Tag Archives: higher education

Supporting transition and success: On Track and BBK Chat

Ali Sheldrick, an Access Officer in the Access and Engagement team shares some of the initiatives that students can access to ensure a smooth transition into higher education.

A person sitting in a chair talking to another person on a laptop screen

University life has always taken some getting used to. And this is especially true in an age of rapid and unpredictable changes to the delivery of higher education brought on by the onset of COVID-19.

With the continued success of students from under-represented backgrounds a key aim for the Access and Engagement (A&E) Department, we have been busy expanding our support for offer holders and new students over the past two years.

In addition to our support around specific scholarships and bursaries, this transition work has focussed on two programmes – BBK Chat, our student mentoring scheme, and On Track, our new transition support programme.

BBK Chat

“My first session was excellent because my Mentor explained how to do well at University regarding time management, where I can find help on my studies skills, essays and exam deadlines.” – BBK Chat Mentee feedback

BBK Chat is a peer mentoring scheme that offers first-year students from under-represented backgrounds an opportunity to meet with an experienced Birkbeck student. These informal, regular chats take place three times a year (autumn, winter, and spring) and give new students the chance to ask questions and speak with someone who can provide support and guidance from a student’s perspective.

Last year, meetings shifted from taking place over a tea or coffee in and around Birkbeck’s campuses to online only meetings. The 80 students who are meeting this year were given the choice of meeting online or in-person and paired up accordingly. This took place alongside a renewed emphasis on pairing according to common subject area, lived experience, and background wherever possible.

With this, we’re now able to sustain BBK Chat’s unique offer of tailored one-to-one guidance from people who have recent lived experience of successfully navigating their first year at Birkbeck.

On Track

“It was more than my expectations. I have learnt so much about others’ experience….”On Track attendee feedback

On Track is a subject-specific programme that supports students from non-traditional entry routes (non-A-level) through the pre-entry and transition stages of their studies at Birkbeck.

First piloted in 2020 with two cohorts of Biomedicine and Law offer holders, it was expanded to include Arts Foundation Year and Business and Management subject areas for the 2021-22 intake: going from a total of 21 to 35 participants.

On Track provides academic guidance on what students can expect from their course, resources to support preparation and ongoing success with their studies, and a chance for them to get to know fellow students and staff before their first term at Birkbeck.

All offer holders who applied without A-Levels were invited to participate in the programme which was based around three subject-specific workshops, taking place over Summer and into the start of term. These were delivered by an A&E Access Officer, course teaching staff, and current students; whilst participants also benefitted from access to an On Track Moodle page and the option of one-to-one catch-up meetings in the first term.

Plans are being made to improve and expand On Track to reach more new students in 2022!

“…it really answered the questions, that were running through my mind regarding October…” – On Track attendee feedback

The Access and Engagement Department will be running a programme of outreach activity with both current and prospective students across the academic year, with Is University for Me? events planned for January and May 2022 and taster courses in Law (February) and Psychology in Education (May), plus much more!

For more information about our work and how to get involved, colleagues can email the  team or explore our webpage.

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Birkbeck beyond the boundaries

In 2023, Birkbeck celebrates its 200th anniversary. In this blog, Richard Clarke, a researcher, discusses how the College developed its extra-mural provision from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the 21st century. 

One hugely significant event in the post-1945 history of Birkbeck College was its amalgamation with the (federal) University of London Department of Extra-Mural Studies (DEMS, or, simply ‘Extra-Mural) in 1988.  Then, almost all of the (pre-1992) British universities had some form of ‘outreach’ unit, charged with delivering their scholarship to a wider audience, and these tended to fall into one of two categories, both funded directly by the state under the 1944 Education Act.

A flyer advertising University Extension courses, featuring a drawing of Senate House One was the (Cambridge) ‘university extension’ model which typically involved academics travelling to deliver their expertise some distance from their university base.  Launched in 1873 and focused first on northern manufacturing cities, it reached London with the establishment of the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching (LSEUT) in 1876.  The other, beginning in 1878, was derived from a parallel (Oxford) ’tutorial classes’ model in which tutors (not ‘lecturers’) were provided by the university but the syllabus was negotiated with students themselves.  Courses were typically delivered in collaboration with other organisations including the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA, founded in 1903).  This provided two distinct traditions in tertiary level adult education, manifest variously in different university extra-mural departments.

