.

The College’s world-leading reputation for both research and teaching is well established. Birkbeck has been ranked in the top 250 universities worldwide in the latest THE World University Rankings and has been placed within the world’s elite institutions in a number of subjects in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, published earlier this year.

In the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) Birkbeck was ranked 30th nationally in terms of research intensity, with three departments in the top 10 nationally. Birkbeck’s academic staff are active researchers, many with world-leading reputations, and no fewer than 83% of the eligible academic staff were returned to the REF.

Birkbeck’s track record of opening routes to highly-skilled employment, in particular for students beginning their studies without standard academic qualifications, demonstrates that learning gain is a core aspect of teaching excellence at Birkbeck. Our mission is to make previously unthinkable life choices thinkable and achievable; a transformative impact demonstrated by the core metrics and the high proportion of undergraduate students who go on to postgraduate study.

“We offer all our undergraduate students, of which a sizeable proportion come to us with no formal qualifications at all, rigorous teaching and a transformational intellectual experience, enabling them to achieve a University of London qualification,” said Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck.

“Since its inception, Birkbeck has offered a distinct opportunity for working Londoners to gain qualifications through evening study. Nearly 200 years later, the College is still unlike any other higher education institution in the UK today – a distinctiveness of which we are proud.”

In issuing its league tables today, where Birkbeck entered the rankings at 113th, the Guardian University Guide noted: “Birkbeck is ranked alongside other universities in the league tables for the first time this year. It has not appeared in our league tables before now because its full-time provision is a relatively new development. The majority of Birkbeck students still study part-time, alongside full-time students. However, Birkbeck remains unique in that all its provision (full-time as well as part-time) takes place in the evening. This needs to be kept in mind when making comparisons with the rest of the sector.”

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Developing digital skills with UpScale

This blog was written by Frederic Kalinke, an ex-Googler who is now Managing Director of agile marketing technology company Amigo.digitaltechoriginal

I am a big fan of the UpScale programme at Birkbeck, which inspires students to work in the wonderful world of digital technology. Several big brands like LinkedIn, ASOS, JustGiving and MediaMath are partners, offering dedicated seminars to aspiring students. I have delivered a number of workshops focused on the power of Google and online marketing. In this article, I want to share why I believe UpScale is so important, as well as some tips on how to learn digital skills effectively.

I started my career at Google. Besides overdosing on sushi and chocolate, I learnt everything there is to know about Google’s marketing tools, which help businesses acquire customers online. I was also lucky to discover a passion so early. The thing that got me out of bed in the morning was developing novel and effective ways to teach companies about how Google products work. Before I dive into these, it’s worth spending some time exploring why working in technology is a fantastic place to be.

Never get bored

The UpScale programme focuses exclusively on the digital technology sector. Why? The UpScale website talks about employer demand. As the world gets increasingly digital, companies will continue to require and reward people who have technical skills and interests. This is undeniably true. You only have to look at the market salaries for software developers, data scientists and digital marketers to understand that demand for digital talent outstrips supply.

I would argue, however, that there is an intrinsic reason why technology is a fantastic career choice: it never gets boring! By nature it constantly evolves and never lies still. Here’s a clear example. Before the internet, the hotel, taxi, retail and entertainment industries remained largely unchanged. Hoteliers and taxi companies enjoyed oligopolistic privileges so could charge whatever they wanted to customers; high street shops enjoyed healthy margins based on the fact that customers had no other choice but to purchase their goods and services from them; and content producers, movie distributors and cinemas moved in lockstep, creating a profitable triumvirate. Then the internet arrived. And so did AirBnB, Uber, Amazon and Netflix, which have completely transformed their respective industries. It’s mind-boggling to think that two of these companies did not even exist 9 years ago. And none of them existed 23 years ago.

I was given the recommendation to work in digital by a wise CEO of a large FMCG company whom I met at university. He told me to forget the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) sector as, despite its name, was the “commercial snail”. It turns out that washing powder and toothpaste don’t really change that much.

So if you want excitement and constant innovation, digital technology will not disappoint and UpScale will equip you with the skills and networks to help get you there.

How to learn digital effectively

Having established the significance and thrill of working in technology, I’d now like to outline three ways to learn digital skills effectively. These insights are based on my experience of running several UpScale workshops.

