Widening access to postgraduate courses

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have been working with the local community in the London borough of Newham for many years. In this blog, Hester Gartrell, Senior Outreach Officer at Birkbeck discusses what widening access to postgraduate courses looks like in the Birkbeck context.

A post-it with a lightbulb

There is a lot of buzz around ‘Widening Participation (WP)’ or ‘access’ to Higher Education. In fact, the Government, through the Office for Students, requires universities to prove that they are actively engaged in activities that will support students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds into undergraduate study. At most universities Widening Participation activities focus on supporting secondary school pupils into university. Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department challenges this model, supporting BTEC and Further Education College students alongside prospective mature students from a variety of backgrounds including Trade Union members and people who are Forced Migrants.

At Birkbeck, we also want to challenge approaches to access that only focus on undergraduate students. We have a fantastically diverse undergraduate cohort, but this diversity is not reflected to the same extent in our postgraduate student body. As our postgraduate student numbers grow and a Master’s degree becomes increasingly important for gaining a professional job we have pioneered new approaches which reach out to potential postgraduate students.

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have worked in the east London borough of Newham for many years and in 2018, the department received funding from the London Legacy Development Corporation enabling them to expand their work in Newham and began trialling advice and guidance for potential postgraduate applicants. While there has been substantial economic development in the borough since the 2012 Olympics, many local graduates still find themselves underemployed or unemployed.  For graduates looking to move on from zero-hours contracts, take the next step after poor attainment in their first degree or stepping back into a career after taking time to care for family, postgraduate study can be just as life-changing as undergraduate.

Working with potential postgraduate students through the lens of access enabled us to explore the many unanswered questions around ‘what actually is non-traditional’ and what is defined as ‘widening access’ at postgraduate level. Across a sector dominated by 18-year olds, the traditional widening access criteria and interventions for undergraduate can’t simply be transferred wholesale to postgraduate applicants. This is especially relevant for Birkbeck, where our undergraduate access work already looks very different from the rest of the HE sector, leading to the question, if our access work at undergraduate aims to reach those left behind by traditional widening access work, what does postgraduate widening access look like in the Birkbeck context?

Our postgraduate Information, Advice and Guidance pilot enabled us to begin exploring this question alongside a wider strategic project going on across the College to improve access to Masters programmes for a diverse range of students.

To find out more about our learnings from the east London widening access at postgraduate programme, watch our webinar. We also have a range of open-access videos for potential postgraduate students that can be used in student communications.

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Why a Black History Month?

October marks Black History Month in the UK, a celebration of the history and achievements of people of African descent. In this blog, Rebekah Bonaparte discusses why Black History Month is still as important as ever. 

Claudia Jones

Claudia Jones is credited with creating the UK’s first black newspaper, the ‘West Indian Gazette’ in 1958, she has also been described as the ‘Mother of Notting Hill Carnival’ for her part in its founding.

Among the many challenges 2020 has brought, the conversation around racism and inequalities came to the forefront for many with the resurgence and prevalence of the Black Matters Movement following the murder of George Floyd in the US. The effects of this were felt here in the UK, and the subsequent conversations around inequality and belonging in Britain serves as a strong reminder why Black History Month is still as important as ever.

Black History Month was first established in the UK in October 1987 in London. It was organised by Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebbo who served as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council. The month was adapted from the United States Black History Month that began in the 1920s, and was established in response to heightened racial tensions in the UK.

Prior to it being established, there had been riots in the 1980s, and throughout the 20th century, which left the burgeoning Black British population relegated to outsiders, and marginalised, separate from the British cultural identity which was perceived as representing the interests of only the English.

The creation of Black History Month served as a way to celebrate the black people living in Britain, at a time when the denial of black people’s contribution to history was limited to the horrors of slavery.

In his book, Black and British: A Forgotten History, British Historian, David Olosugo notes that the “uncovering of black British history was so important because the present was so contested.” So, to highlight black people’s place and belonging in Britain, Black History Month serves as a welcome reminder that black people come from a long tradition of people who have enriched this country and beyond with their culture.

