From finding Birkbeck on an alumni profile to studying and working in the UK

A self-taught software developer, BSc Computing student Peace Onyehanere, shares the details of life as an international student at Birkbeck and how she marries part-time work and studies. 

Peace Onyehanere by her bike

Can you tell us about your background? 
I am a self-taught software developer studying at Birkbeck to get a degree in Computing. Before joining Birkbeck, I did a diploma in Computing, and I worked as a software developer in Nigeria. 

How did you hear about Birkbeck?  
I found Birkbeck from an alumni’s LinkedIn profile. I got curious and did some research about studying at Birkbeck. I decided to choose Birkbeck as my first choice as I liked the evening studies, and I also had the best experience reaching out to lecturers for my course to ask questions. 

What is it like living in London?  
I watched a couple of YouTube videos on living in London and transportation in London so the first time I had to take public transport, I thankfully did not get lost. Google maps also came in handy. I always made sure to ask the driver when I got on the bus to be sure I am on the right bus. I shop at cheap supermarkets to save some money. There has not been any lockdown since I started studying. But there have been more cases of Covid-19 and new variants at the end of term one. I then had my classes online and I have enjoyed it.  

Peace Onyehanere at her desk

Can you tell us about your studies?   
I have honestly enjoyed online teaching over in-person teaching. With virtual learning, the classes are recorded, and you can refer back to it after the class. There are also reading material and pre-recorded videos you can go through before the class. Each of the courses I have studied so far have been three hours long. But we do have breaks in between the class. There is also a support class provided on weekends where you can ask more questions and get help. 

How is a typical day for you? 
I work as a Frontend developer at a FinTech company. I started job hunting before moving to the UK. I got a couple of offers before arriving, but I got the offer for the company I currently work at while in the UK. A typical day for me starts with work and ends with a lecture if I have one that day. As I work from home, I don’t have to go out. I try to go out and explore my environment, but I am mostly indoors all day. 

Have you used any of BBK support services?  
I have followed Birkbeck Futures and attended the last event organised. I have also had the opportunity to be mentored via the Mentorship program. 

What have you found most challenging about your time in the UK so far? 
I have had a great time in the UK. The one thing I have found challenging is the weather and the short days. I look forward to a great time at Birkbeck and meeting more people. 

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What is data analytics and how can it help your business?

Paul Yoo smiling for the camera.

With the surge of data volume and processing requirements, the need to understand data analytics is ever-rising.

Dr Paul Yoo, Deputy Director of the Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics, shares how businesses can harness big data to improve their services.

What is data analytics?

Data analytics is the process of using data to solve problems. It addresses challenges relating to converting unstructured, complex, large-scale data into useful and actionable information.

Data analytics tools help in the data analytics processes, from loading data to transformation, model optimisation and deployment. Data analytics uses various tools for the analysis of unstructured, complex data, including images, texts, and graphs.

How can businesses use data analytics to improve their performance?

Many industries are involved in business data analytics applications in areas such as marketing, revenue forecasting, manufacturing, fraud detection and more. Data analytics can answer questions that help businesses by measuring marketing and advertising metrics, identifying consumer behaviour and the target audience, and analysing market trends.

At the Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics (BIDA), we have recently helped one of the largest semiconductor manufacturing companies in Asia in designing new sensors using advanced data analytic techniques for simultaneous fault detection in semiconductor wafer manufacturing. The current technologies for semiconductor manufacturing fault detection use the big raw data (streamed by over 40K sensors implanted around their fabrication processes). As the semiconductor wafers can only be validated after fab out (when the wafers are completed with processing) which usually takes about thirty days, there was a pressing need for a rapid fault diagnosis of the cause. The newly developed sensors using advanced data analytics techniques helped maintain high process yield while minimising tool downtime in semiconductor manufacturing.

Where can I learn more about data analytics?

BIDA offers free AI and data analytics training and engagement services for business. Our AI and data analytics clinic can help you to implement AI models and data analytic solutions specific to your industry, be it banking and finance, automotive, healthcare, or any other niche.

The clinic also provides ongoing opportunities to network, gain information and seek expert advice in areas of AI and data analytics. BIDA’s training portfolio actively targets industry players across a variety of sectors that would benefit from new insights gained using data analytics techniques.

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Final chapter for the public library?

MSc Public Policy and Management student Laurie Sanderson examines the future of the public library.

The slogan, “information wants to be free”, might have come from the 1980’s US hacking scene in the early days of the internet, but it could just as easily be applied to the UK’s 1850 Public Libraries Act, which gave local authorities powers to establish free public libraries in response to a rising wave of civic unrest and working class demands for social, political and economic rights.

Described by Andrew Carnegie as “cradle(s) of democracy”, public libraries were seen as institutions which would not just improve literacy, but foster a sense of citizenship.

In recent years, the UK’s public library system has seen a steady decline in visits. Between 2005 and 2018, the numbers of visitors to public libraries dropped from 48.2% to 32.7% (unlike museums and galleries, which overtook libraries in 2008 and have remained relatively stable since 2012).