  1. Interactive learning: From the very start of my workshop, I involve everybody in warm-up exercises and thought experiments to get people thinking. I am a big believer in the saying that if you “tell somebody to do something they will forget, if you show somebody they will remember, but if you involve somebody they will understand”. Because digital technology touches every part of our life, I advise students to get together in small groups to debate digital and challenge each other with questions like: why is Amazon so successful? Why is Twitter’s stock price so low? If you had £100k, what business would you set up and why? Why is using data important in decision-making? Which industry will be disrupted by technology next?
  1. Metaphors: I use a lot of metaphors to teach digital marketing concepts. For example, when we look at keyword planning, the bedrock of Search Engine Marketing, I use fishing and football; when we discuss Website Optimisation, I use the metaphor of a great restaurant. Metaphors make new things memorable and familiar. I always advise students to devise their own metaphors for newly learnt subjects and try them out on friends. As the Feynman Technique tells us, explaining something to a newbie is the best way to master any topic.
  1. Get practical: The last part of my workshop is about applying theory to practical exercises. Participants create their own Google AdWords campaign for an industry of their choosing. In whatever technical subject you are learning, there is always a practical application. If you’re learning a computer language, grasping data science or building a Microsoft Excel dashboard, get stuck in by building something. You will be amazed at how much this aids the learning process.
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Improving access to student service information

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer in Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations

Birkbeck offers a comprehensive range of services, to give our diverse student community the support and assistance it needs. These services are open to all and almost all of them are free to access. Our students consistently tell us that it is the human touch – meeting an academic at an Open Evening, emailing a Programme Administrator for assistance, seeking professional advice from our Careers and Employability Service, speaking to a counsellor about emotional issues – that makes Birkbeck so special. We are very proud of the willingness of our staff to go the extra mile: we’ve been helping students use their evenings to transform their lives for nearly 200 years now, so we know the challenges and obstacles they face – and the life changing opportunities we offer.

But how best to present over a dozen varied and distinct services on our website has been a particular challenge. In 2009, we launched My Birkbeck, a bespoke, specially designed website that presented these services in one place for the first time, to make reading about, and accessing, them more straightforward. However, in the intervening years, the design began to look antiquated – the pace of digital change is so breakneck that nothing ages more quickly and dramatically than a website – and the content became outdated, repetitive and progressively difficult to navigate. Increasingly, prospective and current students, as well as Birkbeck staff, have become frustrated with the outmoded design and the challenges of finding important and up-to-date information.

The My Birkbeck site was suffering from a proliferation of pages and files, an overload of content and a breakdown in user friendliness. We discovered that the site contained over 1100 content pages, of which 85% attracted fewer than 1000 views in the whole academic year – this is a very low number for a university with nearly 20,000 students. Moreover, well over 30% of the site had not been edited or updated in the past year, while 27% had not been updated for more than two years and 10% had last been updated three years ago. There were even pages that hadn’t been updated since the site launched in 2009. There was also excessive duplication of files: we found 1093 Word, Excel and PDF files on the My Birkbeck site, but the majority of them were copies or new versions of existing files that had already been uploaded – in one case, we found 25 published versions of the same file.

This confirmed that there was too much content and that the majority of it was out-of-date, underutilised and unloved. Although the original site had been impressive, user friendly and well designed, the intervening years had been unkind and, despite the valiant efforts of staff across Birkbeck, the site had become frustrating to navigate and off-putting to staff and students alike.

User feedback commissioned before Christmas confirmed that our students found accessing information about our services confusing and discouraging. They were aware that the My Birkbeck site was separate – in look and feel – from the main Birkbeck website, but they were critical of the site’s multiple failings. Although their perseverance and investigative prowess were impressive, our students shouldn’t have to expend lots of time tracking down information to access vital services.

In 2016 we launched a project to replace the My Birkbeck site, with the following objectives:

  • reduce the number of overall pages to make the site more navigable and user friendly
  • delete duplicate and out-of-date content
  • draw everything together into a single, definitive source of information
  • apply our new House Style and a consistent tone of voice
  • improve content to make it easy to scan and to make the key information, especially contact details, more prominent
  • optimise the content for search, to make it easier to find information via Google and other search engines
  • make it easy to login to online student services, such as our online learning environment, Moodle.