There is a rich and relatively unknown history of Black people within the UK that does not feature on the national curriculum, a glaring oversight considering the range of backgrounds that are seen in British schools, around the city and while diversity has become a buzz word in business and beyond, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate this history at all levels of society. It’s through history that we form our collective identity and therefore in studying blackness in the British context we can, in one-way, foster inclusion and pride.

To be clear, black history should feature in all months of the year, but setting aside a month when black people and their contributions can be marked and celebrated and brought to everyone’s attention should not be taken for granted. Black people have done so much in this country and continue to influence and shape culture, a fact that should never be forgotten.

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Making a difference in the local community: learning from the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

With over thirty years’ experience working in his local authority, Eubert Malcolm brought a wealth of knowledge to the classroom. Having just been promoted to Assistant Director for Stronger and Safer Communities, he reflects on how the MBA has supported him to make a positive difference.

Picture of Eubert Malcolm

As local authority leaders go, Eubert Malcolm must be among the most personally invested in his community.

“Somebody said to me the other day that I’ve been in Haringey from boy to man,” he laughs, but with over thirty years’ experience in various roles in the local authority, this isn’t far from the truth. Eubert joined Haringey Council as an environmental health officer apprentice in 1988. From there, his role expanded into different fields as his skillset developed, encompassing housing, food safety and pollution.

“I made my way up the local authority and picked up Diplomas in Environmental Health and Management Studies along the way,” explains Eubert, “but I always felt that not having a first degree would hinder me at some point.”

The value of life experience

It was during the hunt for an undergraduate degree that Eubert stumbled across the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. The idea of studying part-time at the weekends was a particular draw, but was it really possible to do a Masters level programme without an undergraduate degree?

“I went along to the open evening without much hope,” says Eubert, “but I really liked the course leaders and they encouraged me to apply. I think I was the least qualified but most experienced of that first cohort, and the idea of a co-production and developing new types of leaders seemed perfect for my role. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing things differently

The collaboration between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics offers an innovative perspective on businesses and the problems they face. This, combined with the diverse international cohort on the MBA, gives students an opportunity to look at situations from a fresh angle. For Eubert, this proved invaluable when looking for ways to connect with the local community:

“When I first started the MBA, there was lots of gang activity and a spate of deaths in the community. I wanted to learn more about how violence was affecting young people in Haringey, so I commissioned a community group to speak to them and to people in prisons to figure out the drivers of criminality. Until you actually sit down with young people and hear from them, their teachers and their parents, you don’t really understand the challenges that they are facing. We need to engage with them and ensure that they are part of the solution.”

Eubert’s MBA dissertation was Haringey’s public health approach to tackling serious youth violence, a combination of academic research and an in-depth evidence base that came from his experience in the local authority, which informed the young people at risk strategy.

“At Haringey, we want to co-produce strategies with the community,” he explains. “Now, we’re incorporating business principles into our local authority point of view and using action learning techniques to think issues through from beginning to end, predicting the challenges we might need to address along the way. It’s an approach the managers I work with are now also starting to adopt.”

Leading in the pandemic

The rapid unfolding of events in the COVID-19 pandemic has made an agile approach essential:

“If you look at how much COVID-19 has cost local authorities,” says Eubert, “I don’t think we’re going to be fully recompensed for that. It has made us look at what opportunities could come out of it instead.

“For example, we couldn’t deliver a lot of our face to face services during the pandemic and many of them went online. We found that the young people we work with instantly took to that approach, which we hadn’t really considered before.”

Now Eubert, his team and the wider council are working on campaigns to bring the local community together to reduce the spread of COVID-19: “The approach we’re taking, trying to get right to the hearts and minds of people in the borough, is something I don’t think we would have attempted before. It just goes to show that with the right support and network in the workplace, you can be successful even through challenging times. I know that anything I set my mind to I will be able to achieve.”

Further Information

 

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Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck: the early years

This post by Gerry Randell, Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour, University of Bradford, was originally published in 2009.