Graph showing percentage of UK adults visiting public libraries and museums from 2005-2017

Whilst that decline predates austerity, cuts to local government funding since 2010 have inevitably led to tough choices about which services to prioritize. Between 2010 and 2019, around 773 libraries closed, and spending on the service declined from £1bn to £750 million according to CIPFA.

Around 65% of public libraries are located on, or near, high streets – giving them an undeniable presence at the heart of many of our communities. But so did Blockbuster, and that didn’t stop it being rendered obsolete by the internet. You can find almost any information you need online now. In 2004, the Economist wondered whether the public library would even be with us by 2020 – whilst that was premature, are we reaching the final chapter?

Graph showing library visits vs other UK attractions.We don’t know where the decline trajectory will lead, but libraries still have a sizeable audience. Before the coronavirus pandemic, in 2018/19, libraries had over 220 million visitors. That’s more people than visited all UK cinemas, the combined English and Scottish professional football leagues, and the UK’s top ten visitor attractions combined.[1] That isn’t an insignificant base to start from.

But are libraries still important? They certainly cater to a genuinely diverse audience. The latest DCMS figures show a broad cross-section of ethnicities visiting them (with people of Asian heritage the single largest group). Users are more likely to be women than men (36.7% of women visit, compared to 25% of men), and whilst employed users are more likely to be in higher managerial, administrative or professional than manual jobs (36.6% to 28%), they are also slightly more likely to be unemployed than employed (33.2% to 30.4%).

As a result, a growing school of thought has emerged stressing public libraries are essentialGraph showing library visits by ethnicity 2019-20. spaces within civil society for building cohesion between different groups.

They are places where people from all walks of life can come together and learn – from books and each other. In an age of fake news, culture wars and populism, that feels more important than ever.

So, if the public library isn’t dead yet, and there are powerful reasons for preserving it, what can we do to stem the decline?

A report carried out by Ipsos Mori and the Carnegie Trust in 2016 gives us some indications of improvements which would encourage more people to visit public libraries. Looking at England, the top three are better information about services, more events, and a café or coffee shop on site. Other popular measures include better online and IT services, longer opening hours, and a diversified range of activities and services.

Graph showing improvements that would encourage more users of libraries.

In other words, an improved (online and physical) offering, better facilities, and an increased emphasis on the library as a space for people to come together for events or to access services could revitalize the public library.

The good news is that we can find plenty of green shoots of innovation in the UK and beyond – from libraries digitizing services, merging with bookshops and cafes, and repurposing their spaces for everything from homeless shelters to film and karaoke clubs.[1] It’s too soon to write off the public library just yet.

[1] Public Libraries News, Ideas and innovations in public libraries, https://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/practitioners/ideas-and-innovations-in-public-libraries [Accessed 12 Jan 2022]

[1] Data – from various: https://www.espn.com/soccer/, https://www.statista.com/statistics/268598/premier-league-total-aggregate-attendance/, https://www.cipfa.org/about-cipfa/press-office/latest-press-releases/spend-on-british-libraries-drops-by-nearly-20m, https://www.cinemauk.org.uk/the-industry/facts-and-figures/uk-cinema-admissions-and-box-office/annual-admissions/, https://www.cinemauk.org.uk/the-industry/facts-and-figures/uk-cinema-admissions-and-box-office/annual-admissions/

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Farewell adultery: new divorce laws come into effect in April 2022 

Fifty years on since the introduction of the Divorce Reform Act, new laws coming into effect in the Spring will remove adultery as a basis for divorce. Daniel Monk, Professor of Law, discusses the history of the Act, seen as progressive for its time, and implications from the legal reform. 

Cover of book on Divorce Reform Act

Cover: Fifty Years of the Divorce Act 1969 (Hart/Bloomsbury)

On 6 April the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2021 will come into force. This long awaited statute repeals the Divorce Reform Act 1969 and sweeps away the final vestiges of matrimonial fault as a legal basis for divorce. For campaigners and family law practitioners this is a cause for celebration. The focusing on establishing adultery and detailing the ‘unreasonable’ behaviour of spouses exacerbated emotional distress and in practice had long become a ritualised often formulaic paper exercise. Removing the need to refer to individual conduct reflects not just that divorce has become far more socially acceptable but also that divorce is perceived as a right, as important as the human right to marry, a personal choice, a private matter. The decision of the Supreme Court in Owens v Owens in 2018, in which a wife’s petition for divorce was, exceptionally, defended by her husband and, even more surprisingly, rejected by the court, was, consequently, a shocking reminder of how out of step the law was with contemporary experiences and perceptions of divorce, and marriage. As such the Supreme Court judgement assisted in the path to reform, possibly intentionally.

But it is worthwhile remembering that the Divorce Reform Act 1969 was itself heralded as a progressive reform. Alongside the Sexual Offences Act 1967 and the Abortion Act 1967 it justifiably stands as a representative symbol of that permissive, increasingly secular, time. Of course, the history is more complex: all those landmark statutes were riddled with compromises.