The first step was to meet with all of the key staff who run the services, to listen to their particular concerns and frustrations with the My Birkbeck site, and to work together to present the information in new, user friendly ways. We utilised high-tech tools – post-it notes and felt-tip pens – and asked staff to think about the key questions that a visitor to their services would have in mind. This helped us more intuitively structure the content on the site, giving priority to the most important and urgent questions and tasks. We also asked staff to consider the emotions that students might be experiencing when visiting the site – which ranged enormously, from excitement, optimism and determination to confusion, anxiety and frustration – which helped us adopt the most appropriate and helpful tone of voice when rewriting content. The focus throughout has been on meeting the needs of users and giving them the information they want, quickly and clearly.

The new Student Services site has reduced over 1000 webpages to just 100 – a tenth of the original size. The layout is brighter and easier to navigate, with more images and new, distinctive sections for each service. The content has been completely rewritten, following our new House Style, with an awareness of tone of voice and an emphasis on usability. Key pages from other areas of the Birkbeck website have been incorporated into the new Student Services section, to bring everything students need together in one place. As 30% of all visitors to the old My Birkbeck site were solely using it to access Moodle and other password protected areas for current students, we have improved access to those login areas by making them more prominent.

Overall, our ambitions have been to create a well-designed, user friendly and useful new area of the website, to bring together and re-present information about our impressive range of student services, and to make those services as open, welcoming and accessible online as befits Birkbeck’s ethos.

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Trump trolls, Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement: The internet meets politics

This article was written by Andrea Ballatore, Lecturer in Geographic Information Science, and Simone Natale, Loughborough University. It was originally published on The Conversation

We blame the internet for a lot of things, and now the list has grown to include our politics. In a turbulent year marked by the U.K.‘s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, some have started to wonder to what extent the recent events have to do with the technology that most defines our age.

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, commentators accused Facebook of being indirectly responsible for his election. Specifically, they point to the role of social media in spreading virulent political propaganda and fake news. The internet has been increasingly presented as a possible cause for the post-truth culture that allegedly characterizes contemporary democracies.

These reactions are a reminder that new technologies often stimulate both hopes and fears about their impact on society and culture. The internet has been seen as both the harbinger of political participation and the main culprit for the decline of democracy. The network of networks is now more than a mere vehicle of political communication: It has become a powerful rhetorical symbol people are using to achieve political goals.

This is currently visible in Europe, where movements such as the Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement, which we have studied, build their political messages around the internet. To them, the internet is a catalyst for radical and democratic change that channels growing dissatisfaction with traditional political parties.

Web utopias and dystopias

The emergence of political enthusiasm for the internet owes much to U.S. culture in the 1990s. Internet connectivity was spreading from universities and corporations to an increasingly large portion of the population. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore made the “Information Superhighway” a flagship concept. He linked the development of a high-speed digital telecommunication network to a new era of enlightened market democracy.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined volunteer efforts to wire schools to the internet in 1997. AP Photo/Greg Gibson

The enthusiasm for information technology and free-market economics spread from Silicon Valley and was dubbed Californian Ideology. It inspired a generation of digital entrepreneurs, technologists, politicians and activists in Silicon Valley and beyond. The 2000 dot-com crash only temporarily curbed the hype.

In the 2000s, the rise of sharing platforms and social media – often labeled as “Web 2.0” – supported the idea of a new era of increased participation of common citizens in the production of cultural content, software development and even political revolutions against authoritarian regimes.

The promise of the unrestrained flow of information also engendered deep fears. In 1990s, the web was already seen by critics as a vehicle for poor-quality information, hate speech and extreme pornography. We knew then that the Information Superhighway’s dark side was worryingly difficult to regulate.

Paradoxically, the promise of decentralization has resulted in few massive advertising empires like Facebook and Google, employing sophisticated mass surveillance techniques. Web-based companies like Uber and Airbnb bring new efficient services to millions of customers, but are also seen as potential monopolists that threaten local economies and squeeze profits out of impoverished communities.