Birkbeck Occupational Psychology: staff and students in October 1958

The first master’s students in Occupational Psychology in Britain graduated from Birkbeck 50 years ago this October: I was one of them.

A postgraduate diploma in industrial and commercial psychology had been on the statutes of the University of London since the 1920s, mainly at the instigation of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology and taught by and tailored to the Institute’s staff. Alec Rodger had been on the staff of the NIIP in the 30s and had risen to be Head of Vocational Guidance. In the early years of the war, most of the NIIP staff were drafted into the services, mainly to work on personnel selection. Alec became the Senior Psychologist for the Admiralty. After the war he was appointed Reader in Occupational Psychology (a term he invented) at Birkbeck and set about resuscitating the old diploma course. He published an article in Occupational Psychology in 1952 describing and explaining the curriculum for the new ‘Postgraduate Diploma in Occupational Psychology’ that he had just established. It was probable that the first students on this course were young NIIP staff and Alec’s friends. One of them was Peter Cavanagh whom Alec had spotted as someone who had scored particularly well on the Navy’s selection tests and had somehow arranged for him to be allocated to the Senior Psychologist’s Department. Subsequently Peter joined Alec at Birkbeck as his first Lecturer in Occupational Psychology.

A diploma, not being an attractive qualification for budding occupational psychologists, was not pulling in the students in the early 50s, so Alec then set about manoeuvring for it to become a masters and recruiting students on the strength of that. He happened to be the UG External Examiner for psychology at Nottingham at that time and persuaded two of the students he examined to sign up for the 2 year part-time MSc/MA to be course, Peter Henderson and I. When we turned up at Birkbeck in October 1956 there was a third student on the course, Russell Wicks from UCL. There was also a ‘visitor’ – Mrs Hussein from India – who would be ‘sitting in’; over the years Alec was very welcoming to ‘visitors’ from all over the world. We assembled in room 408 on the top floor of the college from 6 to 9, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

During the year, the Diploma was turned into a Master’s degree, so the three of us had to re-register and look forward to an extra year of attendance! In 1957 eight new students enrolled and joined in the lectures/ discussions with us, in 1958 a further nine enrolled. After submitting our dissertations in September, eight of us graduated in October 1959, Professor Leslie Hearnshaw of Liverpool being the External Examiner. Of the three of us in cohort 1, Russell went on to teach at Surrey, Peter to Queens Belfast and I stayed on at Birkbeck as Alec’s first Assistant Lecturer.

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What’s the best way to raise funds for a startup?

Alexander Flint Mitchell, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship alumnus and founder of Blind Cupid shares his experience of raising capital for his business venture.

Picture of business man launching into the air.

Like most first-time entrepreneurs, Alexander was a total novice when it came to funding startups before setting up his own business.

Having now secured £175,000 to launch, with the prospect of completing fundraising over the next six weeks, he shares his experience of raising capital for a startup.

Angels and venture capital

When Alexander began fundraising for Blind Cupid, a matchmaking app that uses systematic philosophy and artificial intelligence to match users based on their fundamental values, he took a traditional route of approaching angels (high net worth individuals who provide financial backing for startups) and venture capital firms.

“We contacted many venture capital companies and had some very successful conversations with them,” explains Alexander. “These companies are usually specialists in a certain field and it’s common to be asked to deliver as many as five or six presentations to secure funding. While we would obviously spend some of this time talking about the business idea, the key thing to get right was the financial information.”

The downside of this method of fundraising? Time.

“Venture capital funders are demanding and even getting a response from them, never mind retaining their interest, requires a lot of time and effort,” explains Alexander. “There’s a lot of back and forth, often with your whole team needing to attend calls or presentations, which can feel never-ending when you’re in it.

“We also faced difficulties with our product not fitting neatly into a specialist area. The app we’re developing combines matchmaking with brand new artificial intelligence that has never been built before, and so there are no investors currently specialising in it. Given the amount of money that venture capital funds invest, it’s understandable that they would prefer to go with something tried and tested. We raised around half the funds we needed through this method, but I began to look for alternatives to speed things up.”