The 1969 Act removed all references to ‘marital offences’ and ‘the guilty party’ and enshrined the principle that a divorce could be granted if the marriage had ‘broken down irretrievably’. But while it enabled this to be established by facts relating to separation and, radically, simply by consent of the parties, at the same time it repackaged earlier ‘offences’ of adultery, behaviour and desertion as ‘facts’ which could also be relied on to establish breakdown of a marriage.

In practice adultery and behaviour remained consistently popular ‘facts’ for divorce. There may be pragmatic reasons for this – it avoided delay and separation can sometimes be hard to establish – but it also suggests that for a large number of people attributing responsibility for the breakdown of a relationship was always more than simply a legal hurdle, but a way of validating a personal narrative or emotional truth. The social stigma attached to divorce has undoubtedly shifted, but far less, if at all, the investment in romantic ideals, conjugal coupledom and belief in the value of the making of a life-long commitment.

For many sexual fidelity remains key. Indeed, some gay and lesbian activists went so far as to complain that the law’s refusal to recognise adultery as a basis for ending same-sex marriages and civil partnerships was a form of unjust discrimination. This somewhat bizarre demand for the legal recognition of ‘same-sex adultery’ overlooked the haunting significance of ‘illegitimacy’ and gendered double standards inherent in the offence of adultery. But it demonstrates how malleable concepts are, how change and continuity go hand in hand: the commands of moral judgment morphing into desires for therapeutic justice.

Adultery has deep roots. Prior to 1937 it had been the sole basis for divorce, and double standards for husbands and wives were enshrined in the law. Going back further it is worth remembering that Protestant theological recognition of divorce was premised on a zealous belief in the importance of punishing adulterers and a withering scorn for Catholicism’s more pragmatic practises of formal separation and all too easily obtained annulments.

With Adultery soon to disappear from the statute books, family law students will no longer be required to read what must be some of the most prurient cases in the law. Confession: they were fun to teach. Adultery will live on in costume dramas – A Very British Scandal about the notorious divorce case Argyll v Argyll (1962) is the most recent example – and as an historical curiosity in countless plays and novels. But what impact, if any, will the legal reform have on spousal expectations and aspirations? Devoid of any legal scaffolding, what place will Adultery have in wider public consciousness?

One reason why it is hard to answer these questions is because of the deep-seated ambivalence about divorce per se. While no longer enveloped in theological sin or social disgrace, shame lingers on and is reinforced by the cruel notion of a ‘failed marriage’. Divorce as a problem is buttressed in more subtle ways by fashionable ‘psychological’ narratives that place increasing emphasis on ‘attachment disorders’ to explain relationship failure. Emotional truths may replace a legal truth in undertaking the autopsy of a marriage, but they are more, not less, judgmental. The endless retelling of the divorce of Charles and Diana is evidence of an appetite for the blame game – by observers as well as the parties – while the fact that in law their divorce was based on separation is overlooked.

The centrality of emotions and feelings in narratives of divorce also obscures other explanations. When statistics recently revealed an increase in divorces of spouses over 60, who had been married for over 30 years, few greeted this as, in part, a welcome indicator that for the first time for a significant number of women divorce was not just socially but an economically viable option. High rates of owner occupation in that age group may be a factor – unlikely to be reached again. It’s too often overlooked that decreases in divorce reflect economic as much as emotional realities and should be a cause for concern. ‘Is divorce good for women?’ has long been a question dividing feminist opinion. The 1969 Act was described by some as a ‘Casanova’s charter’ for husbands but by others as an essential tool of liberation.

Divorce reform has been a key way in which the institution of marriage has been reimagined and reinvented. But at the same time divorce has always been about more than the institution of marriage, rather a window into complex, unsettling and ambivalent personal and political stories about progress, desire, and commitment.

Fifty Years of the Divorce Act 1969 (Hart/Bloomsbury), edited by Joanna Miles, Daniel Monk and Rebecca Probert, was published yesterday. It presents a ‘life-story’ of the Act through the lens of history, law, literature, demography and sociology, and looking to the future suggests ways for evaluating what makes a ‘good’ divorce law.

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Turning Capitalism on its Axie

MSc Politics, Philosophy and Economics student Keir Dolan explains how a popular play-to-earn game is redefining work and creating financial freedom.

Also known as GameFi, play-to-earn (P2E) is a revolutionary video gaming format offering players the opportunity to create economic incentives out of their gaming experience.

Built on a blockchain backbone, vast virtual worlds are placed at the hands of intrepid players willing to commit their time and effort to these unique digitalised environments. “Games with real, player-owned economies will become places, where we live, work, and play – true digital nations,” writes Sky Mavis, better known as the team behind the #1 blockchain game and runaway success, Axie Infinity.

Dubbed a “digital pet universe”, Axie Infinity is a nonfungible token (NFT) game about breeding, collecting and fighting ‘Axies’ in order to procure Axie Infinity Shards (AXS) and Smooth Love Potion (SLP) tokens, which can then be exchanged for real money.