The public’s views on digital media are rapidly shifting. In less than 10 years, the stories we tell about the internet have moved from praising its democratic potential to imagining it as a dangerous source of extreme politics, polarized echo chambers and a hive of misogynist and racist trolls.

Cyber-optimism in Europe

While cyber-utopian views have lost appeal in the U.S., the idea of the internet as a promise of radical reorganization of society has survived. In fact, it has become a defining element of political movements that thrive in Western Europe.

In Italy, an anti-establishment party know as the Five Star Movement became the second most-voted for party in Italy in the 2013 national elections. According to some polls, it might soon even win general elections in Italy.

The Five Star Movement’s Virginia Raggi, 37, was elected as Rome’s first female and youngest mayor in June. AP Photo/Fabio Frustaci

In our research, we analyzed how the Italian Five Star Movement uses a mythical idea of the internet as a catalyst for its political message. In the party’s rhetoric, declining and corrupt mainstream parties are allied with newspapers and television. By contrast, the movement claims to harness the power of the web to “kill” old politics and bring about direct democracy, efficiency and transparency in governance.

Similarly in Iceland, the Pirate Party is now poised to lead a coalition government. Throughout the few last years, other Pirate Parties have emerged and have been at times quite successful in other European countries, including Germany and Sweden. While they differ in many ways from the Five Star Movement, their leaders also insist that the internet will help enable new forms of democratic participation. Their success was made possible by the powerful vision of a new direct democracy facilitated by online technologies.

A vision of change

Many politicians all over the world run campaigns on the promise of change, communicating a positive message to potential voters. The rise of forces such as the Five Star Movement and the Pirate Parties in Europe is an example of how the rhetoric of political change and the rhetoric of the digital revolution can interact with each other, merging into a unique, coherent discourse.

In thinking about the impact of the internet in politics, we usually consider how social media, websites and other online resources are used as a vehicle of political communication. Yet, its impact as a symbol and a powerful narrative is equally strong.

The Conversation

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Rebirth and regeneration, or just a Trojan horse for gentrification?

Mark Panton, researcher in the Department of Management, is currently investigating sport as a key agent for urban regeneration. Here, he considers the issues in the context of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as developments closer to home.

“It’s just a Trojan horse for gentrification” is a phrase I have heard frequently during my PhD research into stadium-led regeneration in Tottenham. With the Olympic Games as a “catalyst”, rebirth and regeneration was the message behind the Opening Ceremony that heralded the start of the Rio 2016 Olympics.  Where does the balance lie?

The estimated total Olympic spend in Rio is US$ 9.75 Billion[1] according to the Plan of Public Policies – Legacy report presented at the 2016 Play the Game international conference. Undoubtedly sporting facilities can have longevity and value – as can improvements in transport infrastructure tied to Olympic projects. However, they are costly and there is growing concern about “Cathedrals in the desert”; abandoned facilities that deliver little value after the event.

Transportation infrastructure is emphasised by Rio as the most substantial Olympic legacy.  Projects have included construction of two substantial museums, revamping of several public spaces and incentivized building construction. There has been urban renewal around the Maracanã stadium, but this has led to communities being evicted from surrounding areas and a public athletics centre closed without warning in 2013. None of the major environmental projects linked to the Olympics were completed before the Games and Mario Moscatelli, a biologist, who has campaigned for decades to clean-up Rio’s water, says he “only sees things getting worse”.

There is also recognition that in property terms, hosting the games creates winners and losers.  With Rio’s Games closely following the Brazil World Cup in 2014 there have been many losers. It is estimated that all over Brazil, families in their several tens of thousands have been moved.  This process has been described as “social cleansing rationalised as instrument of ‘slash and burn’ planning,” (Lawrence & Wishart Blog, 2016). For many who remain in areas of Olympic-linked reconstruction there is the fear of the effects of gentrification such as the displacement of lower-income families and small businesses – as there is in the stadium-led regeneration of Tottenham.

However, there has been an unplanned but similar legacy from these developments in Rio and Tottenham. This is the growth in community networks that have been mobilised, aided by increased access to new technologies. As RioOnWatch points out, this may be scant consolation for many of those whose lives have been harmed by the Olympic dream (or demolitions in Tottenham), but these connections may represent the real regeneration for communities wanting to influence future policy decisions.