London University DEMS was unique in that it consisted of two ‘Responsible Bodies’, each separately funded under the 1926 University of London Act which established its governing University Extension and Tutorial Classes Council (UETCC).  Both grew rapidly in the decades following the end of the Second World War.  The ‘Extension Section’ delivered a programme comprised mainly of accredited Certificates and Diplomas – everything from archaeology to religious studies, and it included several relatively autonomous vocational units, notably in nursing, in social work and in transport studies.  The other, the ‘Tutorial Classes Section’, focussed principally on non-accredited classes, covering if anything an even wider range of subjects, mostly delivered in conjunction with what was then a strong network of local WEA branches as well as with trades unions, local community organisations and third-sector organisations.  Together with their programme – in terms both of subjects, student numbers and of full-time equivalent (FTE) grant was significantly bigger than that of the College to which the amalgamation brought important additional funding.

By the time of the London ‘Extra-Mural’ centenary in 1976, Birkbeck College had itself survived more than one crisis.  This included a proposal in the 1960s “to change the character of the College from an institution for part-timers and evening students to a college for full-time undergraduate school-leavers, on some green-field site outside central London.” (1). While this was defeated by determined opposition on the part of Birkbeck’s staff and supporters, the consequence was that the College and the federal University’s Extra-Mural department continued their development along parallel, but largely separate paths – the College focussing on high-quality research and part-time degree teaching, and the Department developing an extraordinary diversity of activities beyond its traditional ‘liberal’ core.

By the mid-1980s, however, the anomalies had become a major challenge.  The independence of ‘extra-mural’ had been an advantage in the early post-War period when degree-level study was restricted to a few; but with the growth of the university sector the lack of connection between extra-mural ‘outreach’ and teaching and research within the University’s walls had become increasingly apparent.

Many of those taking extra-mural certificates and diplomas wished to progress to degrees and postgraduate work but found it easier to do so at universities outside of London.  A major growth in the numbers of young – and not-so-young – people going ‘to’ university, reduced the demand for degree-level certificates and diplomas.  The success of the Open University had shown that universities do not need to have walls at all; there was a growing demand “to study with and through the University of London but not necessarily at it.”(2)  And the establishment of new universities (Essex, Surrey, Kent and later Brunel) all involved a contraction of the London extra-mural area.  This nevertheless by the mid-1980s still stretched “north to south from Chorleywood to Croydon and east to west from Southend to Uxbridge.”)(3)

At the same time, the distinction between what went on ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the walls had become an encumbrance.  Staff within the Extra-Mural Department were increasingly developing their own research specialisms and reputations and making, or wishing to make, links with cognate departments within Colleges and Schools.  It happened also that the then Master of Birkbeck, George Overend, was also Chair of the Senate Committee of Extra-Mural Studies.  In the session 1985-6, a Working Group was established, chaired by Overend, to consider future options for the London DEMS.  The Group had only met on a few occasions (its deliberations inclining towards some kind of merger with Birkbeck) when Birkbeck itself suffered a major financial crisis.  This led to another committee, chaired by Sir Barney Hayhoe MP, charged specifically with restructuring the College to meet the challenge.  The Hayhoe Committee, amongst its other recommendations, endorsed the proposal that DEMS should become part of Birkbeck as one of its new resource centres. The proposal also began to interest the University which had recently appointed Dorothy Wedderburn, the Principal of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, as its first Pro-Vice Chancellor for Continuing Education, as part of a policy to develop a coherent federal policy in this area.  Wedderburn in turn endorsed the proposal for incorporation, and established a formal University Working Party, chaired by Tim Brinton, a lay member of the University Court, to take this forward.