Gaining crowd appeal

Many different methods of fundraising are covered in the Entrepreneurial Venture Creation module taught at Birkbeck, among them crowdfunding.

Alexander admits to being sceptical to this approach: “I had the impression when I started that crowdfunding was on a smaller scale and more about conventional ideas than disruptive new businesses – I had no idea that companies do their series A and series B rounds on crowdfunding.”

While individual investment amounts can be much smaller, as little as £10, on crowdfunding sites, Alexander now sees this as an opportunity:

“Compared to venture capital, crowdfunding is a really quick and innovative way to finance startups,” he says. “The main difference is that our investors through crowdfunding are likely to also be our users, which is really exciting. Even if they only invest a tiny amount, they will benefit from a future IPO – it’s similar to holding shares in the stock market.”

The personal touch is also something that appeals to Alexander and the ethos of Blind Cupid:

“We aren’t just trying to match people together; we really want to make sure that these matches are accurate and that once you meet someone you will stay together. We’ve done it for 80% of our beta test users, and now we want to do it throughout the rest of the UK and world. It’s an unusual business concept in a way, because we don’t want people to come back – we want people to find the person that’s right for them.

“Our business model is very different from other players in this market because of this — and other reasons. We offer a premium service which gives our users access to podcasts, blogs and more written by experts that advise them on every aspect of their lives. Topics include how to discover who you really are, what self esteem is and how to build it, how to nurture a healthy relationship and more.”

Blind Cupid have now launched their crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube. For Alexander, it will be a relief to move to the next stage:

“When you’re looking for funding, it feels like it’s never-ending, but I know that when it’s complete I‘ll forget the months that it took. Many things in life are a learning curve and you find what suits you best. It’s great to finally see it all come to life.”

Further information

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How to ask your employer for sponsorship

Picture of a man holding a piggy bank.

If you’re in employment and have a place to study on one of our programmes, you may be eligible for employer sponsorship.

Employer sponsorship is when your employer pays for all or part of your tuition costs. This is usually in recognition of the fact that your studies will benefit your work in some way.

For many of our students, a Birkbeck degree allows them to seek a promotion or to perform their role more effectively. Here’s how to discuss your educational ambitions with your employer.

Find out what’s available in your organisation

Before approaching your line manager about sponsorship, do your homework so you know what definitely is or isn’t available.

Larger firms may have established sponsorship schemes with an application process, while others may operate on a case by case basis.

If you can’t find anything on your company website, your HR learning and development lead will be able to help.

Consider your motivations for study

Take some time to think about why you want to study your chosen course. Will it help you develop the skills to perform a technical aspect of your role? Will it provide a theoretical underpinning to help you manage complex problems? Will you gain a broader understanding of how to differentiate your organisation in the sector?

Once you have a clear understanding of why you want to study this particular course, it will be easier to translate this into reasons why your employer should be interested.

Demonstrate the business case

To secure employer sponsorship, you will need to show the positive return on investment it will provide for your employer. Perhaps the skills you gain in the course will enable you to apply for a promotion and stay with the company for longer. Developing your knowledge of an area of the business might make you more efficient, enabling you to take on more responsibility. Link the programme description to objectives in your current role to show the direct value for your employer.

Show your commitment to learning and development

What have you already done as part of your continuous professional development (CPD) that can show your commitment to your career? It could be as simple as reading around the subject, attending a webinar or signing up for in-house training. Your employer will want to be confident that you will make the most of the opportunity that they are investing in.

What if I can’t get sponsorship?

Employers often have limited budgets available for staff learning and development, so don’t be disheartened if you’re unable to secure funding. Having demonstrated your commitment to your professional development and to the organisation, it is worth asking whether there are any alternative opportunities for you to develop your skills, such as shadowing another employee.

You can also find more information about what alternative financial support is available for our students on the Birkbeck website.