[1] This figure used an undervalued exchange rate of US$1 = R$ 4.00.  If the exchange rate used in the dossier of the application of US$ 1.00 = R$ 2.00 had been maintained, the total cost would be US$ 19.5 billion.

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The importance of language

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, spoke during Graduation Week at ceremonies to congratulate the College’s newest graduates.

Here, she explains the importance of the skills graduates from Birkbeck learn in the course of their studies and how it is vital, now more than ever, that the use of language needs to be reasoned to foster democratic debate  

You have all been studying hard to earn the degrees you have received today.  In so doing you have come to appreciate the important of being correct in how you express yourself:  mathematicians will appreciate that a digit out of place; a miscalculation can destroy chapters of effort.

Those of you studying social sciences, history and law will be finely tuned to the need for a precise and consistent pursuit of what is exact.  Those of you graduating in philosophy will have tangled directly with the nature of truth itself and when and how to present a statement – and to refute it.

I hope you excuse my telling you what you already know: because this matter of language is playing an important role in the life of not only our country, but in the world at large.  In two major arenas of public activity – the American election and the Brexit situation – language and how it is used is coming under great strain, not to say misuse and deliberation falsification.

Does it matter? It is only politics after all; it is only election rhetoric.  My case is that it matters very much – and that now, more than ever, the nature of language needs to be safeguarded by those trained in analysis, logic and deduction; that is, people such as yourselves.  I encourage you to welcome and uphold that responsibility.  Here’s why.

We have lived through an American election that insults the reputation of that great country and the foresight and shrewdness of its founding fathers.  When one candidate can insult and distort the role of the other with such impunity – speaking of Hillary Clinton as a criminal, deserving of prison, even a possibly target for direct violence – then civilised language has reached its limit.

When there is nowhere else to go with language then strong feeling gets expressed in action – often violent action. What is significant is that the strong statement itself – eye-catching  but wrong and  taken up by the media – is unyielding to correction.

It is no good to say, ‘she isn’t a criminal’, or more challengingly ask, ‘where’s the evidence?’ Damage has already been done.  Damage in public life is what we seek to avoid.  Damage – harm to our civil life and to our political institutions – can be long term and permanently undermining. That is why respect for language and the delicacy which it can express subtle ideas needs to be part of all our – of all your – lives.

The situation with Brexit is equally alarming.  It is one of the most serious changes to our constitution in more than 50 years. Unfortunately it has been  subjected to what many of us recognised as extravagant exaggeration: quite  separate from the very important issues that deserve thoughtful  assessment and judgement.  “Come out of the EU and the NHS can get the millions saved”; “Turkey is joining the EU so soon millions of Turks will be coming to Britain” – these  widely publicized slogans were to distort the very sound case to be made for leaving the EU and damage the reputation of  leading politicians  for the foreseeable future.

Well, OK, they’re politicians and they can be expected to be casual with language. Then last week a national newspaper accused three High Court judges, ruling on the rights of Parliament to discuss Brexit or not of being ‘enemies of the people’. Historically enemies of the people have been subject to charges of treason, to Star Chamber trials, to torture and execution.  It is a use of language that is well beyond any civilised exchange of opinions. It is of course, quite correct to challenge judgements made by the courts – there are checks and balances that allow us to do so – and such a challenge will indeed take place.

My point is that the use of such emotive and irrational language drives out the more subtle arguments that are the nature of democratic exchange and leads to a gross distortion of what is actually the intended case.

While we all digest the prospect of Brexit let me address some of the crucial issues close to the heart of Birkbeck.  We are an open society:  look around at the diversity by age, gender, ethnicity and faith of those around you.  This is society as we want it to be.  We at Birkbeck know it works:  it brings happiness and fulfilment into many lives. It promotes discourse, harmony, tolerance and civic responsibility among those who come here.

We rejoice that you too have been and I hope will remain part of such a society and take into your homes, your jobs and your communities the values we all share.  Do not let false and damaged language persuade you otherwise. The society of learning is global, interconnected and mutually respectful:  you are all welcome to its ranks.