Propelled by growing mainstream interest in NFTs and the broader cryptocurrency sector, Axie Infinity has enjoyed a staggering rise to stardom over 2021.

User growth, or smart contract interactions by unique wallet addresses (UWA), expanded from a modest 700 daily AWA interactions in early February to 118,000 by early November 2021. On their website, Axie Infinity goes even further, claiming a record 3 million daily active players in January 2022; and USD 3.6 billion in total trade across the in-house marketplace (2018-22).

In October 2021, Sky Mavis announced that USD 152 million was raised in a Series B funding round, valuing the company at USD 3.0 billion – and the Axie player base stands to benefit considerably: “We give real stake in our products to our users”, promotes Sky Mavis on their website.

Not mere virtue signalling

Axie players are stakeholders in the business. By acquiring AXS tokens, the governance token, players gain voting rights and have a voice in the game’s development. Staking AXS tokens, by placing them into a funding pool, provides voting privileges and rewards players with AXS in return. This keeps the ecosystem secure and provides an economic incentive for the players to see the game succeed.

Current circulating supply of AXS is 60.9 million, worth USD 0.4 billion (January 2022). Total supply will reach 270 million over a 65-month unlock schedule – we’re at month fourteen. Sky Mavis holds about 30% of the supply, but plans to wind this down to 21% in order to decentralise the platform.

“Our goal…is to align the incentives between the players of the game and the developers”, states the company on their white paper.

Creating value in a video game is tricky business, particularly if your target demographic are savvy tech adults and your product comprises digitalised monsters in a fictitious universe. Moreover, the token assets, core to the game’s economic incentive, are subject to intense volatility – AXS witnessed an astronomical 800% surge from GBP 0.4 in January 2021 to GBP 118.30 in July, before a climb down of over half the token’s value to around GBP 45 in early January 2022; SLP can swing anywhere between 10-40% in a typical day-to-day session.

“Being at the bleeding edge of gaming and blockchain technology makes Axie Infinity particularly susceptible to volatility, from internal and external factors. We expect there will be significant highs and lows in the years to come…” says the company on their blog.

Future growth will be decided by the market of trust in the company’s objectives to continue to reinvest in the platform and adjust their ‘tokenomic’ strategy (token-economics) to the demands, swings and mechanics of the NFT-gaming market. Value, for Sky Mavis and Axie Infinity, is created in the key promise to players and developers; to remain a decentralised platform.

The democratised nature of Axie Infinity is helping to reshape the modern corporate governance, while simultaneously providing real financial opportunities for people who might otherwise fall through the cracks. In the Philippines, where national unemployment sits at around 18%, one rural community is reported to have escaped poverty by playing the game – even attracting the likes of a 66-year -old grandmother.

This potential for financial gain is spurring the development of community clusters around the globe, with most of these groups located in the Global South. At just over 40%, the Philippines comprises the largest portion of the Axie player base, followed by Venezuela and the US at 6.3% and 5.7% respectively.

Reported earnings of PHP10,000 (USD 206) per week may not be particularly enticing to Western players, but to Filipino players “It’s food on the table”, reports Coindesk in an interview with Gabby Dizon, a Filipino app developer.

As F. Hayek said of then-new book, Fatal Conceit, in 1984: “I don’t believe we shall ever have a good money again before we take the thing out of the hands of government, that is, we can’t take them violently out of the hands of government, all we can do is by some sly roundabout way introduce something they can’t stop.”

For a small company of 30 located exclusively in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Axie Infinity’s progress is a noteworthy achievement – “Economic freedom for gamers” adorns their Twitter handle followed by 850k worldwide.

Community-driven, player-focused and player-owned. Axie Infinity represents the core values of NFT gaming, seeking a strong, intimate relationship with its player base and a development community that the company predicts will be central to its progression in the years to come. The game provides an opportunity for those on the fringes of society to build capital in a new, innovative format that does not discriminate based on geographic location, ethnicity, religious orientation or gender. It may even offer those with debilitating disabilities or chronic illness an opportunity to create communities with others in a novel format, while simultaneously earning a living.

Can a mobile game redefine the rules of capitalism and even solve the riddle of the great Global North vs Global South divide? Quite possibly.

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Chinese New Year draws to a close

With Tuesday’s Lantern Festival bringing Chinese New Year 2022 to a close, MA History of Art student, Valerie Lee, from Malaysia shares her favourite aspects of the festival, including the culinary delights, and how being away from home did not take away any of her enthusiasm for the annual celebration.

Valerie Lee photo for Chinese New Year

It doesn’t feel the same being away from home especially on the most important Chinese festival, the Lunar New Year. Together with friends and relatives living in London, we welcome the Year of the Tiger with a reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve.

Guests who arrive at our home are welcome to have some snacks that we’ve prepared on the table, such as pineapple tart, kuih kapit, peanut cookies, and so on while chatting to catch up on our lives.