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Bringing our ‘whole selves to work’

Last year we spoke to Richard Morely, an MSc Computer Science student who took part in Birkbeck Future’s Ability Programme, a scheme that helps students and alumni with a disability, neurodiverse or long-term health condition connect with a disability-confident employer. Richard undertook a placement at, the insurance company, Azur where he was tasked with improving the company’s interface.

Richard Morley, a Birkbeck student who took part in the Ability Programme

Richard Morely

Richard Morley, an MSc Computer Science student with a hearing disability, applied to the Ability Programme and was given a place at digital insurance company Azur. Richard had been in contact with Birkbeck Futures before joining the scheme and applied to take part in the programme because he had been out of the job market for a while and doubted his ability after a few unsuccessful interviews. He wanted the opportunity to improve his existing skill-set and boost his wavering confidence in the job market.

At Azur, Richard was given the role of Software Development Intern and tasked with improving the interface of the company’s application called Magic. This entailed improving the colour scheme using the brand guidelines and working on developing animated features for the app. In a previous company, Richard had felt very pressured which he did not find conducive to progression. The positive atmosphere at Azur, by contrast, allowed him to develop his skills and confidence. He developed a good relationship with his team and said that: “I found the work challenging because I was doing things that I hadn’t done in previous positions, such as programming and creating animation on the app.”

One of Richard’s biggest challenges at Azur was delivering a presentation about his project. He noted that in previous roles, “I never did presentations. Even if I was given the opportunity, I would be reluctant to do it.” But after receiving support from a colleague in the preparation and delivery, he found it contributed to improved confidence around his skill-set and employability prospects.

Reflecting on the importance of the work placements for people with disabilities, Richard said: “It’s good because lots of employers think that people with disabilities might not be able to get things done because they have certain problems that get in the way of work.” Being given placements such as these “demonstrates that people with disabilities are hardworking and for me personally, that I can adapt to any situation despite my hearing disability.”

Richard’s placement culminated in a job offer which he will take up after he graduates. “It made me feel like there are more opportunities out there for me. It’s created more connections and made me feel more confident in my abilities. I have a bright future ahead of me.”

Many of the employers that took part said that the scheme was important in opening their eyes to the way they could attract and accommodate employees with disabilities or neurodiverse conditions, and encourage an open dialogue about the individual needs of the employees. Tom Armitage, Head of Talent and Performance at the Telegraph commented; “we were able to craft work experience placements that were really meaningful” and said that it challenged his team’s way of thinking.

It is the experience of Richard and students like him that show why schemes like the Ability Programme are necessary to break down stigmas attached to people with disabilities and in turn allow people to bring their “whole selves to work.”

Further Information

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Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation module is now live and Library study space is now open

As we prepare for the new term Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar, at Birkbeck shares some essential tips to get you started at the College.

Today the Welcome To Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module is launched and available to all enrolled students. It’s full of relevant and useful information including the fantastic Freshers Week programme offered by the Birkbeck Students Union. From Monday 14 September the Birkbeck Library will be open with almost 200 bookable study spaces. As the new academic year commences on 5 October you need to enrol as soon as you can to gain access to all these resources to get you orientated and study ready.  

Complete the Welcome To Birkbeck orientation module 

strongly recommend that you work through each of the sections in the Welcome to Birkbeck Moodle module, ahead of the beginning of term. Each section outlines key information including how to approach learning online, effective study skills along with an introduction to the Birkbeck student community, the personal tutor system, student services, careers support and the Birkbeck Library. All of this will help you make a success of the year.  

Students who completed the module during user-testing took around 4-5 hours, and even continuing students in their final year told us that they learnt new things that would be of great value. You can complete it at your own pace and return to the sections as you wish. Completing the various sections will help ensure that you are ready for the new term. To whet your appetite you can Watch a brief overview of the Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module 

If you need help as you work through this Moodle module you can ask for help on the College’s ASK page by selecting ‘Moodle’ then ‘Orientation Module’ from the drop-down. 

Enhancing online course delivery

Over the summer over 500 colleagues have transformed our modules to be ready for online delivery, as explained in the Vice Chancellor’s message. All our content on Moodle has been produced and is being delivered by our research-led academic colleagues.  