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Armistice Day: Remembering Birkbeck’s war poet

A self-portrait of Isaac Rosenberg, who as painted as well as writing poetry

A self-portrait of Isaac Rosenberg, who painted as well as writing poetry

An evening celebrating the life and work of Isaac Rosenberg is taking place on Sunday, 27th November between 6pm and 8pm in Senate House, Bloomsbury.

Featuring actress Miriam Margolyes, Alexander Knox, Simon Haynes, Philip Bell, Elaine Feinstein and Vivi Lachs and her band, this evening of words, music and images has been written and devised by Rosenberg’s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson.

The event is being hosted by the Jewish East End Celebration Society to raise funds for a statue of Rosenberg in Torrington Square, outside Birkbeck’s main Malet Street building.

The First World War inspired a huge amount of poetry, by both soldiers and civilians. One of the most well-known poets, Isaac Rosenberg, studied in the evenings at the Art School at Birkbeck from 1907-1908, while spending his day as an apprentice graver. Rosenberg won several prizes during his time at the College and exhibited his work in the Art School’s annual exhibition after leaving. Rosenberg was killed while fighting in the Battle of the Somme in the spring of 1918. Today, we publish one of his most famous poems to mark Armistice Day.

In 2000, Professor Steven Connor  gave a lecture at Birkbeck about Rosenberg’s life and works. Read the lecture.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens ?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe –
Just a little white with the dust.

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Trump and Brexit: why it’s again NOT the economy, stupid

This post was written by Professor Eric Kaufmann from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

As the final votes are counted, pundits and pollsters sit stunned as Donald J. Trump gets set to enter the White House. For anyone in Britain, there is a sharp tang of déjà vu in the air: this feels like the morning after the Brexit vote all over again. Eric Kaufmann explains that, as with Brexit, there’s little evidence that the vote had much to do with personal economic circumstances.

For months, commentators have flocked to diagnose the ills that have supposedly propelled Trump’s support, from the Republican primaries until now. As in Britain, many have settled on a ‘left behind’ narrative – that it is the poor, white, working-class losers from globalization that have put Trump over the top. Only a few clairvoyants – Michael Lind, Jonathan Haidt – have seen through the stereotypes.

But, as in Britain, there’s precious little evidence this vote had much to do with personal economic circumstances. Let’s look at Trump voting among white Americans from a Birkbeck College/Policy Exchange/YouGov survey I commissioned in late August. Look at the horizontal axis running along the bottom of figure 1. In the graph I have controlled for age, education and gender, with errors clustered on states. The average white American support for Trump on a 0-10 scale in the survey is 4.29.

You can see the two Trump support lines are higher among those at the highest end of the income scale (4) than the lowest (1). This is not, however, statistically significant. What is significant is the gap between the red and blue lines. A full two points in Trump support around a mean of 4.29. This huge spread reflects the difference between two groups of people giving different answers to a highly innocuous question: ‘Is it more important for a child to be considerate or well-mannered?’ The answers sound almost identical, but social psychologists know that ‘considerate’ taps other-directed emotions while ‘well-mannered’ is about respect for authority.

People’s answer to this question matters for Trump support because it taps into a cultural worldview sometimes known as Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). Rather than RWA, which is a loaded term, I would prefer to characterise this as the difference between those who prefer order and those who seek novelty. Social psychologist Karen Stenner presciently wrote that diversity and difference tends to alarm right-wing authoritarians, who seek order and stability. This, and not class, is what cuts the electoral pie in many western countries these days. Income and material circumstances, as a recent review of research on immigration attitudes suggests, is not especially important for understanding right-wing populism.

Figure 1.

1

Now look at the same graph in figure 2 with exactly the same questions and controls, fielded on the same day, in Britain. The only difference is that we are substituting people’s reported Brexit vote for Trump support. This time the income slope runs the other way, with poorer White British respondents more likely to be Brexiteers than the wealthy. But income is, once again, not statistically significant. What counts is the same chasm between people who answered that it was important for children to be well-mannered or considerate. In the case of Brexit vote among White Britons, this represents a 25-point difference around a mean of 45.8 per cent (the survey undersamples Brexiteers but this does not affect this kind of analysis). When it comes to Brexit or Trump, think successful plumber, not starving artist or temporary lecturer.

Figure 2.