We start our meal with a Yusheng, also known as Prosperity Toss, 捞生 (lo shang), a dish that originated from Seremban, Malaysia in the 1940s. It normally includes raw fish (occasionally salmon) strips combined with shredded vegetables, as well as a variety of sauces and seasonings. Yúshēng (魚生) means “raw fish,” but it was regarded as a homophone for Yúshēng (余升), which signifies an increase in abundance. We stood around the table, chopsticks in hand, tossing the dish into the air while saying “auspicious wishes” aloud, believing that the height of the toss reflected our growth in fortunes.

We also prepared Poon Choi, 盆菜 (Pen Cai), which means “basin cuisine” or “big bowl feast”. Poon Choi is traditionally packed with overflowing ingredients to represent wealth and prosperity. The number of ingredients that may be added is limitless. Roast beef, dried mushrooms, prawns, abalone, fish maw, broccoli, yam, and other ingredients are common.

After our dinner, children or the unmarried will received red packets, 红包 (hong bao) from married couples. The red colour of the envelope represents good luck and serves as protection against evil spirits. It’s also given when someone comes to visit as a token of appreciation.

Although we are staying in London, we will carry out the traditions to make ourselves feel at home during this festive spring. We would like to wish all of you a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year. May you and your family have happiness, good health, and success all year!

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Decoupling coal from India must keep climate justice in mind

MSc Politics, Philosophy and Economics student Sonia Joshi argues that the western approach to
addressing climate change is far from equal.

COP26 ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Last minute changes proposed by India and backed by other coal-emitting countries requesting the ‘phase out of unabated coal power’ to be changed to ‘phase down’ were considered a dilution of already wavering commitments. The International Energy Agency recently reported that in 2021 the world consumed more coal-fired electricity than ever before. India is the second largest global emitter of CO2 from coal whilst also suffering from the ravages of climate change, including a high susceptibility to deadly flooding, famines and air pollution.

As one of the biggest polluters and a country most at risk from the fallout of climate change, should and could India be doing more to phase out coal? The answer depends on how you frame the question.

Graph showing biggest coal CO2 emitters.

India has been hit hard after a COVID-19 induced recession with an additional 75 million people in poverty; cheap energy is essential for its recovery. India along with other emerging nations argue that the Global North’s rise in economic prosperity has been accelerated by its extraction and consumption of fossil fuels for over 200 years; according to a recent study, since 1850 in fair share terms the G8 countries (USA, EU28, Japan and Canada) have overshot their ‘carbon budget’, being responsible for 85% of aggregate carbon emissions despite only accounting for 12% of the global population.

Graph showing biggest CO2 emitters.

In contrast, India is in credit of 90 billion tonnes of CO2 or 34% of the total credit. When accounting for CO2 emissions per capita, the impact of wealthy nations on atmospheric CO2 is even more striking; Qatar takes the top spot, USA drops to 14th place and India falls to 134th. India’s per capita energy use is in fact extremely low; approximately one third of the global average, and one tenth of the USA average.

For now, India needs coal to help keep electricity flowing in an already resource-constricted population. Coal is necessary for 70% of its current electricity generation, with the State-owned Coal India Limited employing 21 million people. Despite this, a significant percentage of the 1.4 billion population still has no access to electricity. Fair share matters if the atmospheric commons have a finite capacity for CO2. With this calculation in mind, one could argue that members of the G8 such as the USA, one of the highest gross and per capita emitters, should be doing more to decelerate coal usage to buy time for other emerging nations to transition.

India is clear it needs to phase out coal; grass roots movements and labour organisations, including the 2 million strong National Hawkers Federation, regularly highlight the impacts of pollution on India’s cities and consistently call for a transition to renewable energy. However, a rapid decoupling from coal would not only leave millions in the dark but also create huge swathes of unemployment creating a political and humanitarian crisis.

Chart showing cumulative CO2 emissions 1750 - 2020.

An understanding of India’s predicament helps to shed light on how much progress was made by India in COP26 and how much more is needed. India’s government has pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 45% and obtain half of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2030. For India to participate in a green transition, it will need funding to help economic diversification, investment in improving efficient coal use, green technologies and distribution of infrastructure to roll out renewables such as solar panels. Industry restructuring could provide alternative, sustainable and ecological opportunities for employment outside of fossil fuel intensive industries, helping the economy and the people decouple from climate disasters.

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Why World Wetlands Day is now being officially observed by the United Nations

Wednesday 2 February 2022 marked the first official observance of World Wetlands Day. In this blog, Dr Dale Mineshima-Lowe, Lecturer and Acting Programme Director of MSc Environment and Sustainability, explains the significance of the day and how it’s raising awareness of biodiversity, climate mitigation/adaption, and the global environment.  

Wetland in Korea

Wednesday 2 February marked the first official observance of World Wetlands Day, adopted by the UN General Assembly in August 2021.  February 2 was chosen as the date to mark the anniversary of the Convention on Wetlands (also known as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands), adopted as an international treaty back in 1971. 