The library has invested heavily in online e-books and digitisation to make sure your reading lists and course materials are available on your devices and computers. If you can’t easily study at home we have made COVID-19 secure spaces for you to study on campus if you need.  

Once you complete the Orientation Moodle module you will continue your studies in an interactive and online face to face medium. As soon as health and safety permits we can revert to in-person teaching on campus, and you will have the option to continue your studies online for the remainder of the year. Our coronavirus information will be updated regularly.  

Student protocol for attending the Library – September to December 2020

Birkbeck is committed to providing a COVID-19 secure environment whilst you study and use facilities in the Library. From Monday the 14 September the College Library in Malet Street will have almost 200 study spaces available for student use. The Library will be open from Monday to Friday from 12pm – 7pm To visit the Library, you will need to book a study space in advance. You can also use this link to make a booking if you simply want to come in and borrow items. There will be no access to the Library without a booking.  

Be sure to read the protocol for attending the Library before you travel.  

To keep our College community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic we all have a responsibility to follow these protocols. This protocol will remain subject to amendment and change depending on NHS advice during Autumn Term.  

Complete your enrolment

To access the orientation Moodle module and access the library and other Birkbeck resources, complete the process to enrol as soon as you receive your invitation. Don’t worry if you haven’t received your invite yet, invitations to enrol continue to be sent throughout September, and students who have had Summer re-assessments will not receive their invitations until all their marks have been agreed and processed.  

Birkbeck is a great place to study and now is a great time to be undertaking your Higher Education and getting a University of London degree. 

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Finding balance and fulfilment through the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

Before she found the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA, Jennifer Chen felt that a business degree would not be a good fit for her background as a creative. Now juggling the roles of design researcher, charity trustee, Royal Society of Arts fellow, start-up mentor and mum to twin toddlers, she’s embracing new challenges and learning to balance all areas of life more than ever.

Picture of Jenn

My background is in design and advertising. As a creative, I found the work interesting, but from time to time felt a lack of control to make greater impact with my work. The agency setting I was in was rather fragmented and figuring out the why of the projects I was working on was usually someone else’s job. There were times when I would be given a task that didn’t feel quite right, but I did not have the capability or confidence to challenge it. My role was sometimes limited to form-giving, styling, making things look pretty – there is a lot of skill to that, of course, but I knew that I wanted to do more.

I began by searching for Masters programmes in innovation. I didn’t consider business programmes at first because I didn’t think they would be the right fit for me: of my friends with MBAs, as successful as they were, none of them had a job description that sounded like something I’d want to do.

I was delighted when I found out about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. Working in the design community, I had always known about UAL, but Birkbeck’s strong research reputation gives the MBA more credibility in the business world.

From the very beginning, we were told that this was a safe space to share ideas, and that there were no stupid questions – I don’t think this is common practice in traditional MBA programmes. We learned from a team of excellent lecturers and industry leaders, but most importantly, from each other. As a more mature cohort with work and family commitments, we learned to plan for contingencies, to make sure colleagues could contribute to group projects regardless of their personal circumstances, and to be empathetic towards each other’s situations. We operated under the assumption that everybody wants to do their absolute best, but a bit of flexibility may be required here and there.

This was particularly true for me, since on the very first day of the programme I found out that I was pregnant with twins! It was almost surreal. My MBA cohort heard the news before some of my family. Birkbeck and UAL were very accommodating. To maximise my learning opportunities, Dr Pamela Yeow, the course leader, advised that I complete the first module, then helped me rejoin the programme a year later with the following cohort.

Picture of Jenn with her twins

Jennifer with her twins after rejoining the MBA in 2018.

Even then, balancing work and family life was not easy, especially as the estimated ten hours of reading per week turned out to be quite an understatement! Towards the end of the programme, we had all nearly become experts in information extraction and priority management.