2

Some might say that even though these populist voters aren’t poor, they really, actually, surely, naturally, are concerned about their economic welfare. Well, let’s take a look at the top concerns of Trump voters in figure 3. I’ve plotted the issues where there are the biggest differences between Trump supporters and detractors on the left-hand side. We can start with inequality. Is this REALLY the driving force behind the Trump vote – all that talk about unemployment, opioid addiction and suicide? Hardly. Nearly 40 per cent of those who gave Trump 0 out of 10 (blue bar) said inequality was the #1 issue facing America. Among folks rating the Donald 10 out of 10, only 4 per cent agreed. That’s a tenfold difference. Now look at immigration: top issue for 25 per cent of white Trump backers but hardly even registering among Trump detractors. Compared to immigration, even the gap between those concerned about terrorism, around 2:1, is not very striking.

Figure 3.

3For Brexit vote, shown in figure 4, the story is much the same, with a few wrinkles. The gap on immigration and inequality is enormous. The one difference is on ‘the economy in general,’ which Trump supporters worry about more than Brexiteers. This could be because in the graph above I am comparing extreme Trump backers with extreme detractors whereas the Brexit-Bremain numbers include all voters. Still, what jumps out is how much more important immigration is for populist voters than inequality.

Figure 4.

4Why is Trump, Brexit, Höfer, Le Pen and Wilders happening now? Immigration and ethnic change. This is unsettling that portion of the white electorate that prefers cultural order over change.

The US was about 90 percent white in 1960, is 63 percent white today and over half of American babies are now from ethnic minorities. Most white Americans already think they are in the minority, and many are beginning to vote in a more ethnopolitical way. The last time the share of foreign born in America reached current levels, immigration restrictionist sentiment was off the charts and the Ku Klux Klan had 6 million members – mainly in northern states concerned about Catholic immigration.

Ethnic change can happen nationally or locally, and it matters in both Britain and America. Figure 5, which includes a series of demographic and area controls, looks at the rate of Latino increase in a white American survey respondent’s ZIP code (average population around 30,000 in this data). The share of white Americans rating Trump 10 out of 10 rises from just over 25 percent in locales with no ethnic change to almost 70 percent in places with a 30-point increase in Latino population.

The town of Arcadia in Wisconsin – fittingly a state that has flipped to Trump – profiled in a recent Wall Street Journal article, shows what can happen. Thomas Vicino has chronicled the phenomenon in other towns, such as Farmer’s Branch, Texas or Carpentersville, Illinois. There are very few ZIP codes that have seen change on this scale, hence the small sample and wide error bars toward the right. Still, this confirms what virtually all the academic research shows: rapid ethnic change leads to an increase in anti-immigration sentiment and populism, even if this subsequently fades. The news also spreads and can shape the wider climate of public opinion, even in places untouched by immigration.

Figure 5.

5Now let’s look in figure 6 at Brexit, and how White British voters in wards with fast East European growth in the 2000s voted. With similar controls, it’s the same story: when we control for the level of minorities in a ward, local ethnic change is linked with a much higher rate of Brexit voting. From under 40 percent in places with no ethnic change to over 60 percent voting Brexit in the fastest changing areas. Think Boston in Lincolnshire, which had the strongest Brexit vote in the country and where the share of East Europeans jumped from essentially zero in 2001 to the highest in the country by 2011.

Figure 6.

6

The Trump and Brexit votes are the opening shots which define a new political era in which the values divide between voters – especially among whites – is the main axis of politics. In a period of rapid ethnic change, this cleavage separates those who prefer cultural continuity and order from novelty-seekers open to diversity. Policymakers and pundits should face this instead of imagining that old remedies – schools, hospitals, jobs – will put the populist genie back in the bottle.

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The Brexit High Court judgment: what it means

This article was contributed by Dr Frederick Cowell from the Birkbeck School of Law’s Department of Law.

The High Court today handed down their judgment in the case brought by Gina Miller and Deir Dos Santos against the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

Billed as the ‘Brexit’ litigation, what was at issue was whether the Prime Minister had to go to parliament before triggering Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union (also known as the Lisbon Treaty), which would set in motion Britain’s exit from the European Union.  The judgment was first and foremost a question of resolving a basic legal question; is it the government or parliament that has the power in these matters?