Since 1997, the 1971 Convention has been celebrated annually as ‘World Wetlands Day’, as a means of raising awareness about how global wetlands are critical ecosystems that contribute to various global environmental and sustainability issues. The 2021 UN Resolution has now adopted this day officially as an internationally observed day. This additional recognition, it is hoped, will highlight the issue within public discourse, raise concern for the issue, and mobilise political will and commitment (national and international) for resources towards wetlands protection, restoration, and preservation.  

‘Wetlands’, broadly defined, covers a multitude of water ecosystems – natural and human-made, including both freshwater and marine-coastal ecosystems – such as mangroves and other coastal areas, coral reefs, tidal flats, estuaries, swamps and marshes, rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers. This year’s theme of ‘Wetlands Action for People and Nature’, explains how wetlands are ecosystems that contribute to biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Its focus on the inter-relationship between nature and people is meant to serve as a ‘call to action’ – dedicating human, financial and political resources to protection and restoration efforts.  

According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands – Global Wetland: Special Edition 2021 report, global wetlands deterioration is widespread, impacted by climate change – with changing weather patterns creating more risk of droughts and flooding – causing ecosystem damage and degradation. While the report identified the negative impacts on wetlands, it also recognised wetlands as important for their role as part of climate mitigation and adaption strategies. It highlighted that wetland ecosystems can be both solution and problem dependent on how they are managed – as power source carbon sinks if undisturbed and maintained, or a source of greenhouse gases if allowed to degrade. This is where the report, along with the call to action of this year’s World Wetlands Day theme, calls for the need to enhance coordination and integration across different sectors – wetland management, agriculture, and urban development amongst others for instance. It highlights the need not only for international agreements and national strategies, but the commitment of vital resources to actualise the agreements in the short and long-terms.   

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Birkbeck students celebrate LGBT+ History Month: Allies are Welcome!

As the experiences and achievements of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender + community are observed throughout February, MSc International Marketing Student, Wojciech Zaluski, looks at progress and speaks to Birkbeck LGBTQ+ officer Megan Massey and MSc Marketing student Daniel Knight to ask for their viewpoint on matters, including a look at the role that university life plays in supporting them.

Photo of two people touching hands to represent LGBT+ History Month

In recent years the situation of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer + (LGBTQ+) has improved a lot in the UK. In 2014 same-sex marriage was officially allowed. Since 2020 we have also seen a successful roll-out of PrEP, available for free through the NHS, a drug that is key to reducing HIV transmissions. If you live in London, you will be aware how strongly the city promotes and supports tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community. Everywhere you go you can spot awareness campaigns promoting inclusivity and acceptance.

London is also the host of the annual Pride festival, put on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each year thousands of Londoners (2019 Pride attracted over 1.5 million people) and visitors cheer all day in a parade where they can embrace their non-heteronormative identity in public. The city, during this period, becomes filled with events, parties and gatherings focused on and appreciating love in its different forms. And yes, London Pride is coming back to London in 2022!

We are also seeing, more and more, how the corporate world has become vocal in its appreciation for the LGBTQ+ community. For example McKinsey & Company is promoting their initiative “Proud Leaders Europe,” “created to support talented individuals from across Europe, who self-identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community”.

Q&A with Megan Massey, Birkbeck LGBTQ+ officer

What is the function of a LGBTQ+ officer at Birkbeck?
The goal of all elected Liberation Officers is to improve the student experience at Birkbeck, with a LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+) officer focusing their efforts on advocating for LGBTQ+ students, representing them in meetings with the College, and helping to foster a community.

What kind of events can LGBTQ+ students expect at Birkbeck?
Events range from hangouts and film screenings to pub crawls and museum visits.  Of course, for the LGBTQ+ network, Pride is also an important event in the calendar. Hopefully Birkbeck students will be able to walk at London Pride once again in 2022!

Why do you think universities should provide a program for LGBTQ+ students? Do you think that we live in a post-heteronormative world?
Higher education should be for everybody, and so it is important that universities provide resources that reflect this. The fact that we do not yet live in a post-heteronormative world means that LGBTQ+ students, and other marginalised students, face barriers that they will have to overcome in order to have access to higher education.

What barriers and challenges does the LGBTQ+ community still face? How can the academic world answer those problems?
There are many barriers and challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community, and attitudes to LGBTQ+ people vary across the globe. There are many countries which still criminalise consensual gay sex and relationships, meaning that LGBTQ+ people face imprisonment. In countries like the UK, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014, there is still work to be done to improve the legal standing of LGBTQ+ people. For example, the UK government does not legally recognise non-binary identities.

Aside from the law, LGBTQ+ people in every country still face social challenges and are at risk of experiencing violence and persecution. The academic world can seek to educate around LGBTQ+ topics, but does not have all the answers. Many LGBTQ+ people, especially those most at risk, will not have access to discussions that take place in universities, despite the fact that their voices are deeply important to the conversation. In order for the academic world to do a better job of advocating for LGBTQ+ people, they need to place an emphasis on accessibility.