A key proposal of the Brinton report was for ‘complementary development’ of Extra-Mural Certificates and Birkbeck degree programmes.  Where cognate provision existed in both institutions, Brinton argued, it should be linked; subjects offered only ‘extramurally’ might stimulate the development of new degree programmes (acting, inter alia, as progression routes for certificate students) or offered as options within existing degrees, and elements of Birkbeck degree programmes not already matched by certificates and diplomas could be offered ‘extra-murally’.  In practice, integration did not go nearly as quickly as Brinton envisaged, partly as a consequence of the size of the extra-mural programme and fears of College staff that they might be ‘swamped’; perhaps because of reciprocal fears of ‘absorption’ and ‘dilution’ which had prevented any progress towards a merger in 1976, but also because of the significant organisational barriers to collaboration produced by the new College ‘resource centres’ that arose from the implementation of the Hayhoe Report.

Initially, DEMS was simply incorporated within Birkbeck in 1988 as a semi-autonomous Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (CEMS).  Subsequently, when the resource centre structure (introduced by Tessa Blackstone upon her appointment as Master in 1987) was replaced by academic faculties in 1999, it was renamed the Faculty of Continuing Education (FCE) and then in 2007, the Faculty of Lifelong Learning (FLL), throughout still occupying the two buildings; 26-28 Russell Square and 32 Tavistock Square (which hosted the WEA’s regional office on its top floor) to which it had moved in 1975 from its earlier home in Ridgemount Street.

At the end of the 2008-9 academic session — after two decades of semi-autonomous existence (and little more than a year after its change of name from ‘continuing education’ to ‘lifelong learning’) Birkbeck’s FLL, its staff, their teaching and research were finally assimilated into four new ‘super-schools’ alongside colleagues in cognate subjects ‘across the car park’ from their base in Russell Square.

Writing in 1988 on the eve of the incorporation of the ‘Extra-Mural’ Department within Birkbeck, its then Director, Brian Groombridge, had described the incorporation as “one of the most profound structural changes in the Department’s history.”(2).  The incorporation reflected the start of much broader changes in the structure of part-time higher education.

One factor was a rise in credentialism – both a demand for certification and an insistence on it by the DES as a condition of funding.  ‘Mainstreaming’ – the requirement for formal assessment of learning outcomes for all funded students meant a loss of flexibility in the Tutorial Classes curriculum.  This was followed in 2008 by the introduction of the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), implemented in Britain as the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) whereby all awards were referenced to a series of levels and carry a credit rating in the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS).  NQF was accompanied by ‘ELQ’ – the withdrawal in 2007 of funding from students already in possession of a qualification at equivalent (or higher) level than that at which they wished to study.  ELQ anticipated the subsequent abandonment of all state funding for liberal adult education by an increasingly instrumentalist neoliberal government.  In combination, their consequences (and the end of one of the last remaining university departments of adult and continuing education) may be seen also as the final stage in inexorable erosion of the ‘liberal ethic’ (and of partnership provision) within the university sector.

Paradoxically, the final assimilation of FLL within the new College structure made possible the realisation of some of the possibilities envisaged over two decades previously in the Brinton Report.  One of the DES funded innovatory projects already in progress as the 1988 incorporation of DEMS within Birkbeck was underway (and cited in the Brinton Report as potentially beneficial to the outreach capacity of Birkbeck) was an ‘East London Project’, aimed at exploring ways in which the University, through its extra-mural department, might contribute to the social and economic regeneration of the area.  Then the collaboration envisaged was with Queen Mary College and the London Docklands Development Corporation; today it is with the (‘new’) University of East London, the London Borough of Newham, and other organisations in the region of the London Olympics and the Thames Gateway, but Stratford East represents in many ways the fulfilment of the opportunities identified in the Brinton Report and by the 1988 incorporation of ‘Extra-Mural’ within Birkbeck.

Other recommendations of the Brinton committee were manifest in different ways.  For example, complementary development and integration of certificate and degree programmes were limited in practice to the Certificate in Ecology and Conservation which, in 1988, became a key ‘vertical’ slice through Birkbeck environment degrees, providing an ‘outreach’ element to students who might not otherwise have considered a full degree as well as an exit route for those who had done so but who found the time commitment of three evenings per week too demanding.  Other attempts to develop new integrated degrees and certificates by means of newly created joint (extra-intra mural) posts (for example in archaeology, development studies and in science & society) placed an enormous strain on the colleagues appointed, who were not only expected to do far more than their notional fractional allocation to each ‘home’ but had to operate dual incompatible assessment and administrative systems.