The course was a transformative experience for me. Through theory and practice, I was able to develop my skillset as a design leader, especially in the areas of collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship and operations management. Having access to industry-specific knowledge and concrete, actionable advice from the teaching staff has really helped me get closer to achieving my goals: affecting change to the world through design.

Chris Cornell, our lecturer on strategy, who has worked extensively with the charity sector, helped me work out a clear action plan. I am now a marketing trustee for the Heritage Crafts Association, refreshing the brand to create a contemporary, engaging and relatable identity in order to attract a wider audience. I also mentor startups, helping their world-changing ideas cultivate the power of storytelling and develop clear communication approaches.

The MBA makes you ask a lot of questions about the work that you do, the work that you want to do, and the work that you can learn to do, in order to implement change and improve the world around us, and in doing so, enrich ourselves.

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Where is our 1939-45 War Memorial? Help Us Find It!

Professor Joanna Bourke reflects on the story of Birkbeck’s missing war memorial. Have you seen this? Let us know and we’ll send you a £20 voucher.

Lost war memorial

Birkbeck’s lost war memorial created by sculptor, Ralph Beyer.

How can a large, very heavy sculpture made of solid stone simply disappear?

This is the question I asked myself while researching the history of Birkbeck. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the College recognised the need to commemorate the lives of thousands of Birkbeck students who had been killed, mutilated, and bereaved by the war. The man for the job, they concluded, was German-born sculptor Ralph Beyer.

Beyer had fled to England from Nazi Germany (his mother was killed in Auschwitz). Despite being only 16 years old and barely speaking English, he had quickly found a job working with the famous artist Eric Gill. When war was declared, Beyer was interned as an “enemy alien”, which is where he met fellow internee Nikolaus Pevsner, who lectured on art and architecture at Birkbeck. They formed a life-long friendship. Beyer was eventually released from internment and served in the British Army in the UK, France, and Germany. On his return to England, he was commissioned (thanks to the support of his friend Pevsner) by the College to design our war memorial.

The memorial was four feet high (excluding the plinth) and carved out of a single cube of brown Hornton Stone from Warwickshire. It showed a woman sitting on a rectangular block on top of a pedestal. The woman’s legs were close together, with her arms resting on her knees. She was draped in a flowing garment. While her hands and feet were large, her head was disproportionately small with few discernible features. Her posture and heaviness suggested grief or the mourning of a mother.

Not everyone approved. Some commentators complained that the war memorial was “at pains to conceal its identity” as a war memorial. “Are we to suppose”, one critic asked, “that the artist” was “more concerned with pleasing the living than honouring the dead?”

Pevsner came to his friend’s defence. He reminded its critics that a utilitarian memorial (such as a lecture hall) had been ruled out as “unsuitable to commemorate the sacrifice of so many young lives”. The commissioning committee had also decided not to simply inscribe the names of the dead on a tablet: too many men and women had “given” too much and any list would inevitably be incomplete anyway. Creating a stained-glass window was also dismissed because, as a College in which teaching took place in the evening, the “glow of colour and the composition would be lost”.

Pevsner also attempted to disabuse critics of the assumption that a war memorial “ought to be a soldier with a gun”. After all, war of the scale seen between 1939 and 1945 depended on “so many jobs of work, in different surroundings, and with different uniforms”, all of which “led to the same gateway of death”.

Pevsner argued that Beyer’s design was “both personal and universally valid”. The woman’s face “creates a sense of mystery and reverence”, he contended. Her hands “lie heavily on the thighs, as they do in archaic Greek statues of women, and that sense of weighing down is essential for the mood”. Pevsner concluded that the Birkbeck war memorial was “a piece of sculpture which is of today and yet at the same time of an undated rightness”.

Beyer went on to become a distinguished artist. He is best known for his design and carving of the lettering in Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (1961+), which remains the most significant work of British public lettering in the twentieth century.

But what happened to his memorial to the dead and suffering men and women of Birkbeck between 1939 and 1945 remains a mystery.

Joanna Bourke, Professor of History in the Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology at Birkbeck and writing the history of the College for our bicentenary in 2023.

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