From your experience, meeting LGBTQ+ students at Birkbeck, what did you learn that surprised you? What kind of support do you think they need? Did those meetings change you?  Where do you find strength and motivation to be actively engaging in helping and educating the student community about the problems of the LGBTQ+ community? 
I was surprised by how many students have been unsure whether or not they are welcome in the LGBTQ+ community. I think that is one aspect where many students need support, in feeling that they are welcome and accepted in the academic space. As an LGBTQ+ person myself, it is a privilege to be able to help the student community in any way. I feel grateful to the students who have had the courage to reach out to me with their questions or concerns.

London is a very diverse city with official city support for Pride and other campaigns promoting tolerance and inclusivity, similarly we are seeing the corporate world embracing LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Do you think that LGBTQ+ people are safe in London? If not, why do you think so?
This is a difficult question due to the interpretation of ‘safe’, but I do think that LGBTQ+ people are safe in London, to a certain extent. London is a fairly safe city, the whole world considered, and so LGBTQ+ people living here may feel safer than they would elsewhere. However, since LGBTQ+ are, as a marginalised group, at a higher risk of experiencing discrimination and hate crimes, personal safety is something that most queer people have to be very aware of.

In addition to this, since LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience poverty and homelessness, this is a factor which must be considered. Likewise, it is impossible to ignore the relevance of race (and other identity factors) in discussions of safety. For this reason, a more in-depth, intersectional approach would be needed to adequately address the question of whether or not LGBTQ+ people are safe in London (or, indeed, if anybody is ‘safe’ anywhere).

What do you advise LGBTQ+ students who need psychological help? Do you know where they can seek support and help?
Birkbeck’s Mental Health Advisory Service provides a range of help for students. More information can be found here.

Outside of university, if a student (or anyone) is dealing with life-ending thoughts and needs urgent care, they can go to Accident and Emergency, or contact their local crisis team. If they need to talk to somebody over the phone or online, on a one-off basis, there are several charities which provide this service. If they are looking for therapy or counselling, they can self-refer through their GP to be put on a waiting list for a free NHS service.

What would you advise for people who don’t identify as queer or LGBTQ+ and would want to learn more to understand problems and issues that their LGBTQ+ students face?
There is a great deal that a person can learn online, but of course it’s great to speak to LGBTQ+ people in person too—allies are welcome to join the LGBTQ+ Network!

Interview with Daniel Knight, MSc Marketing student

Do you see any difference between how LGBTQ+ issues were addressed when you were studying to get your undergraduate degree and now at Birkbeck?
I did my undergraduate studies between 2004 and 2007. And there wasn’t much of a LGBTQ+ society then. I wasn’t very active in the community, I’d only just come out, so I was working out how to interact with the people around me. It was not easy to find and connect with other LGBTQ+ students. Thankfully, there is more of a presence now at Birkbeck than in the past.

I was interested to see what it looks like at Birkbeck… if it’s more visible and easier to connect. I visited the Freshers’ Fair to find out. As a result, I joined the Birkbeck LGBTQ+ online group. I think social presence is very important.

Do you feel the UK has moved forward in terms of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusivity of LGBTQ+ people in recent years? If not, why do you think that is?
I think the UK is more inclusive and accepting. I experienced very little homophobia in my life. That may relate to the fact that I am not flamboyant and it’s not obvious that I am gay.  That may be why. People in my life were always very accepting and inclusive and they wanted to know about my relationships. I think it became more acceptable to talk about your relationships. I am also aware I am working in healthcare, surrounded by professional people. It may be very different for people working in a different kind of environment. My experience may not be someone else’s.

I’d say as a teenager, when I was in secondary school, I don’t think it was accepted. I think that in the UK there was a switch into the pro-movement, probably in the early 2000, before you got into 2010. When I was at secondary school I wouldn’t have come out, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that, whereas now, I believe teenagers do feel comfortable, and obviously that’s great in that regard, that the desire to come out would now be more positively received than before.

With reference to my work environment, if I experienced homophobia in my office, it would be taken very seriously, and the person would certainly be investigated, but I work for the healthcare regulator, they take equality and diversity seriously.

Did you experience homophobia in your life or work life? What would you advise to LGBTQ+ students who are starting their career in that regard; how to handle homophobia at work or in their personal life?
I think, for them, it should be easier. We are in a different place now- homophobia isn’t accepted. If there is an experience like that, they should look for their HR department, or if it’s a university there is a department that deals with that. I think there are support structures in place now that enable people to feel supported. If they experience homophobia, they should be able to raise it, people will help them. This would not have been the case in the past. My advice would be to talk to people in the organisation who can support you. And look for that support, look for like-minded people, join the LGBTQ+ society at Birkbeck, and you’ll find a lot of like-minded people, and allies as well. Don’t put up with homophobia in any form.