At the same time however new awards were developed within the new Centre, in part as a response to – or a defence against – a perception within ‘main College’ that much of its work was of ‘sub-degree’ standard.  Several of these new awards were at postgraduate level.  Examples included postgraduate diplomas in Environmental Management and in Counselling.  Partly because of a concern within the Centre that progressing approval through the College’s academic board might meet with opposition, these were taken through the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) route in 1992 – just before the CNAA was itself set up as part of the process of transferring degree awarding powers to the ‘post ‘92’ universities.  The CNAA confirmed their rating as postgraduate, and they became the core of new Masters’ awards (the first in the Centre) in 1995.

A leaflet that says 'Certificate in Earth Science'

The Masters in Environmental Management (Countryside and Protected Area Management) and another MSc in Environmental and Heritage Interpretation were particularly significant in that, being taught at weekends (coupled with week-long residential modules elsewhere) they attracted students from well beyond the London area, including Scotland, Switzerland and the USA.  Moreover, being ‘national’ in appeal, they attracted sponsorship, so that for a number of years both the then Countryside Commission and The National Trust each funded six scholarships – the former for local authority countryside staff and the latter for the Trust’s own employees.

Today few universities retain a significant level of extra-mural provision – part of the generalA leaflet saying 'Environmental Training collapse of liberal, non-vocational adult education.(4)  Exceptions include Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education and Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education.  Within Birkbeck, while little of the 1988 ‘outreach’ provision survives today, legacies of the incorporation can be found in the College’s research and teaching, for example in London studies, in links with significant institutions in working-class education such as Toynbee Hall and the Bishopsgate Institute, and in other, now mainstream areas of university provision which were pioneered with DEMS/ FLL.  For example, DEMS and – by inheritance, Birkbeck – was the first university institution to recognise women’s studies as a legitimate field of scholarship and teaching, manifest in the appointment of Britain’s first lectureship (Mary Kennedy) in the subject.  Extra-mural traditions of radical history and critical science complemented those that had already been pioneered within the College by such prominent individuals as Eric Hobsbawm and J D Bernal.  Another legacy is the relatively large number of hourly-paid associated fixed-term ‘teaching and scholarship’ staff which remains a feature of Birkbeck today.

  1. Hobsbawm EJ. ‘Birkbeck and the Left; Concluding address to the 175th Anniversary Appeal Lectures at Birkbeck’. Times Change 2001:14-17.
  2. Groombridge B. Extra-mural Futures: The Prospects for London. London: University of London Department of Extra-Mural Studies; 1998.
  3. Brinton Report 1986, unpublished
  4. Clarke R. ‘‘Really useful’ knowledge and 19th century adult worker education – what lessons for today?’. Theory & Struggle 2016;117:67-74: https://online.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/abs/10.3828/ts.2016.17.

Further information:

  • Read more of our 200th anniversary blogs
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Returning to campus

Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar at Birkbeck, reflects on how life has changed since the start of the pandemic, and urges people to be kind and considerate of others as many students and staff return to campus next Monday 4 October for the start of the autumn term.

The past 18 months have been a roller coaster for everyone in the Birkbeck community, myself included. Overnight Microsoft Teams became our new best friend and the gateway to keeping in touch with colleagues, friends and family. I clapped for our NHS heros and learned the value of an hours walk when you were only allowed an hours walk a day. For those in hospitals and care homes every second was precious, and for many people they lived day by day as the virus ravaged communities. We were all living, praying and hoping the worst would not come. As the fragility of life and the power of viruses came to the fore so awakened our compassion for others and the importance and value we place on the NHS and keyworkers, many of whom are students at Birkbeck. Jobs and roles that we may not have considered that critical in the past became essential – carers, lorry drivers, supermarket workers, nurses and cleaners to name but a few. Seeing empty shelves highlighted the inter-connectedness of our society and the just-in-time nature of how we consume. When things got really tricky during lockdown I only had admiration for the people keeping our country running whilst trying to look after kids, the oldies and often in home circumstances that were not always conducive to work, study and home schooling. I didn’t take a drive to Barnard Castle during lockdown but following the rules and being a rule keeper as well as being a university rule maker really became important to me as someone who works in the public sector. Having colleagues and students trust you are doing the right thing by them was both humbling and a heavy burden in equal measures.