The court were, in fact, keen to cut out the party political question altogether, declaring that they were “dealing with a pure question of law”. The judgment is, however, likely to become the ultimate political football and within half an hour the Government had announced that intended to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court on the 7th of December.

The core issue was the scope of prerogative powers relating to foreign policy, which are held by the Prime Minister and other government ministers. Historically, treaties were signed between monarchs by their representatives and, as the UK’s constitution became more democratic in the nineteenth century, prerogative powers were delegated to government ministers.

Many prerogative powers are now governed by legislation – for example, the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act put the power to manage the Civil Service onto statute governed by clearly definable legal powers. Prerogative powers are not easy to control as they can be exercised by ministers without the approval of parliament – for example Margaret Thatcher’s decision to ban trade unions from GCHQ (the secret service signal intelligence headquarters) did not require an Act of Parliament in the way that her other restrictions on trade unions did.  They are also difficult to control through the courts, which are often reluctant to intervene in areas where these powers are exercised, especially when it comes to foreign policy. On the eve of the Iraq war the High Court held that they could not hear a case from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who were asking for Tony Blair to seek a resolution from the UN Security Council authorising the use of force.

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May took the position that she didn’t need parliament’s approval to activate Article 50 and she could exercise her prerogative powers to take the UK out of the EU. In fact, she went so far as to guarantee in October that Article 50 would be activated by the end of March.  In 1971 the question of whether the government should accede to the European Economic Community (as it then was called) was debated in the House of Commons, even though technically, under the UK’s constitutional system, the Prime Minister of the day Edward Heath did not need an Act of Parliament to accede to the EEC.

What he did need parliament’s approval for, and what was at the heart of the Brexit litigation, was the 1972 European Communities Act which brought EEC law (later EU law) into UK law. This took nearly 300 hours of debate to pass, with Labour and Conservative MPs voting against their own party line repeatedly in an early indication of how divided the two main political parties were on this issue.

The 1972 Act – as the High Court Judgment noted – created rights for individuals as well as empowering the lawmaking institutions of the EU (paragraph 37 R(on application of Miller) v Secretary of State of Exiting the European Union). There were three kinds of right created under the 1972 Act; rights the EU had created and could be incorporated into UK law (such as the 48 hour working week and the right to cheap data roaming), rights enjoyed by citizens of other EU member states in the UK (the right to work) and rights enjoyed by UK citizens in other EU member states (the right live in other EU states).

The big issue was whether the loss of rights conferred by the 1972 Act could not sanctioned by the Government acting without parliamentary authority.  The Court noted that the lawyers for the Secretary of State had effectively conceded that some rights would be lost were this to happen (para 63). Therefore, the question was who should make the decision. In deciding this, the High Court noted that since the English Civil War in the seventeenth century the basic proposition was that the Crown (the executive branch of government) could not override parliament.

It is noteworthy that when the courts have previously reined-in abuse of ministerial power they have pointed out that one of the founding principles of Britain’s unwritten constitution was parliament’s supremacy over the executive.  The Secretary of State’s lawyers relied heavily on an earlier court ruling at the time of Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s which held that ratifying a new treaty was within the government’s prerogative powers. But this was a different question all together as Paragraph 94 of the judgment made clear, as the government’s actions on an “international plane” (i.e. activating Article 50) would remove rights granted via a domestic statute (the 1972 Act): therefore they needed the approval of parliament.

What this means is difficult to say at this point, although the Government’s strategy – and possibly its timetable for leaving the EU – have been dealt a significant blow. Whilst there are potentially points of law to appeal in the judgment, it is difficult to see some of the core conclusions reached by the High Court being overturned by the Supreme Court as they follow a century of established case law on the subject.

The real danger for the Government is that it will be very difficult to get their version of Brexit in a statute through both the House of Commons and the Lords, as Jolyon Maugham QC explains here. This is why political commentators are speculating heavily on the possibility of an election next year which would give the government the political mandate, and the Commons majority to push exit legislation through the House of Commons. Although the status of the June 23rd referendum was only advisory, were a Government to be elected in a General Election on a pro-Brexit manifesto there would be no way of stopping that in parliament.

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