In your own company do you observe that there is a will to create a safe environment for the LGBTQ+ community? Or is it a non-issue?
As part of the new EDI (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion) strategy they have created lots of different groups, among them an LGBTQ+ group, within our organisation. People can go there and talk about their experience and if there is anything that is not quite right in the organisation.

Were you able to make any connections with the LGBTQ+ community at Birkbeck? How do you think universities should address inclusivity and the safety of LGBTQ+ students
Being part of the LGBTQ+ group is important, and for that group to be able to discuss policies with the university on how they can support Birkbeck communities. If the university can demonstrate the changes that have been achieved, that is a good way to show that there is progress for the LGBTQ+ community. They could also do more in terms of events and lectures, I suppose to express different views in the community. Just to show it is taken seriously, you could put information in the weekly bulletins from Birkbeck, to have inclusion there about what has been done, for people to be involved more and find out more. The main thing would be that they have support in place should people have issues, making clear what they can do if they have issues, regarding LGBTQ+ issues.

Further Information

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Burnout: what is it and what can managers do to prevent it?

Dr Halley Pontes standing in front of a building, smiling.Dr Halley Pontes, Lecturer in Organizational Psychology,
explains why we are all burnt out and what managers can do to support employee wellbeing.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, people’s lives have been profoundly transformed, particularly in relation to how they go about their work. With many restrictions in place to mitigate the spread of the virus, people found themselves in a different setting where often times working from home means ‘living at work’ due to the increasingly blurred lines between work and home life. To further compound this issue, such unprecedented changes brought about high levels of uncertainty and psychiatric disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, stress, and insomnia), all contributing to decreased levels of wellbeing (Liu et al., 2021). In the UK, about 822,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2020/21, with an estimated 54% of these workers reporting that these symptoms were either caused or made worse by the pandemic (Health and Safety Executive, 2021).

During these unprecedented times, an increasingly prominent problem is the increased risk of ‘burnout’ among employees. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), burnout is a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that employees are not able to effectively manage. Burnout comprises the following three main dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion’
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job’
  3. a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment’.

Burnout is particularly relevant to organisations and teams as it refers specifically to the occupational context. As such, managers have the responsibility to promote employee mental health and wellbeing by understanding the issue of burnout while proactively adopting solutions that may help mitigate its risks, especially during periods of greater vulnerability such as during the pandemic.

How to recognise the key signs of burnout in your team

According to Mental Health UK, in March 2021, 1 in 5 UK workers felt ‘unable’ to cope with pressure and stress levels at work. Because burnout can drastically impair a person’s wellbeing, it is important to identify its key symptoms as early as possible. To this end, attentive managers and leaders should look out for the following common signs of burnout among their team members:

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and/or defeated
  • Feeling detached or alone in the world
  • A cynical or negative outlook
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get tasks done
  • Feeling overwhelmed.

A study conducted by Ericson-Lidman and Strandberg (2007) investigating co-workers’ perceptions of signs preceding a burnout episode found that the following signs are observed prior to their colleagues experiencing burnout:

  • Struggling to manage alone (e.g., stretching to do things well alone)
  • Showing self-sacrifice (e.g., pushing to the limit)
  • Struggling to achieve unattainable goals (e.g., appearing weighed down by heavy demands)
  • Becoming distanced and isolated (e.g., withdrawing from co-workers/work)
  • Showing signs of falling apart (e.g., sleep disturbances).

What can managers do to prevent burnout?

Although most of the time the onus for reducing burnout risk is on the side of the employee, managers can do several things to help in terms of burnout prevention and mitigation. First and foremost, it is important to communicate with employees in a clear way about the support that might be available in the organisation for work-related stress, while educating them about how they can recognise and manage high levels of stress and decreasing wellbeing before things become too unmanageable. In addition to adequate communication, managers can encourage the adoption of several habits that can foster wellbeing and potentially reduce burnout:

  • Allowing regular breaks: this is key to helping employees get much-needed recovery time so that they do not push themselves to their breaking point.
  • Developing a wellbeing mind: every person is different, as such, employees will experience stress differently. Here, managers should get to know how employees think about wellbeing so that they can help them better cope with challenging times.
  • Fulfilling social needs: developing strong social ties is key to improving mental health. Managers should challenge employees to connect with each other in several ways and facilitate regular online and/or in-person events that promotes social cohesion and social support.
  • Developing a sense of purpose: helping employees identify their purpose is paramount. Managers should connect employees’ roles to the mission and values of the organisation, reinforcing the idea that every role matters.

For leaders or individuals in managing positions, try the following practical tips to support your team members:

  1. Empower the team to switch off when they’re not at work (e.g. agreeing not to send emails or messages outside working hours and being clear that colleagues are not expected to respond in their free time).
  2. Set the team a challenge to see if they can take a break outside each day. This is particularly important for getting natural light in the UK in the winter months, even if it’s just a 10-minute walk around the block.
  3. Encourage the team to use their annual leave entitlement (ensuring that the team has robust handover and cover arrangements so people feel reassured to take time off with confidence that their colleagues will handle anything urgent).

Further Information

 

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