Altering the way school pupils and university students were assessed and examined was one of the most fascinating aspects of the lockdowns. Some pupils and students loved online learning and some didn’t. What we do now know is that there are options to the traditional 2 or 3 hour closed books exams that work and these options can create a more inclusive learning environment by taking out some of the ‘exam hall anxiety’. Learners can learn from the comfort of their own homes and academic standards can be maintained by careful assessment design. There is much we can learn and benefit from continuing to support elements of digital learning and assessment.

It was through higher education and our scientific community that hope emerged. Issues that would previously have taken years to implement happened almost overnight – lockdown, furlough and, of course, a vaccine roll-out. We learned that we could be agile and do things differently. For many of us, productivity increased whilst working at home and not having to travel 10 hours a week on public transport. Coming out of this phase of the pandemic I’m going to retain some of the benefits of this experience and work flexibly as are many of my colleagues in Registry Services and across the College. Personally I feel that a good home/work life balance makes us all more productive.

As I start to attend meetings back in Bloomsbury, l continue to take a cautious approach to coronavirus. Why? Part of it is me trying to be a good neighbour to others in clinically or emotionally vulnerable situations. Part of it is me wanting to avoid contracting COVID-19. My hope is care and compassion will continue into the future and a focus on mental health is only a good thing. So, I’m now double jabbed. Thanks to Oxford AstraZeneca I can say I’m an Oxford lad as well as an alumnus of Aberdeen and the Open Universities. I’ve also had my flu vaccine and will take a booster shot for COVID-19 when they become available and I’m eligible to have one. I’m happy to wear a mask on campus even if its uncomfortable. I don’t like wearing masks but it’s my personal contribution to the health and safety of a wonderful 12,000 strong Birkbeck community. I’ll keep washing my hands and I’ll give people space when they want it. I’ll also take lateral flow tests when I have to meet others indoors. Is all this an inconvenience and an assault on my personal liberty? No, not really because a resurgence of coronavirus is the real issue and the real assault on our freedom. Kindness costs nothing and it is our kindness that will be remembered by colleagues, friends and family in the years to come. As we go back to our new normal and regardless of how strongly we hold views; if we can be anything, lets be kind to one another.

Further information

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flatmates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you if they can.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves, they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend Orientation and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre in September. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a WhatsApp group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.

  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, indie bookshops and cultural facilities close to our campus.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.

  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and WIFI access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?

 

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Supporting parents, carers and educators during the pandemic

Over the past year, Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department has teamed up with the Psychology for Education BA: reaching out to parents, carers, and educators in the pandemic. In this blog they outline how they are supporting those who face barriers entering higher education in a virtual world. People in a classroom with a person speaking Social interaction and peer support are invaluable to all of us, and for children and young people isolated from their friends and usual routines, it has been an especially tough year. Parents, carers and educators have also been hit hard, having to adjust to online learning and struggling to find time for their own needs while juggling online learning, work and caring responsibilities.

Recognising these increasing pressures and following the launch of Birkbeck Inspires last year, Ana Da Cunha Lewin, Senior Lecturer and Course Director for the Psychology for Education BA contributed a series of online lectures for parents and carers. These covered coping with anxiety during lockdown, exercise for wellbeing, and nurturing resilience. At Access and Engagement, we were delighted when Ana agreed to work with us to deliver a five-week taster programme on the subject of Psychology for Education with a focus on children’s learning, wellbeing and resilience.

The Access and Engagement Department aims to support those who face barriers to Higher Education to take a step into formal education. This taster programme provided a space where people could come and learn more about the subject and apply it to their life as parents, carers or at work. It also gave participants a chance to explore what university learning is like using Moodle, seminars on MS Teams and pre-recorded video content.

We had 30 people without a first degree join us, with ages ranging from 20 to into the 60s, and an array of different life experiences. Working with our Trade Union partners, a third of our attendees heard about the course via Unison or the Public and Commercial Services Union. Participants shared their experiences of their own schooling and parenting, or their work in schools or youth work.

Ana da Cunha Lewin said: “It’s been a pleasure to work on the Psychology for Education Taster Course with the Access and Engagement team; planning was really well-supported and the team made the preparation very straightforward. It was also an absolute pleasure to teach a really interested, engaged and enthusiastic group who made the sessions lively with many interesting discussions. A really positive experience and I would be very happy to take part in the programme again.”

Feedback from participants was positive with one person commenting: “Ana and Vanna were magnificent educators and their passion and enthusiasm for the subject has been infectious!”

We’re looking forward to running a similar programme with Mike Berlin and Tim Reynolds from the History and Archaeology Certificate of Higher Education later this year. For more information about our Taster Programmes and Access and Engagement’s other work take a look at our newly revamped web page.

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Finding new paths with lifelong learning

John Simons, who was recently awarded a PhD in philosophy, acknowledges his debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning, having been helped by the College to move from a career in campaign management to a successful academic career in sociology, and now to a new career in moral philosophy.  

When I left school, back in the previous century, my only qualification was a satisfactory set of results in the then equivalent of today’s GCSEs. It was enough to get me a job as a research assistant in a physics laboratory and to start studying at Birkbeck, where I planned to obtain the equivalent of A Levels in physics, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics and then to proceed to a BSc course in those subjects.

John Simon

John Simons

In those days, the College was in Fetter Lane and had its own theatre, which was used by an active group of drama enthusiasts, The Birkbeck Players. I joined them to play the part of Hodge, the gullible servant of an elderly countrywoman, in a production of the 16th Century rustic comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle. I believe the happy experience of being in that play with students from across the College departments helped me finally reach a decision that I had been considering for some time: that I was on a career path for which I was not well suited. After obtaining the three A-level equivalents, I abandoned my studies and my job, determined to find a new path. But first I had to get through two years of then obligatory National Service.

After leaving the army (with Second Lieutenant, infantry, added to my very short CV), I worked in marketing for several years, and then obtained a role that would have a radical effect on my subsequent career. It was as Director of a national campaign, sponsored by the Family Planning Association, to arouse awareness of the scale of world population growth and the need for better access to birth control services in many countries. From my work in that post I acquired a strong interest in the dynamics of reproductive behaviour – so strong that I decided to change direction again and become qualified to study it. So, in my mid-thirties – married and with three small children and a mortgage – I went to the London School of Economics (initially part-time) to acquire a bachelor’s degree in sociology and demography. My A-Level equivalents gained at Birkbeck made me eligible for the course. Two other advantages made it possible for me to attend part of the course full-time: a grant that was available from the Local Authority in those days, and, even more important, a wife, herself an LSE graduate, who fully supported my career change.

The degree from the LSE enabled me to obtain a post at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is just across the road from Birkbeck. There I helped the late William Brass, an internationally renowned expert in the analysis of population data, to create the School’s Centre for Population Studies, and make it one of the largest of its kind in Europe. I contributed a course on the Sociology of Fertility to its MSc programme, supervised research students interested in social research on reproductive behavior, conducted my own research in this field, and undertook consultancy assignments for the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, and other agencies. I attended to some of my own educational needs by taking specialist courses relevant to my work provided by Birkbeck and the Open University, eventually obtaining a BA from the latter. I retired from the Centre (as its Head) after 25 years, but continued to work in the field as chief editor of one of its main journals, Population Studies, a post I held for 20 years.

I also continued with a long-term quest into the explanation of differences in fertility by religion. That quest would eventually take me back to Birkbeck, because it led to an interest in the evolution of religious belief, and from that to an interest in moral philosophy and eventually a decision to study philosophy at the College. I first obtained an MA in philosophy there and then a PhD. The latter was for a thesis on the determinants of morally significant conduct in social roles. It offered a revisionary account of the moral philosophy developed by John Dewey, one of the founders of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.

My CV did not have the advantage of beginning with an extended school and university education. But my early experience of Birkbeck enabled me to compensate for much of what I had missed, and later made me eligible for a degree course at the LSE that would make possible my career in population studies. More recently, the College’s outstanding Philosophy department allowed me the freedom to pursue an interest that many other institutions would have regarded as outside their compass, and that enabled me to start a new career in moral philosophy. Now actively engaged in contributing to the literature of that field, it is a pleasure to acknowledge my debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning.

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“Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student”

The Compass Project has been successfully supporting students from forced migrant backgrounds into higher education since 2016; read what two Compass scholars have to say about the impact it has had on their lives.

Hana* joined Birkbeck in 2020 to start an LLB Law degree:
“My passion for human rights and immigration law has grown and I know I want to be a human rights lawyer in the future. For me, the Compass Project hasn’t just been an opportunity to study, it’s been an opportunity to change my life.

People coming from forced migrant backgrounds know what it means to have nothing and know how challenging life can get. Now we have the opportunity to work hard and achieve our potential. I don’t have all the words to say thank you. My advice for future Compass students is to make sure you are clear about your passions and what you want to achieve. Find the courage within yourself as you will only have regrets if you don’t. It doesn’t matter about where you come from, just about where you go. I am now at Birkbeck, studying a great course and meeting amazing people.”

Two people reading a book together to represent Compass students

Grace* joined Birkbeck in 2018 and recently completed a CertHE in Psychodynamic Counselling and Skills in a Psychosocial Framework:

“Psychodynamic Counselling was of particular interest to me because I have always wanted to help others and the theory and practical skills I gained in class also helped me with my own personal trauma. I am glad that I have now been able to turn the helping aspect of my personality into a qualification. Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student. Even with everything I have been through, one of the biggest barriers I faced prior to studying was my own self-doubt. However, the support I received from those on the Compass Project team and other Birkbeck staff took that self-doubt away.”

* Names have been changed

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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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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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Birkbeck welcomes Compass Scholars, 2020-2021

This year we welcomed 20 new scholars as part of the Compass Project, a scheme that helps refugees and asylum seekers access higher education in the UK. In this blog, Isabelle Habib, Senior Access Officer, Forced Migrants shares how the new students were introduced to Birkbeck and student life in London. 

Compass Scholars outside of the Malet Street building

Compass Scholars outside of the Malet Street building.

Over the summer, Compass said goodbye to its 2019-20 cohort of students, after what was a demanding but very successful year for the programme. Many of the students have now moved onto other opportunities within higher education or are embarking on work or volunteering placements. We are also pleased that a few of the students have been able to continue their studies at Birkbeck this term through the support of external sponsorship.

The Compass Project is now entering its fourth year at Birkbeck and we are delighted to welcome a new cohort of students this term, that’s 75 students and counting! After a rigorous application and selection process over the summer, the new scholars successfully enrolled and began their courses with us in October. They have already portrayed a great commitment to their studies by attending a variety of orientation activities. These activities have included a two-part induction on online learning where students were invited to participate in a mock seminar and an introduction to the wellbeing and disabilities services.

The scholars will be supported this year by the Compass Project team within the Access and Engagement Department and by academic mentors who were assigned to them in September. Mentors also participated in a start of term workshop that was coordinated by a compass alum, Michael, who delivered training on how to support students who come from forced migrant backgrounds during their studies. This workshop was very successful, and we are grateful to have students with such talent and commitment to compass amongst our alumni.

In addition to online activities, on the 9 October, the Compass Scholars were invited to visit the Birkbeck campus. During this visit, they were introduced to the facilities at Birkbeck and had the chance to meet one another as well as the Compass Coordinator, Isabelle, in person.

During the day, the students received a warm welcome address from Professor Stewart Motha, Dean of Law. Then they got the opportunity to get to know the Bloomsbury area a little better on a walking tour that was delivered by Dr Leslie Topp, Head of the Compass Steering Committee. They also heard from current Compass students about their experiences at Birkbeck. The students offered their top tips and guidance on settling in this term.

Overall, the day was a huge success and the students left feeling confident about beginning their studies and even more excited about embarking on this new journey with us. We wish them the very best of luck this year!!!

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